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History of Earth Day & Arbor Day in Parks

View upcoming Earth Day and Arbor Day events.

Earth Day Origins in New York City

 Youthful zeal and environmental activism join forces as celebrants hoist a tree at Union Square Park on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Photo by Daniel McPartlin; courtesy of Parks Photo Archive.

Although in some ways every day is Earth Day for the Parks Department, Earth Day began in 1970 as a way to increase awareness of environmental issues. Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, and Denis Hayes, a young environmentalist, joined to organize events across the country and "shake things up." Following the first Earth Day, which was celebrated by 20 million people across the country, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. In New York City, the first Earth Day was marked by thousands who participated in various sanctioned events, as Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic from Union Square Park to Central Park, and 14th Street between 3rd and 7th Avenues was transformed into an "ecological carnival."

On April 22, 1970 at Union Square Park, which served as the focus of numerous Earth Day observances and teach-ins throughout the metropolitan region, Mayor John V. Lindsay and Parks Commissioner August Heckscher joined celebrities including Paul Newman and Ali McGraw. Over the day some 100,000 people were estimated to have thronged to the square in one of the largest demonstrations there since the socialist rallies of the 1930s. The empty streets resulted in at least one picnic spread at the intersection of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, and Mayor Lindsay repeated the idea during the summer of 1970 when he closed Fifth Avenue to traffic for four successive weekends (Mayor Michael Bloomberg resurrected the idea in 2008 when the city closed Park Avenue to traffic on weekend afternoons during the summer). The City also banned cars for the day in Central Park in Manhattan, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Forest Park in Queens, and Silver Lake Park in Staten Island.

Present Day Celebrations

 Parents and children enjoy an afternoon of entertainment at Central Park’s Great Hill as part of an Earth Day Celebration, April 22, 2007. Photo by Daniel Avila.

Earth Day continued to be marked during the 1970s, and then was resurrected in 1990 and again in 2000. Since 2000, the event has been celebrated in earnest at parks across the city, from Central Park in Manhattan to Rockaway Beach in Queens, at Parks-sanctioned events. In 2008, Earth Day was celebrated in Alley Pond Park in Queens, Inwood Hill Park and Central Park in Manhattan, High Rock Park in Staten Island's Greenbelt, and at Marine Park in Brooklyn. In 2009, Earth Day events will take place at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere, and weekend Earth Day events are planned for Fort Totten in Queens and at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, as well as a clean-up day at Plum Beach in Brooklyn. On Earth Day 2007, on April 22, 2007, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced his ambitious PlaNYC blueprint for future growth and development, which includes millions of dollars in funding for parks and other ecologically friendly initiatives.

Arbor Day Observed in the City

 Blue Man Group cast members entertain visitors to McCarren Park on Earth Day 2008 (April 25). Photo by Daniel Avila.

Arbor Day, celebrated on the last Friday in April, dates to 1872 when Nebraska proclaimed April 10 Arbor Day. Julius Sterling Morton, originally from upstate New York then living in Nebraska, was instrumental in establishing the day, the first day of which it is said that over one million trees were planted. New York State has been celebrating Arbor Day since 1888, and Arbor Day has been celebrated in the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation for years. In 1906, Arbor Day festivities were held in playgrounds, "thereby inculcating a true love for nature," according to the 1906 Annual Report. Arbor Day is now part of school curricula across the country, and countless trees are planted each year on the date.

A Million Trees for New York City

 With the support of Big Bird, Mayor Bloomberg helps plant the first tree of the MillionTreesNYC initiative, October 9, 2007. Photo by Daniel Avila.

The million trees planted in Nebraska in 1872 is replicated by one of Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC initiatives, MillionTreesNYC, a citywide, public-private program launched by the Parks Department and New York Restoration Project in 2007 to ultimately plant and care for one million new trees across the city. In his staunch support for this tree initiative, Mayor Bloomberg pointed to the health, aesthetic, and economic value of trees; trees help clean the air and reduce the pollutants that trigger asthma (an endemic problem in underserved areas of the city) while also cooling streets, sidewalks, and homes on hot days, and increasing property values and encouraging neighborhood revitalization. The MillionTreesNYC plan calls for the City to plant 60 percent (600,000) of the trees in parks and other public spaces, while encouraging the other 40 percent (400,000) to come from private organizations, homeowners, and community organizations. The program also sponsors volunteer planting and tree care outings, educational training, and workshops as well as Arbor Day events.

Leading the Green Revolution

 An electric car, part of the Parks Department's green fleet, on display at the Twentieth Annual Vehicle & Equipment Show in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens (May 29, 2008). Photo by Daniel Avila.

As one of the city agencies most responsible for the environmental health of New York, Parks takes great pride in leading the way for responsible environmental stewardship. In 1984, Parks began its the Natural Resources Group (NRG) division to bring together biologists, natural resource managers, mapping scientists, and restoration ecologists to develop and implement management programs for protection, acquisition, and restoration of the City's natural resources. And in 2008, Parks began the Citytime timekeeping system that replaced a paper-based system with electronic timesheet management. Advocates praised the forward-thinking initiative as a powerful "green" symbol that reduced paper use and helped the city become more sustainable. Parks' commitment to sustainability is also seen in its recycling program that placed recycling centers in parks, facilities, and throughout Parks office buildings. Since the early 2000s, Parks has been phasing out large gas-guzzling vehicles in favor of hybrid models and natural gas engines. Parks also began a battery recycling program for employees, and each January Parks even helps recycle Christmas trees.

Parks is dedicated not only to the health of those who live in the city but also to the health of the city itself, and the earth of which we are all a part. And you too can do your part to help the planet. Visit NYCWastele$$ for more tips about making the world a better place.

View upcoming Earth Day and Arbor Day events.

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