Driving into Environmental Law: Thurgood Marshall, Highway Construction, and the Overton Park Case

Editor’s note: We kick off our January 2022 theme month on Urban Environmentalism with an exploration of how opposition to interstate highway construction through Overton Park in Memphis, Tennessee, provides a window into the nation’s development of environmental law. It is followed by a bibliography on urban environmentalism.

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost‘s familiar poem, they are not equally fair,” wrote Rachel Carson in her 1962 work Silent Spring. “The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one less traveled by—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”[1] Published sixty years ago this June, Carson’s groundbreaking classic remains a touchstone for larger environmental concerns and is credited by some historians as “the single most effective catalyst for environmentalism” in the nation’s history.[2]

By the mid- to late-1960s, Carson’s reference to “a smooth superhighway” had taken on an increased resonance. As the country attempted to pave its way to transportation bliss through the construction of an expansive interstate highway system, some of the more negative aspects of this effort were revealed. “Huge expressway interchanges, cloverleafs, and on-off ramps created enormous and often negative consequences for cities,” wrote historians Mark Rose and Raymond Mohl.[3] During the 1960s, metropolitan regions led some of the earliest attempts to harness legislation to achieve environmental ends, making urban history one of the best vantages from which to observe the development of environmental law.

Passed in 1956, the Interstate Highway Act addressed a very real need for an expansion of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. By the mid-1960s, however, its implementation in cities such as San Francisco, New York, San Antonio, and Memphis, among numerous others, encountered stiff opposition from urban residents. In particular, working-class Black and white communities, especially the former, fell victim to bureaucratic decision making that sacrificed such neighborhoods for the “greater good.” The burgeoning highway system, meant to revitalize downtown business districts, actually benefitted suburban development at the expense of large cities, hollowing them out as “urban expressways…tore through long established inner-city residential communities, destroying low-income housing on a vast and unprecedented scale.”[4]

Due in part to an increased awareness of its destructive potential for urban communities, planners attempted to find alternatives that would avoid displacing residents and condemning housing. Unfortunately, such efforts resulted in proposed routes through parklands, which though cheaper and less destructive, generated their own opposition. As demonstrated by Silent Spring, a growing environmental movement had begun to take shape and politicians, including President Richard Nixon (although only briefly), embraced legislation such as the Department of Transportation Act (1966), the National Historic Preservation Act (1966), and the National Environmental Policy Act (1969) to immediately appeal to voters and to establish environmental regulations for the future.[5] The intersection between highway construction, new environmental law, and a court system embracing its power of judicial review produced one of the earliest examples of a developing jurisprudence in Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe.

While Justice William O. Douglas has long garnered attention for his conservationist/environmentalist advocacy, one could contend that fellow Justice Thurgood Marshall proved far more effective in his defense of such legislation. From 1970 to 1991, Marshall voted favorably for environmental interests 60 percent of the time. Douglas did much the same, at a slightly higher rate of 68 percent, but Douglas presided over far fewer cases: 16 compared to Marshall’s 85.[6]  Douglas’s retirement soon after the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) explains this discrepancy; yet, even had Douglas presided over a greater number of cases, as legal historian Richard J. Lazarus notes, it might not have guaranteed the advancement of such laws. During his final years on the Court, the justice struggled with poor health, and throughout his tenure he was often inept at building five-vote coalitions. According to Lazarus, “Justice Douglas may have sought to champion environmental concerns, but he was far from a champion in actual impact on the Court’s jurisprudence.”[7] Though known more for his work on civil rights, Marshall took his first step as one of the Supreme Court’s premier defenders of the environment with his opinion in the Overton case.

