Planning Magazine

The Year Earth Changed Offers Environmental Lessons and Optimism

The new documentary investigates the environmental impacts of temporary pandemic shutdowns — and how to harness that momentum for good.

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The Year Earth Changed demonstrates nature’s power of resilience during the pandemic. Watch it now on Apple TV+. Image courtesy of Apple.

The Year Earth Changed, Tom Beard's beautiful, thought-provoking documentary on Apple TV+, explores the many ways our planet and its natural systems have changed over the past year due to COVID-19 shutdowns and lockdowns. The result is a surprisingly uplifting story pointing to some glimmers of hope for the future.

As I've noted previously in this column, most environmental documentaries focus on the distressing problems caused by our actions. In nearly everything we do, humans displace, disturb, and degrade Earth, changing the climate, altering ecosystems, and extinguishing entire species — sometimes without even knowing it. In the face of so much death and destruction, one can begin to regard nature as a fragile, sensitive flower, trampled underfoot in our rush to progress.

In contrast, The Year Earth Changed — narrated by the ever-hopeful naturalist David Attenborough — demonstrates the planet's remarkable powers of resilience as it responded to the shutdown-induced calm and snapped into recovery mode in a few short months. Without the noise of traffic, for example, we hear songbirds again, even in larger cities — and their songs are more complete and complex. Underwater, free from the incessant engine-thrum of cruise ships and tour boats, humpback whales communicate over greater distances, freeing up nursing mothers to roam farther in search of food, creating the potential for a stronger, healthier generation of new calves. Sea turtles leave clutches of eggs on undisturbed beaches, and the tiny babies actually survive and thrive, returning to the ocean in numbers not seen for years.


On the suburban fringe — and even in some downtowns — herd animals return, emboldened by the calm to revisit ancestral grazing lands; elsewhere, capybaras and tigers are shown strolling city streets. And most impressive of all, in Jalandhar, India, improved air quality allows residents could to see the Himalayas again for the first time in a generation.

With these scenes, the collective message becomes clear: "Nature is healing." Broader findings emerging from this massive natural experiment echo that message, providing some real hope that our planet is not dead, but wounded, and fully capable of recovery — if we'll only get out the way for a bit.

Better yet, for planners eager to bring about this brighter future, the film doesn't call for another shutdown. Rather, by making even small adjustments, like tweaking the ways we light parking lots, or closing beaches a couple days each month, the documentary suggests we can help nurture the world and the creatures we share it with back to health.

Ezra Haber Glenn, AICP, is Planning's regular film reviewer. He teaches at MIT's Department of Urban Studies & Planning and writes about cities and film. Follow him at and @UrbanFilmOrg.