It was April 1970, and Frederick Steiner was in the third year of a five-year design program at University of Cincinnati, just an hour south of where he grew up in Dayton.
Having co-founded a student group against pollution, he and a handful of friends decided to organize a campus teach-in as part of a new national environment event.
“Earth Day changed my life,” says Steiner, now dean and Paley Professor of Penn’s School of Design. “It’s so personal to me.”
It was an intense time of student activism—against the Vietnam War, for civil rights, the start of the women’s movement. The environment became part of the organizing.
Steiner’s job for Earth Week, as it was known that first year, was to organize a book fair to go along with the event featuring speakers and concerts.
While researching books on the environment, he discovered there weren’t many. He found about half a dozen to arrange on the table he set up in the student union: “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold, “Science and Survival” by Barry Commoner.
And “Design with Nature” by Ian McHarg.
Steiner now has that book on the wall of shelves next to his desk looking out at College Green. The cover—a city skyline silhouetted by the sun on the front and the iconic image of Earth as seen from space on the back—is well-worn, the edges torn from use.
“It was the one book as a design student that clearly appealed to me and I read it and I decided I want to come to the University of Pennsylvania and study design with Ian McHarg,” Steiner says. “Without Earth Day, I don’t know if that would have ever happened.”
Steiner did come to Penn, in 1975, and went on to earn two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in city and regional planning, studying with McHarg.
Founder of the Landscape Architecture Department, McHarg was a pioneer in the environmental movement. His “Design with Nature” was groundbreaking when published in 1969, introducing the concept of ecological land-use planning.
Steiner says he didn’t imagine that Earth Day would continue for decades, celebrated each year on April 22, when he was chatting with fellow students at his book table 48 years ago.
Passionate about the environment, he had co-founded a student group named Students Organized Against Pollution, or SOAP. An editor of the yearbook, he was involved in the world of art and design and was a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
“Something that is sort of lost today is that a lot of the people who were involved in the anti-war movement were in fraternities,” he says. “The environment became part of those concerns.”
Earth Week was very much organized and run by students at campuses across the nation, including at Penn, in PennDesign’s Meyerson Hall and in Fairmount Park.
Steiner says he sees a similar passion in today’s students. “What happened with the kids down in Parkland, Florida, and the #MeToo movement, and Black Lives Matter, all of those are similar in some ways to the kind of activism that was occurring in the late 1960s.”
It was only a few weeks after Earth Week in 1970 that students were shot by the National Guard at Kent State, leading to protests at universities across Ohio. “I remember the day we closed the University of Cincinnati after Kent State,” Steiner says.
“I remember being in the administration office and the National Guard being outside, and tear gas being thrown through the window, and it being pretty scary,” he says. “And I remember being in marches against the war and for civil rights, and demonstrations on campus for both of those.”
Earth Day, he said, was unique in part because it was specific. “For those of us involved, we remember that as a very pivotal moment,” he says.
The 1970s became known as the environmental decade, with the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Earth Day was somewhat optimistic in the sense that the Earth was in trouble and there was something we could do about it,” he says. “The 1970s, after the turmoil of the 1960s, gave way to a lot of positive actions that our country took, as a result of the activism.”
Steiner has written or edited 18 books on the environment, more than twice as many books as he had on that table in 1970.
“Every day is Earth Day for me now; that’s what I do,” he says. “My work, my life, has been devoted to making the world a better place through an understanding of our environment and how we relate to our built and natural environments.”