“The Lake, Overton Park, Memphis, Tenn.” (ca. 1900-1910), Detroit Publishing Co., Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Overton Park, Memphis, Tennessee

Situated near downtown Memphis and designed by famed landscape architect and park builder George Kessler, in 1901 Overton Park quickly became a local attraction.[8] A predominantly natural oak and hickory forest, “the graceful madrona and Australian eucalyptus” found in the park enchanted locals such as Memphis resident Alice Lake Morison, who contacted Justice Hugo Black regarding the case. “The white drifts of dogwood blossoms in the spring and brilliant red leaves in the fall make Overton Park a place of beauty, and as I understand it, we are the only city fortunate enough to have a stand of virgin timber within our city limits,” she wrote. Yet such joyful recollections were not accessible to all. Before the passage of civil rights law, Black residents could only use the park on certain days.[9]

When officials announced in the mid-1950s that a portion of the park would be utilized for a corridor connecting the city to I-40, residents formed the Citizens for the Preservation of Overton Park (CPOP). Over the years, the level of CPOP’s advocacy fluctuated, but during the mid-1960s, local biology professor Arlo I. Smith and Anona Stoner, an Oberlin graduate and wife of a downtown businessman, emerged as key leaders for CPOP and brought a new, more militant (and effective) style to the fight. Smith served as its public face, deriding the proposed plan while critiquing highway construction in general. Stoner proved a tenacious letter writer and organizer who had experience waging bureaucratic wars against highway building.[10] After pulling every political and bureaucratic lever available to them, CPOP turned to the courts for relief, arguing that provisions of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, notably Section 4(f) of the law obligating that the DOT consider all “feasible and prudent” alternatives to the proposed route, had not been met.

The Supreme Court heard Overton Park twice, once on December 7, 1970, when it granted opponents of the highway a stay on its construction, and again on January 11, 1971, to hear arguments for the freeway’s long-term fate.

According to Justice Harry Blackmun’s notes after oral arguments on December 7, 1970, Marshall had come to believe if the court remanded, it would result in “little more than a sno[w] job,” though the same notes also indicate that, to Blackmun at least, Marshall appeared to be working through his thoughts on the issue, first granting, then denying, then ultimately voting for Overton to have its day at the Court.[11] At conference following oral arguments on January 11, five justices supported a remand to the District Court and three to the agency, the latter being the more stringent action of the two.[12]

The former would have sent the case back to the District Court and allowed for the DOT to submit its administrative records and then have the court determine if the agency had adhered to the legal formalities of the law or, as Justice Burger wrote to Marshall, “decide whether the statutory determination was in fact made as claimed.”[13] However, remand to the agency would have required a complete reappraisal of the agency’s decision making, delaying construction considerably more than the other alternative and putting the DOT’s decision into greater doubt.

In a memorandum written to himself, Blackmun summarized his observations from both conference meetings: the “practicalities” of the case argued against remand, though a remand would also make “good discipline for any agency and it may well satisfy the objectors.” Several justices feared remand to the court for simply an accounting of legal formalities would not really address the challenge brought by CPOP. Blackmun acknowledged that the DOT’s record on the issue was “a fuzzy one,” lacking any “formal determination,” but since requirements for formal findings had been not been enacted until after officials had selected the park for the corridor’s route, this discrepancy was not “fatal” for the highway’s proponents, notably Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe.[14]

“Sec. of Transportation, John A Volpe IVU” (1969), Marion S. Trikosko, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Part of CPOP’s objection rested on the fact that the DOT never released “formal findings” regarding alternative routes. Having only been created in 1966, the agency had yet to establish such procedures for its decision-making process. Court challenges like Overton forced DOT to adopt new standards.[15]

In a similar case during the same term and heard on the same day as CPOP’s appeal for a stay, the Court denied plaintiffs in San Antonio Conservation Society v. Texas Highway any further hearing. Hinging on aspects of NEPA rather than the 1966 DOT Act, in the San Antonio case both Justices Hugo Black and Douglas issued stinging dissents criticizing the Court’s inaction.

