The Green History of Pandemic Responses


You know the facts – historical unemployment rates, a tumbling economy, swathes of people forced out of bars and restaurants and into outdoor spaces (many who are disregarding safety regulations). 

We’re not here to talk about that.

We’re here to meditate on solutions, learn from the wisdom of the conservationists who came before us, and make the conscious, deliberate choice to see the world through a lens of possibilities rather than through the tint of our failures.

From Rachel Carson’s efforts to expose the harmful effects of DDT and to activate the government’s regulatory actions, to the individual activism spurred by environmental campaigns in the ‘90s, humanity has been marked by its desire to take care of each other and the planet.

Reading headlines and catching up on EPA rollbacks, it can be hard to remember that.

But the truth is, pandemics have actually paved the way for the implementation of green spaces in urban environments, and we’ve responded to economic uncertainty in the past by reframing our focus. 

Instead of living and dying by the Dow, we turned toward nature and thought how we could best use our ambition and drive – from the Conversation Corps to community gardens.

The world is going to look a little differently when the immediate threat of Covid-19 is dissipated…

But how?

Pandemics and Green Spaces

2020’s shutdown is hardly the first time in the history of America, let alone the whole world, that populations have been ravaged by infectious disease. It may just be the first time in living memory we’ve had to deal with tragedy on such a scale.

For example, the 19th century saw quite a few cholera outbreaks. They were always devastating, and largely blamed on “miasma”, or fetid air that rose from rotting organic material. 

There were no underground water filtration systems, roads weren’t paved, and filth piled up.

Frederick Law Olmsted believed outbreaks were because there weren’t enough parks to be “outlets for foul air and inlets for pure air.”

He designed Central Park in New York City after its second cholera outbreak in the 19th century, and then designed hundreds more parks all across America, desperate to give America green relief from the clogged and infected air it had been breathing.

In London, the “Great Stink” of 1858 so fouled the Thames river that walking outside was impossible. The sewage responsible for the stink was the same responsible for London’s recent cholera outbreak. 

But it spurred the construction of a new sewage system, and embankments for the river lined with parks, trees, gardens, and greens. 

After the cholera outbreak during Napoleon III’s rise to power in the mid 19th century, he suggested modeling the city after London. He wanted the “working class quarters” to be light and airy. Some 12,000 buildings in the city were replaced with parks and walkways, fountains and green boulevards.

And when the Spanish Flu decimated the global population in 1918… and again in 1919… we hit a powerful economic stride in America. 

Which led to the stock market crash and the Great Depression. 

Which led to…

The Civilian Conservation Corps

In 1933, President Roosevelt had his hands full. But he had fixated on a concern that runs parallel to ours today. 

In April 2020, 27% of the workforce under the age of 24 was out of a job. Roosevelt too was looking at a generation of people who may never recover from not only the giant hole in their resumes, so to speak, but from the inability to compound their earnings over time. 

So he created the C.C.C., to give those out-of-work men a job while also restoring forests, building parks, and setting up trail and road infrastructure. 

It worked pretty well… in less than 10 years, more than three billion trees were planted by more than three million men (women weren’t allowed, unfortunately).

Given that our current environmental situation is precarious at best, and destructive at worst…

Building green spaces back into areas bulldozed by chemicals and pesticides, city pollution, and rusting infrastructure solves myriad problems. Especially amid the fears of returning to stuffy office buildings and cramped indoor working spaces when the world returns to “normal.”

It would…

  • Bend us away from the long-growing human trend toward avoiding the outdoors. Throughout the human presence on Earth, we’ve done the most we can to make the inside as comfortable as possible – regulating the indoor climate, developing the internet, etc. Now, we’re all Vitamin D deficient and we get winded climbing a hill.
  • Encourage working with our hands to enact actual change. The trees planted through a C.C.C. revival would serve to absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, assisting in the return of the Earth to a more self-regulatory system. 
  • Boost the economy by creating hordes of jobs, and curate a populus more educated about our race’s effect on nature.
  • Serve to tackle the huge backlog of restoration, conservation, conversion, rehabilitation, maintenance, and protection initiatives that is not currently prioritized.

Maybe this won’t happen.

Maybe the government won’t take charge. 

But you can… just by reading and thinking and applying your new knowledge to your own life, you can turn your local tide, and so alter the direction of the dial even a fraction of a degree.

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