Back in the 1970s, Los Angeles was known as the smog capital of the world. White-collar workers in Gary, Indiana brought two shirts to work to ensure they had a clean white one to get them through the day. Thousands of images captured the visible impacts of pollution on communities across the United States. This environmental degradation contributed to a broad and bipartisan call for change that culminated in the first Earth Day in 1970, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency later that year, and numerous state and federal regulations such as the Clean Air Act.
When President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law on the last day of 1970, he said: “1970 will be known as the year of the beginning, in which we really began to move on the problems of clean air and clean water and open spaces for the future generations of America.” The years that followed have shown his words to be prescient in many respects, including through substantially improved air quality. Here in Chicago, we’ve added about two years to our lives since 1970 because of improvements in our air quality. The former smog capital of Los Angeles has seen particle pollution cut in half and people there are also living longer.
As we celebrate the 46th Earth Day, it’s important to take stock of all the progress we’ve made, but also of all the work that remains to be done. Despite significant improvements in the United States, cities both here and around the world continue to face urgent environmental challenges—among them, ensuring access to clean water, clean air, and clean energy. The urgency of these problems continues to fill our headlines: from lead-laced water in Flint to a historic drought in California to Beijing’s first smog red alert last year.
Cities consume 78 percent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 percent of all carbon dioxide. In an increasingly urban world, a fundamental challenge we face is to learn how to leverage the possibilities urbanization offers while addressing the challenges it creates. This will require close collaboration between policymakers, community leaders, and researchers. Last year, The University of Chicago founded Urban Labs for this purpose: to partner with cities to identify and rigorously evaluate the policies and programs with the greatest potential to improve human lives across five key dimensions of urban life: crime, education, health, poverty, and energy and environment.
Research in India’s Gujarat State conducted by Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy & Environment Lab at the University of Chicago Urban Labs, provides an example of the approach Urban Labs takes and the impact this type of work can have…