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Green Urbanism: Remembering JFK's Major Environmental Achievements

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President John F. Kennedy speaking at dedication of Pinchot Institute, Milford PA, September 1963. | Photo: Courtesy U.S. Forest Service, Grey Towers National Historic Site
President John F. Kennedy speaking at dedication of Pinchot Institute, Milford PA, September 1963. | Photo: Courtesy U.S. Forest Service, Grey Towers National Historic Site

Two months before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy spoke of his hope for a more resilient future. To reach it, he told a rapt audience at the late-September dedication of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation at Grey Towers, conservationist Gifford Pinchot's old home in Milford, Pennsylvania, Americans must recognize that they were living in a transitional moment.

"There is no more fitting place to begin a journey of five days across the United States," JFK declared at this first stop on his cross-country campaign to raise the country's environmental awareness, "to see what can be done to mobilize the attention of this country so that we in the 1960s can do our task of preparing America for all the generations which are still yet to come."

This preparatory labor "looks to the future and not the past. And the fact of the matter is that this institution is needed...more today than ever before in our history, because we are reaching the limits of our fundamental needs of water to drink, of fresh air to breathe, of open space to enjoy, of abundant sources of energy to make life easier." To respond to these pressures confronting urban and rural American would require the creation of new ideas, "the embrace of disciplines unknown in the past." The new organization might bear Gifford Pinchot's name but to fulfill its forward-looking mission, its "active work," of necessity it would draw on a different set of resources and perspectives.

Optimistic about the chances of resolving the pressures peculiar to his generation, Kennedy hoped "that in the years to come that these years in which we live and hold responsibility will also be regarded as years of accomplishment in maintaining and expanding the resources of our country which belong to all our people."

Yet as I argue in my new book, "Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot," most of the president's resolutions remained deeply indebted to the past. The conservation of water resources meant not the reducing of use but the ramping up of federal investments in dams and pipelines. The growing need for energy required the implementation of new technologies to generate more kilowatts rather than finding ways to make energy consumption less wasteful. To meet the booming recreational needs of a society expected to grow exponentially by century's end, he promised to expand the amount of open space.

The same indebtedness appears in the other speeches President Kennedy delivered on his post-Grey Towers conservation crusade, a crushing five-day, 11-state, 15-speech swing would take him from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana; Washington and Oregon; California, Utah, and Nevada.

Everywhere, the crowds were large and enthusiastic, even in Republican strongholds. Kennedy and his aides believed that the sizable crowds and extensive press coverage were marks of widespread support that should give him an advantage in the 1964 reelection campaign. The environment just might benefit, too: so that those "who come after us will find a green and rich country," the president noted in a post-trip letter to Rep. Wayne Aspinall, the all-powerful chair of the House Interior Committee, he vowed to "mount a new campaign to protect our natural environment."

Declaring himself to be in favor of a "a third wave of conservation in the United States following that of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt," President Kennedy promoted the passage of a land and water conservation fund then bottled up in Congress, funds from which the government would purchase wetlands, wildlands, and other threatened terrain.

"There isn't very much that you can do today that will materially alter your life in the next 3 or 4 years, in the field of conservation," Kennedy declared, "but you can build for the future. You can build for the seventies, as those who went ahead of us built for us in this great dam and lake that I flew over today. Our to make science the servant of conservation, and to devise new programs of land stewardship that will enable us to preserve this green environment."

What is striking about JFK's stress on the technological fix is that this emphasis, which had held sway since the late 19th-century, was already coming under greater critical scrutiny. Rachel Carson was not the first to point out that the scientific enterprise could manufacture as many problems as it seemed to solve. Conservationists were increasingly leery of an engineering ethos that led to the damming rivers to provide hydropower and irrigation downstream, but that did not account for the environmental costs associated with these massive reclamation projects. In the coming years, still others would doubt that nuclear energy was quite the liberating force that Kennedy made it out to be.