Despite his dissent, Douglas recused himself from the Overton case, probably because the Sierra Club had attached itself to the litigation. Douglas had a long history with the organization and had begun to separate himself from cases that appeared before the Court in which the organization was involved.[16] It remains impossible to gauge the impact of these dissents on Marshall. As one legal historian notes, from the view of CPOP lawyer John Vardaman, a former clerk of Black and experienced litigator on the subject, it couldn’t have hurt.[17]

For his part, Blackmun doubted the Court would side with the Overton Park activists. “Certainly, Black and Brennan will dissent and possibly Marshall, although he has an obvious realization of the practicalities of the situation.”  Blackmun had voted against the initial stay and for denial of certiorari in Overton. He also clearly viewed Marshall as in the minority, but Blackmun was wrong.[18]

While Justice Marshall’s papers fail to reveal his arc of thought on the case, his views in conference were clear enough that Burger selected Marshall to write the opinion and told him that it should take priority over cases argued the previous week.[19]

Marshall’s opinion reaffirmed the 1966 DOT Act’s statutes regarding parklands, arguing that the existence of the regulations meant that their protection was of “paramount importance.”[20] Marshall added that the few “green havens” still available to residents “were not to be lost unless there were truly unusual factors present in a particular case or the cost or community disruption resulting from alternative routes reached extraordinary magnitudes.” While formal findings were not required by either law, Marshall pointed to a 1970 DOT order requiring such findings when parklands were in question, even though this rule was imposed well after the Overton route had been chosen.[21]

The petitioners did have a right to judicial review, he asserted. Moreover, if the action taken by the agency proved “’arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law,’ it must be “set aside” and reviewed.  The Court, however, was not “empowered to substitute its judgment for that of the agency.” [22]

In the end, Marshall reversed and remanded the case back to the District Court for a “plenary review of the Secretary’s decision,” though in his conclusion, Marshall adjusted the language to suit Justice Potter Stewart by removing his instruction, “the District Court may obtain that explanation by either of two methods.” Stewart thought it an error to limit the Court to two options; rather, it should “be free to remand the case to the administrative agency and there may be other alternative procedures.”[23]

“Official Portraits of the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court: Justice Thurgood Marshall” (1976), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Not only would Overton emerge as an early environmental law ruling, it also served as a major contribution to administrative law and the “hard look” doctrine encouraging judicial review of agency actions and decision making.[24] Despite NEPA’s record in the Supreme Court, environmental interests are 0-17 in front of the high tribunal; according to Lazarus, these cases still resulted in reforms, even if they were not as robust as activists desired. Moreover, whatever NEPA’s record in this regard over the past five decades, the courts have proven crucial in upholding environmental law in the United States.[25]

Not that Blackmun or others were aware of Overton’s future import. “All told, I am inclined to think that this is a great tempest without much outrageous substance. The Court is going to stress and strain and all it will accomplish is delay and additional expense,” he wrote. He doubted it would set any precedent and suggested the DOT had already adjusted its procedures accordingly.[26] Despite his recusal from the case, Douglas also cast doubt on Overton’s future influence in a memo to his fellow justices suggesting that because NEPA did not apply to the Memphis example it would diminish its ultimate legal significance.[27]

Whether or not the mercurial Douglas agreed with Marshall’s opinion remains difficult to discern. Soon after the Court issued the ruling, Douglas wrote Marshall a short note with a newspaper editorial attached that documented a threat to local parklands in North Carolina. Federal agencies were thwarted by citizen opposition to move a proposed route from Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in the western part of the state to the neighboring Slick Rock Wilderness area. Local conservationists asserted the two areas were actually one “integral” wilderness and organized opposition. “It is ironic that private citizens have to use their own money and energy to accomplish what they pay their public servants to do,” remarked the editorial.[28] Douglas wrote simply, and apparently disapprovingly, “you can imagine what your opinion in Overton will do to this sanctuary.”[29]

