Changes of Attitude towards Environment Seen from Urban Development in the U.S.

Changes of Attitude towards Environment Seen from Urban Development in the U.S.

After the Second World War, American society shifted from a production society to a consumption one, and the environmental protection movement evolved from efficient resource protection in its earlier stage to environmental protection while maintaining the quality of life

Adhering to the importance of urban development philosophy, ANBOUND has proposed the concept of Pedestrian-Oriented Development (POD). This is an urban space and development strategy that puts the emphasis on pedestrians and focuses on promoting environmental dignity rather than eroding it. However, in reality, it is often challenging to have the best of both worlds between environmental protection and economic development. From the perspective of the global history of urban development, the history of environmental development is also part of urban development. In this case, the United States gives us a glimpse of the role of environmental issues in the process of urban development.

Urban development in the United States is accompanied by a change from pollution to the protection of the environment. Environmental historian David Stradling noted that, throughout the 19th century, Americans linked all the positive changes brought about by smog and coal, namely production, prosperity, and progress. For many urban dwellers relying on coals, the smog was like a banner of civilization, rising from factory chimneys, locomotives and steamships. Behind such optimism lied the heavy pollution in many cities.

The expansion of cities sometimes knows no boundaries. The power of capital expands rapidly, and industrialization brings heavy pollution. Capitalists have made great profits, but industrial workers and urban poor suffer misfortunes, especially the after-effects of environmental pollution. The United States is no exception. At the beginning of the founding of the country Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, advocated leaving dirty cities in Europe and making the soot-shrouded world of the country into a clean and fresh agricultural land. Yet, things did not turn out to be the way he imagined them to be.

For instance, Pittsburg the industrial city has been described as “hell with the lid taken off”, for its ceaseless coal smog. Chicago on the other hand, was notorious as well for its smoke and dust, along with the harsh smell, sewage, and noise of the abattoirs that went hand in hand with the bustling city.

Fortunately, people in an open society did not merely place their focus on industrialization but also paying attention to environmental protection. With the participation of numerous professionals, other than building roads, laying railroad tracks, digging canals, repairing dams, there were also works to protect forests, river channels, water resources and soil. This was to pursue the dual idealized goals of not only to eliminate the various disorder of nature itself but also to correct the abuse and wastage of natural resources in the United States. After the Second World War, American society shifted from a production society to a consumption one, and the environmental protection movement evolved from efficient resource protection in its earlier stage to environmental protection while maintaining the quality of life.

At the turn of the 20th century, both sides of the Atlantic had been responding to environmental changes. American travelers who returned from Europe had admired the grandeur and elegance of Paris, or were astonished by the neatness of German cities, or marveled at the British garden cities. Upon returning home, these Americans became ashamed of the crudeness, filth, and lack of unity in their cities. They sought to locate a blueprint for transforming urban public spaces, first through European urban styles, and then begin to create cities that express their characteristics, i.e. modern cities, protection or transformation of wilderness, urban enclaves, the establishment of the first national park - Yellowstone Park, and the first city park - New York Central Park. More importantly, the United States established its set of laws, institutions, and systems to protect the natural environment, and similar concepts have subsequently spread to other parts of the world.

This process is full of various trials and opposing voices. Since the construction of Central Park was included in the New York municipal agenda, its rationality had been challenged by all parties, involving economic interests and social justice for the grassroots, where the construction resulted in the displacement of the latter. Yet, those who promoted its construction thought otherwise. Charles Eliot, the designer of the Boston Metropolitan Park System, thought that the rich could temporarily escape from the city to enjoy the natural beauty, yet the urban poor with no financial means could have the opportunity to appreciate the natural scenery at night, and the city parks could meet this need. Although the elites faced various accusations, they still promoted the implementation of these plans all the same. In hindsight, this was undoubtedly a mutually beneficial situation for the entire city.

The city administrators at that time gave up their immediate economic interests for the public interest and made this precious piece of land a public space. In the rapid urbanization process, Central Park instead pays attention to providing a relaxation space for both people, flora, and fauna to co-exist. Central Park then became an important spot for residents living in New York. It is a refuge for urbanites to temporarily escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Without Central Park, Manhattan would be a completely different scene. The design has influenced the construction of many urban parks, making the city more inclusive and intimate to its residents.

After the birth of the public space, imagination and creativity followed suit. Central Park began to be the filming location for Breakfast at Tiffany, Night at the Museum, Penguins of Madagascar, and The Avengers. It is also a place where Fitzgerald, Woody Allen, Bob Dylan left their footprints, and the place featured on various covers of the New Yorker magazine. From the transformation of natural landscapes to the shaping of cultural landscapes, New York's Central Park has become a three-dimensional monument.

Similar environmental transformations, such as the park movement and urban naturalization movement, have appeared many times in the history of American cities. Industrial cities’ environments have gradually recovered. Boston's scene has been delightful, Pittsburgh sees blue sky again, Kansas City shows its revival, and San Francisco becomes suitable for all kinds of life. Of course, in addition to improving the environment, this is based on the transfer of industries, and the disappeared pollution has only moved on to other countries.

In the 1880s, with the rise of the progressive reform movement, part of the middle class in New York, Boston, Chicago, and other major cities began to reflect on the various problems that emerged in the process of urbanization that is to innovate and seek a new order, such as improving the city’s environment, safeguarding nature and its resources, improving the environment of slums, and paying attention to the harm caused by chemical pollution of water and air.

Waves of change have not only revealed the ailments of the city but also made people seek solutions, such as the close integration between city and people. 


Zhou Yan

Founder of Anbound Think Tank in 1993, Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.

Zhou Yan graduated from Guangxi University in 2020 with a master's degree in architecture and Civil Engineering. During the postgraduate period, her research direction is urban micro-renewal and development strategy of China's port cities. Currently, she is an assistant researcher in the Urban Issues Research department of Anbound Consulting.


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