This modern environmental movement, emerging in the 1950s, began challenging the kind of initiatives that the president promoted in his speech at Grey Towers. Among those projects that ultimately did not get constructed due to the public's pushback was the Tocks Island Dam on the Delaware River. For it, President Kennedy had had high hopes, assuring listeners that it create "the largest federal recreational area in the East." In the end, it was never built, beaten back by a grassroots coalition that concurred with Carson's admonition, conveyed in a letter to Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, that humans must remember they are "custodians not owners of the earth."

Her blunt reminder identifies the relatively cautious approach that characterized portions of the president's conservation agenda. Which may explain why, for all the immediate publicity and goodwill Kennedy's conservation tour generated, its long-term value is more ambiguous. To the great disappointment of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, for example, the president did not announce the designation any new parks or landmarks (though the Apostle Islands and the Oregon Dunes had been proposed for incorporation into the national park system). He did not assert his unqualified public support for the Wilderness Act, still a subject of intense congressional debate, though had made his support known (and it would be enacted soon after his assassination on November 22). Like his attentive audiences, the president appeared much more captivated by the news of the successful completion of the Test Ban Treaty that broke while he was on the road. "The trek of Paul Bunyan through America," journalist Ben Bradlee concluded "never was much of a story."

Bradlee's cutting comment is too sharp. Although JFK never embraced the earth-centered ethic so fundamental to modern environmentalism, his record was substantive. As to why this is true, look no farther than the president's very urbanity that had led many reporters to discount his conservation commitments. The nation's teeming cities, their outward sprawl and intensifying concentration, dominated Kennedy's environmental agenda.

Point Reyes National Seashore was designated by John F. Kennendy.
Point Reyes National Seashore was designated by John F. Kennendy. | Photo: W. Tipton/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A case in point was his designation of the nation's first three national seashores on Massachusetts' Cape Cod, Padre Island in South Texas, and Point Reyes, just north of San Francisco. These sites not only were selected to represent the three major bodies of water that shaped the country's continental coastline (the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific), they were set aside because they lay within several hours' drive of burgeoning metropolises (the northeast corridor; Houston and San Antonio; and the Bay Area).

Their establishment, the president had argued at Grey Towers, was a matter of social equity: "I do not know why it should be that six or seven percent only of the Atlantic coast should be in the public sphere and the rest owned by private citizens and denied to millions of our fellow citizens."

He warned that the nation needed to get ahead of the urbanizing implications the Baby Boom posed. "We are going to have 300 million people by the end of this century," he warned at the 1962 White House Conference on Conservation, "and we have to begin to make provisions for them. We do not want, for example, this eastern coast to be one gigantic metropolitan area stretching from north of Boston to Jacksonville, Fla., without adequate resources for our people." As such, his administration sought and secured congressional funding through the Housing Act of 1961 for advanced water-quality projects, sewage-treatment facilities, and urban parklands.

Coordinating these and other proactive measures was the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, the creation of which Kennedy called for in a March 1962 special message to Congress. It began work in 1963, the same year that the president formally dedicated the Pinchot Institute for Conservation Studies, the mission which was to research and evaluate the environmental pressures then challenging the country and to offer remedies through its policy analyses and conservation-education programming, building the essential consensus for social change: "Government must provide a national policy framework for this new conservation emphasis," Kennedy had asserted in Milford. "But in the final analysis it must be done by the people themselves."

Kennedy had intuited, more than his immediate predecessors -- Truman and Eisenhower -- that the American present and future was inescapably urban. At Grey Towers, he asserted that the pressing needs of the nation's sprawled cities, as physical landscapes and population centers, must be addressed. In announcing this claim for an urban environmental agenda, Kennedy laid the groundwork for Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, with its emphasis on public health, social justice, and environmental protection.

It is a shame that JFK did not live to see these vital ideas bear such rich fruit; it is a shame that we have resisted expanding them.

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