In the end, CPOP battled authorities for over a decade more, until plans for the corridor were finally shelved at the end of the Carter administration. However, the “freeway revolts” of the mid-1960s stand as evidence of the brief convergence of social movement and law.[30] As Lazarus notes, both civil rights and environmental law “are aspirational norms, not settled norms,” which “reject the past and present” and challenge “current social, economic, and political forces,” hence the resistance to them.[31]

At times, civil rights and environmental law do conflict. For example, zoning laws can result in the aggregation of environmentally dangerous entities near lower income and working-class communities, especially those of color. Ironic, considering many environmental leaders had cut their teeth as participants in the civil rights movement. Through its first two decades, the environmental movement failed to widely acknowledge environmental racism or environmental issues afflicting low income and communities of color. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, most organizations working in the field had corrected this blind spot to varying degrees, but it took the grassroots efforts of local leaders in Black and Latino communities across the United States for the convergence to occur. [32] It is thus fitting that Justice Marshall took the first steps in that belated and long overdue development.

Urban Environmentalism Month (January 2022)


Urban Environmentalism Bibliography

As always, the bibliography is not comprehensive. Whatever we’ve missed, and we always miss something, please add it in the comments, we encourage it. Also, many of the books featured in our overview/bibliography for, as well as the articles for, the theme month “The Resilient City,” on cities and disaster (in Manila, Nairobi, Managua, and New Orleans), are either environmental in nature or adjacent to such issues, so worth checking out.

“San Diego Highway” (ca. 1960-65), Bernard Gotfryd, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Edited Volumes

Alkon, Alison Hope and Julian Agyeman, eds. Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. MIT Press, 2011.

Beinart, William, and JoAnn McGregor, eds. Social History and African Environments. Ohio University Press, 2003.

Brantz, Dorothee and Sonja Dümpelmann, eds. Greening the City: Urban Landscapes in the Twentieth Century. University of Virginia Press, 2011.

Cartwright, Anton, Susan Parnell, Gregg Oelofse, and Sarah Ward, eds. Climate Change at the City Scale: Impacts, Mitigation, and Adaptation in Cape Town. Rutledge, 2012.

Castonguay, Stéphane and Michèle Dagenais, eds. Metropolitan Natures: Environmental Histories of Montreal. University of Virginia Press, 2011.

Colten, Craig, ed. Transforming New Orleans & Its Environs: Centuries of Change. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Deverell, William and Greg Hise, eds. Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

Freestone, Robert, ed. Cities, Citizens, and Environmental Reform: Histories of Australian Town Planning Associations. Sydney University Press, 2009.

Hurley, Andrew, ed. Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis. Missouri History Museum Press, 1997.

Izdebski. Adam, ed. Krakow: An Ecobiography. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021.

Luckin, Bill and Peter Thorsheim, eds. A Mighty Capital under Threat: The Environmental History of London, 1800-2000. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020.

Miller, Char, ed. On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.

Orenstein, Daniel E. and Char Miller, eds. Between Ruin and Restoration: An Environmental History of Israel. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

Penna, Anthony N. and Conrad Edick White, eds. Remaking Boston: An Environmental History of the City and its Surroundings. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

Walker, Ryan Ted Jojola, and David Natcher, eds. Reclaiming Indigenous Planning. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

View of South Side of First Street Bridge Overcrossing of Los Angeles River (2001), Brian Grogan, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Monographs/Articles

Allen, Barbara. Uneasy Alchemy: Citizens and Experts in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor. MIT Press, 2003.

Alexander, Anna Rose. City on Fire: Technology, Social Change, and the Hazards of Progress in Mexico City, 1860-1910. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.

Ball, Philip. The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China. University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Barnard, Timothy. Nature’s Colony: Empire, Nation, and Environment in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Beinart, William. “African History and Environmental History.” African Affairs 99 (2000): 269–302. https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/99.395.269.

