The City Planner Book Club Focuses on the Environment – Part I

Recent selections of the facebook-based City Planner Book Club (affiliated with the NYMetro APA) offer powerful accounts of the catastrophic consequences, for human and ecosystem health, of pollution and habitat destruction. These include Silent Spring, the 1962 classic on the dangers of pesticides, Tom’s River, the  Pulitzer Prize winning case study on the poisoning of a New Jersey community, and (for a fall discussion) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, a global and historic perspective on environmental pressures and the fate of humanity.

While all urban planners, regardless of specialty, are really environmental planners today (as the Environmental Committee of the NYMetro APA asserts in its mission statement), for many years professional planners have tended to come from social science backgrounds as opposed to science majors. In 1997, the celebrated planner and advocate of environmental planning, Ian McHarg (1920-2001), wrote about the importance of applying a knowledge of natural science to community design and bemoaned the deficit in planners’ training in ecology. McHarg would applaud the intrepid urbanist-readers who have been tackling science-oriented themes this year.




The City Planner Book Club and Silent Spring

by Patricia Houser, Environmental Committee Member, NYMetro APA

On Wednesday evening, May 16, the City Planner Book Club met at the Kings Beer Hall in Brooklyn, New York, to discuss Silent Spring, a seminal work in environmental literature. The facebook-based group run by David Moss is comprised of urbanism enthusiasts, and the attendees at the Silent Spring discussion included eight practicing planners from around the metro region (from transportation and parks departments), a book editor, and a planning educator. In the evening’s conversation, moderated by Heidi Shea Springer, members exchanged opinions and ideas about the book’s impact upon its release in the early 1960’s, it’s potential appeal for a modern audience, and the extent to which the dangerous proliferation of man-made toxins is still with us.


Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, is a touchstone in American history. First published in 1962, Silent Spring has been credited with alerting the world to the dangers of expanding numbers of chemicals marketed for pest and plant control. The layers of content in Carson’s book offer a formula for what we might today call “impactful messaging:”

  • Scientific explanations: The scientific and statistical detail here make Carson’s conclusions of dreadful outcomes (e.g. springtime without bird song) more persuasive. Chapter 8, “And No Birds Sing,” offers a particularly memorable case study—where Carson depicts the chain of events from the 1950’s when spraying for Dutch Elm disease led to poisoned leaf litter, toxic worms, and robins that died after a few minutes of snacking on worms (10 to 11 worms made a lethal dose).
  • Expressions of wonder: In Carson’s telling, soil, far from mundane, is an ecosystem of fungi and bacteria “born of a marvelous interaction of life and non-life eons ago.” In the aquatic realm, “water must be thought of in terms of the chain of life it supports—from the small-as-dust green cells of the drifting plant plankton, through the minute water fleas to the fishes that strain plankton from the water and are in turn eaten by other fishes or by birds, mink, raccoons—in an endless cyclic transfer of materials from life to life.”
  • Reflections on the meaning of it all: Carson offers detailed case studies, but also occasional one-to-two sentence reflections or takeaways that put events in a larger context. In Chapter 7, for instance, Carson describes a campaign to eradicate the Japanese beetle in rural Illinois that resulted in the dousing, by the early 1960’s, of 131,000 acres of farmland with dieldrin—a substance fifty times more toxic than DDT. The fallout included elimination of a broad group of insects, widespread annihilation of birds, cats and small mammals and an eventual sickening and death of sheep and beef cattle. Rather than leave the reader to mull just these facts, Carson adds a final reflection: “Incidents like the eastern Illinois spraying raise a question that is not only scientific but moral. The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.”
  • Expressions of Outrage: In a few places Carson is explicit in her outrage. By the end of the chapter “And No Birds Sing,” for example, the reader is ready to rail with her at the short-sightedness of decision-makers: “Who has decided—who has the right to decide—for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?”

1962 vs. 2018

Current U.S. news about the role neonicotinoids in the loss of bee populations and the many harms (including to fetal development) of chlorpyrifos, speaks to the ongoing relevance of Silent Spring. Despite the 1972 ban on DDT and the 1973 creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the widespread use of controversial chemicals is still with us. Carson noted the lack of testing for the stream of new chemicals that was coming on the market (nearly 500 a year) in the early 60’s; today the number of synthetic chemicals in use around the United States has reached 84,000, and as of 2016 only 1% of them were tested for safety by the EPA. As Carson noted in her book, these chemicals don’t just surround us, they become part of us. A 2009 study, cited by Scientific American, discovered more than 232 synthetic chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of babies from around the United States. In 1962 Carson said, “If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals—eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones –we had better know something about their nature and their power.”