Shades of Green: Telling the Difference Between Environmentalism and Beautification


Photo courtesy of USACE public affairs.

Written by: Danielle Pittner

Green is everywhere, not just in the spring buds of trees unfurling into fresh summer leaves. Nor can green be embodied by the sum of its off-shoot movements, at a time when hipsters and bankers alike buy locally grown organic produce and grass fed meat. Green, at its heart, is environmentalism. Prior to any trends, doctor’s health warnings, or oil spills, environmentalists were first concerned with cleaning up our planet and keeping it that way.

Although a lack of pollutants is a mark of environmentalism, it is also a mark of beautification. You might be thinking environmentalism and beautification are synonyms, aliases, family. From afar, both could be viewed as one views identical twin sisters – they look alike at first glance but when you get to know them, they prove themselves to be quite different.

In a city such as New York, deemed the 14th dirtiest city in the nation by Forbes Magazine, environmentalism and beautification can easily get mixed up, interchanged, intertwined. Cleaning up the streets, reducing litter, and increasing recycling could easily be part of an environmental initiative, or an effort by a public beautification project. Where do they part and become unique?

Historically, beautification, also known as the City Beautiful Movement, began in the 1890s and early years of the 20th century in response to the influx of Americans moving to urban areas. The idea behind the movement was that beauty could act as a social control device. Advocates claimed that beautifying their city would inspire civic loyalty, make American cities more competitive with European cities, attract upper classes to spend money in urban areas. Notably, their motives had little to do with protecting the Earth and more to do with patriotism, though surely mother nature would benefit in the process.

In contrast, the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization founded by John Muir, also has three goals of its own: producing a safe and healthy community in which to live, smart energy solutions to combat global warming, and an enduring legacy for America’s wild places.

When compared side by side, the differences seem stark, and they are. Beautification’s intent is aesthetically based, while environmentalism seeks substantive solutions for a cleaner world, appearances aside. The two objectives have fundamentally different goals, despite sometimes overlapping results.

Beautification vs environmentalism fits into that same arena as the ever-enduring science vs. art or logic vs. imagination debates. Where environmentalism focuses on the frontier of where nature meets humanity (decreasing pollutants, minimizing landfills, demanding cleaner air, cleaner water, etc.), beautification focuses on civilization itself. Today’s beautification advocates talk along lines of community pride and safety, increased property values and rent rates, as well as an increase in overall health and exercise since green public spaces encourage people to spend time outdoors.

The question then arises: Is there a place for both? The recent partnership of nonprofits Brooklyn Botanical Garden (BBG) and GreenBridge answers that question by merging beauty and environmental stewardship through programs and events, such as their annual Greenest Block in Brooklyn Contest. This contest is exactly what it sounds like: the opportunity for Brooklyn Residents to take some pride in their neighborhood, clean it up, make it green, and hopefully learn something about the environment in the process. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden, like other botanical gardens in the city, offers a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing garden for people to enjoy spending time outdoors. Alongside that beauty, BBG also offers classes to teach a myriad of skills that include plant identification, composting, watercolors, poetry workshops, and other similarly environmentally friendly activities.

Whether you’re planting flowers, reducing carbon emissions, or adding colorful paint to a drab area of town, every step contributes to a larger goal – and that goal is green.