Biehler, Dawn Day. Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats. University of Washington Press, 2015.

Baker, Andrew C. “Metropolitan Growth along the Nation’s River: Power, Waste, and Environmental Politics in a Northern Virginia County, 1943-1971.” Journal of Urban History 43, no. 5 (September 2017): 703-719. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144215601054.

Black, Brian C. and Michael J. Chiarappa. Nature’s Entrepot: Philadelphia’s Urban Sphere and its Environmental Thresholds. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.

Boone, Christopher G. and Ali Modarres. City and Environment. Temple University Press, 2006.

Boyer, Christopher. “The Cycles of Mexican Environmental History.” In A Land Between Waters: Environmental Histories of Modern Mexico. Ed. Christopher R. Boyer, 1–21. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012.

Browder, John B. and Brian J. Godfry. Rainforest Cities: Urbanization, Development, and Globalization of the Brazilian Amazon. Columbia University Press, 1997.

Bullard, Robert D. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Westview Press, 1990.

Bryson, Jeremy. “Brownfields Gentrification: Planning and Environmental Justice in Spokane, Washington.” Environmental History 5, no. 1 (February 2012). https://doi.org/10.1089/env.2010.0045.

——. “Greening Urban Renewal: Expo ’76, Urban Environmentalism, and Green Space on the Spokane Riverfront, 1965-1974.” Journal of Urban History 39, no. 3 (May 2013): 495-512. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144212450736.

Campbell, Claire. Nature, Place, and Story: Rethinking Historic Sites in Canada. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.

—–. Shaped by the West Wind: Nature and History in Georgian Bay. University of British Columbia Press, 2004.

Candiani, Vera S. Dreaming of Dry Land: Environmental Transformation in Colonial Mexico City. Stanford University Press, 2014.

Chow, Renee. Changing Chinese Cities, the Potentials of Field Urbanism. University of Hawaii Press, 2015.

Cole, Luke W. and Sheila R. Foster. From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. NYU Press, 2000.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. Hill and Wang, 1983.

——. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. W. W. & Norton, 1992.

Davis, Mike. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. Vintage Books, 1999.

Galde, Dianne D. Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage. Chicago Review Press, 2010.

Gioielli, Robert. Environmental Activism and the Urban Crisis: Baltimore, St. Louis, and Chicago. Temple University Press, 2014.

——. “Get the Lead Out: Environmental Politics in the 1970s St. Louis.” Journal of Urban History 36, no. 4 (July 2010): 429-446. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144210363070.

Gottlieb, Robert. Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City. MIT Press, 2007.

Hamlin, Christopher. “The City as a Chemical System? The Chemist as Urban Environmental Professional in France and Britain, 1780-1880.” Journal of Urban History 33, no. 5 (July 2007): 702-728. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144207301416.

Horowtiz. Andy. Katrina: A History, 1915-2015. Harvard University Press, 2020.

Hurely, Andrew. Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980. University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

——. “Creating Ecological Wastelands: Oil Pollution in New York City, 1870-1900.” Journal of Urban History 20, no. 3 (May 1994): 340-364. https://doi.org/10.1177/009614429402000303.

——. “From Factory Town to Metropolitan Junkyard: Postindustrial Transitions on the Urban Periphery,” Environmental History 21, no. 1 (January 2016): 3-29. https://doi.org/10.1093/envhis/emv112.

Pollution, New York, Bernard Gotfryd photographer, 1972, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congres.

Karvonen, Andrew. The Politics of Urban Runoff: Nature, Technology, and the Sustainable City. MIT Press, 2011.

Kelman, Ari. A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans. University of California Press, 2003.

Kiechle, Melanie. “Navigating by Nose: Fresh Air, Stench Nuisance, and the Urban Environment, 1840-1880.” Journal of Urban History 42, no. 2 (July 2016): 753-771. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144214566981.

——. Melanie. Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth Century Urban America. University of Washington Press, 2019.

Kirchhof, Astrid Mignon. “’For a Decent Quality of Life’: Environmental Groups in East and West Berlin.” Journal of Urban History 41, no. 4 (July 2015): 625-646. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144215579353.

Klingle, Matthew. Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle. Yale University Press, 2007.

Lazarus, Richard J.  “Highways and Bi-ways for Environmental Justice,” Cumberland Law Review 31, no. 3 (2001): 596-598.

——–. The Making of Environmental Law. University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Light, Jennifer. The Nature of Cities: Ecological Visions, and American Urban Professions, 1920-1960. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Logan, Michael F. Desert Cities: The Environmental History of Phoenix and Tucson. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.

Longhurst, James. Citizen Environmentalists. University Press of New England, 2010.

Mathis, Charles-François, Émilie-Anne Pépy and Moya Jones. Greening the City: Nature in French Towns from the 17th Century. White Horse Press, 2020.

Mart, Michelle. Pesticides, a Love Story: America’s Enduring Embrace of Dangerous Chemicals. University Press of Kansas, 2015.

McCann, James C. Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land: An Environmental History of Africa, 1800–1990. Heinemann, 1999.

McLaughlin, Malcolm. “The Pied Piper of the Ghetto: Lyndon Johnson, Environmental Justice and the Politics of Rat Control.” Journal of Urban History 37, no. 4 (June 2011): 541-561. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144211403085.

McNeill, J.R.  Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

McNeur, Catherine. Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City. Harvard University Press, 2017.

Melosi, Martin V. Effluent America: Cities, Industries, Energy and the Environment. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.

——. Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004.

——. The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial times to the Present. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.

Melosi, Martin V. and Joseph A. Pratt. Energy Metropolis: An Environmental History of Houston and the Gulf Coast. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007.

Mikhail, Alan. Under Osman’s Tree: The Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Environmental History. University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Miller, Shawn William. An Environmental History of Latin America. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Mohl, Raymond A. “Citizen Activism and Freeway Revolts in Memphis and Nashville: The Road to Litigation.” Journal of Urban History 40, no. 5 (September 2014): 870-893. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144214533296.

Montrie, Chad. Making a Living: Work and Environment. University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Nagendra, Harini. Nagendra, Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present,and Future. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Needham, Andrew. Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest. Princeton University Press: 2015.

Ott, Cindy. “Making Sense of Urban Gardens.” Gastromica: The Journal of Food Studies 18, no. 3 (Fall 2015): 18-27.

Paolini, Frederico. Environment and Urbanization in Modern Italy. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020.

Patrón, Adrián Lerner. “Jungle Cities: The Urbanization of Amazonia.” PhD dissertation. Yale University, 2020.

Pello, David Naguib. Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago. M.I.T. Press, 2004.

Pitt, Bridget and Therese Boulle. Growing Together: Thinking & Practice of Urban Nature Conservators. South African National Biodiversity Institute, 2016.

Woman wearing gas mask outside of Americana hotel (1967), Nat Fein, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Rawson, Michael. Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston. Harvard University Press, 2010.

Rome, Adam. Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Rubin, Jasper. A Negotiated Landscape: The Transformation of San Francisco’s Waterfront since 1950. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.

Salzman, Joshua. Liquid Capital: Making the Chicago Waterfront. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.

Sanders, Jeffrey C. Seattle and the Roots of Urban Sustainability: Inventing Ecotopia. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.

Schlichting, Kara. New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore. University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Sedrez, Lise F. “Environmental History of Modern Latin America.” In A Companion to Latin American History. Ed. Thomas Holloway, 443–460. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.

Sellers, Christopher. Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth Century America. University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Siskin, Peter. “Shades of Black and Green: The Making of Racial and Environmental Liberalism in Nelson Rockefeller’s New York.” Journal of Urban History 34, no. 2 (January 2008): 243-265. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144207308680.

Schneider, Daniel. Hybrid Nature: Sewage Treatment and the Contradictions of the Industrial Ecosystem. MIT Press, 2011.

Seow, Victor. Carbon Technology: Energy Regimes in Modern Asia. University of Chicago Press, 2022 (forthcoming).

Sonnenfeld, David A. “Mexico’s ‘Green Revolution,’ 1940-1980: Towards an Environmental History.” Environmental History Review 16, no. 4 (Winter 1992): 28-52. https://doi.org/10.2307/3984948.

Stradling, David. The Nature of New York: An Environmental History of the Empire State. Cornell University Press, 2010.

Stroud, Ellen. Nature Next Door: Cities and Trees in the American Northeast. University of Washington Press, 2012.

Swearingen, Jr., William Scott. Environmental City: People, Place, Politics, and the Meaning of Austin.  University of Texas Press, 2010.

Sze, Julie. Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis. University of California Press, 2015.

Taylor, Dorceta E. The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s. Duke University Press, 2009.

——. Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution and Residential Mobility. NYU Press, 2014.

Vitz, Matthew. A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City. Duke University Press, 2018.

Wang, Ai. The Search for a Permanent Channel: Environmental Transformation of the Dagu Bar, 1897-1928. Journal of Urban History, December 2020. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144220976128.

Ward, Brandon M. Living Detroit: Environmental Activism in an Age of Urban Crisis. Routledge, 2022.

Wennersten, John R. Anacostia: The Death and Life of an American River. Chesapeake Book Company, 2008.

Zachary, J.S. Faick. Weeds: An Environmental History of Metropolitan America. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010.

Zeheter, Michael. Epidemics, Empire, and Environments: Cholera in Madras and Quebec City, 1818-1910. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.

Review Essays

Campbell, Claire. “Nature by Design: Reading Urban Parks as Environmental History.” Journal of Urban History 44, no. 3 (May 2018): 566-572. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144218754518.

Closmann, Charles E. “Nature in the City: Parks, Pollution, and the Challenge of Sustainability.” Journal of Urban History, July 2021. https://doi.org/10.1177/00961442211033257.

Rose, Mark H. “Technology and Politics: The Scholarship of Two Generations of Urban Environmental Historians.” Journal of Urban History 30, no. 5 (July 2004): 769-785. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144204265197.


Featured image (at top): Overton Park, Memphis, Tenn. (ca. 1900-1915), Detroit Publishing Co., Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


[1] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (New York: Mariner Books, 2002). Anniversary edition.

[2] J.R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), 338-339.

[3] Mark H. Rose and Raymond A. Mohl, Interstate: Highway Politics and Policy since 1939 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012), 96.

[4] Rose and Mohl, Interstate, 96.

[5] Rose and Mohl, Interstate, 138; Richard Lazarus, The Making of Environmental Law (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004), 69.

[6] Robert V. Percival, “Environmental Law in the Supreme Court: Highlights from the Marshall Papers,” Environmental Reporter, October 1993; see also Philip Weinberg, “This Land Belongs to You and Me: Thurgood Marshall as Environmental Champion,” Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development 15, no. 1 (Fall 2000): 1-23.

[7] Richard J. Lazarus, “The National Environmental Policy Act in the U.S. Supreme Court: A Reappraisal and a Peek behind the Curtains,” Georgetown Law Journal 100, no. 5 (June 2012): 1532, 1570, 1572.

[8] Mohl, “Citizen Activism and Freeway Revolts in Memphis and Nashville,” 872.

[9] Alice Lake Morrison, “Letter to the Editor: Park Heritage,” Commercial Appeal, no date, Box 430, Hugo Black Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Morrison mailed Justice Black her letter to the editor and other materials in an effort to convince the justice of the park’s importance. Lucie E. White, “Revaluing Politics: A Reply to Professor Strauss,” UCLA Law Review 39, no. 5 (June 1992): 1331-1340; Strauss, “Revisiting Overton Park,” 1291. In a 1992 article Strauss states that the park’s zoo could only be accessed by African American residents on Tuesdays, while White suggests in a response essay to Strauss that the entire park remained off limits to Black residents except for Tuesdays. In either case, segregation played a factor so it’s a matter of degree.

[10] Mohl, “Citizen Activism and Freeway Revolts in Memphis and Nashville,” 874.

[11] Harry A. Blackmun, Conference notes No. 1066 Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, December 7, 1970, Box 130, Harry A. Blackmun Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[12] William J. Brennan, Docket sheet No. 1066 Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, January 15, 1970, Box 228, William J. Brennan Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[13] Warren E. Burger to Thurgood Marshall, January 18, 1971, Box 74, Thurgood Marshall Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[14] Harry A. Blackmun, Memorandum No. 1066 Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, January 11, 1971, Box 130, Harry A. Blackmun Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[15] Harry A. Blackmun, Memorandum No. 1066 Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, January 11, 1971, Box 130, Harry A. Blackmun Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[16] Lazarus, “The National Environmental Policy Act in the U.S. Supreme Court,” 1573.

[17] Peter L. Strauss, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe in Administrative Law Stories, Peter L. Strauss, Ed. Foundation Press, 2006; Columbia Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 05-85; Columbia Law & Economics Working Paper No. 267 (2004): 44, https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/1349.

[18] Harry A. Blackmun, Memorandum No. 1066 Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, January 11, 1971, Box 130, Harry A. Blackmun Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[19] Warren E. Burger to Hugo Black, January 19, 1971, Box 430, Hugo Black Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Warren E. Burger to Thurgood Marshall, January 18, 1971, Box 74, Thurgood Marshall Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[20] William A. Thomas, “The Road to Overton Park: ‘Parklands Statutes’ in Federal Highway Legislation,” Tennessee Law Review 39, no. 3 (Spring 1972), 437; Rose and Mohl, Interstate, 144-5. In addition to the 1966 law, in 1968 the Federal Highway Administration issued new policies and procedures requiring two public hearings on interstate routes, one on location and the second regarding design. For activists, it enabled them to delay land acquisition and construction until a final DOT review.

[21] Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 416 (1971)

[22] Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 416 (1971)

[23] Thurgood Marshall, Fifth draft opinion, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe February/March 1971; Potter Stewart to Thurgood Marshall, February 17, 1971, Box 74, Thurgood Marshall Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[24] “The Presumption of Regularity in Judicial Review of the Executive Branch,” Harvard Law Review 131 (2018): 2431-2452, https://harvardlawreview.org/2018/06/the-presumption-of-regularity-in-judicial-review-of-the-executive-branch/.

[25] Lazarus, The Making of Environmental Law, 68; Richard J. Lazarus, “The National Environmental Policy Act in the U.S. Supreme Court,” 1507-1586. For an arguably more critical take on this record, see Oliver A. Houck, “Arbitrary and Capricious: The Dark Canon of the United States Supreme Court in Environmental Law,” Georgetown Environmental Law Review 33, no. 1 (Fall 2020): 51-112.

[26] Harry A. Blackmun, Memorandum No. 1066 Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, January 11, 1971, Box 130, Harry A. Blackmun Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[27] William O. Douglas, Memorandum to Conference: In re: Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, November 20, 1970, Box 74 Thurgood Marshall Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[28] “The Poet’s Wilderness,” unknown newspaper, circa 1971, Box 74, Thurgood Marshall Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[29] William O. Douglas to Thurgood Marshall, March 3, 1971, Box 74, Thurgood Marshall Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[30] Strauss, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, 53.

[31] Richard J. Lazarus, “Highways and Bi-ways for Environmental Justice,” Cumberland Law Review 31, no. 3 (2001), 571

[32] Lazarus, “Highways and Bi-ways for Environmental Justice,” 573, 579.

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