Decrease the number of new McMansions to increase local food security

One farmer and activist suggests reaching local food security means stopping the construction of McMansions:

Salatin — a successful American farmer, former reporter and author of nine books on the food revolution — is able to produce far more food per acre than industrial-scale farms using techniques that make raising beef, chicken, eggs and even pigs palatable to the neighbours…

Putting fallow land around monster homes that are proliferating in the Agricultural Land Reserve back into production will be key to building local food security in B.C.“We call those McMansions,” he said. “It is a problem because that is agriculturally abandoned land. We can’t begin to feed ourselves with a local-centric system if we lock up land in royal manor models.”

Even urban dwellers need to consider how far their food has to travel and whether it will come at all if there are shortages, he suggested. The integrated approach he takes to food production on the farm can be applied at any scale, Salatin said.

There are a lot of things that people, even in well-established communities, can do themselves to become more food secure, said Salatin, giving examples such as keeping honeybees on rooftops, installing food-producing solariums in our homes, capturing rainwater for food production, container gardening and reclaiming some of the billions of potentially productive acres sequestered under lawns in North America.

It is rare to find a critique of McMansions that explicitly addresses food. Such homes are often criticized for being wasteful, using too much land and resources as well as providing more space than people need.

Yet, I suspect it is not quite as simple as suggesting new McMansions automatically mean less agricultural space. McMansions aren’t the only use of land. This argument seems to use McMansions as a shorthand for sprawl. The sprawl often associated with McMansion neighborhoods consumes green land and pushes farming and agriculture further and further away.

Would a middle ground be consistently using McMansion land for growing things and raising animals? I have yet to see a request from McMansion homeowners to allow chickens or livestock – though such lots could accommodate such activities. It probably comes down to property values…

 

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Chinese homebuyers flood LA suburb with big homes

Bloomberg examines an influx of large-home purchases by Chinese buyers in Arcadia, California:

A year ago the property would have gone for $1.3 million, but Arcadia is booming. Residents have become used to postcards offering immediate, all-cash deals for their property and watching as 8,000-square-foot homes go up next door to their modest split levels. For buyers from mainland China, Arcadia offers excellent schools, large lots with lenient building codes, and a place to park their money beyond the reach of the Chinese government.

The city, population 57,600, projects that about 150 older homes—53 percent more than normal—will be torn down this year and replaced with mansions. The deals happen fast and are rarely listed publicly. Often, the first indication that a megahouse is coming next door is when the lawn turns brown. That means the neighbor has stopped watering and green construction netting is about to go up.

This flood of money, arriving from China despite strict currency controls, has helped the city build a $20 million high school performing arts center and the local Mercedes dealership expand. “Thank God for them coming over here,” says Peggy Fong Chen, a broker in Arcadia for many years. “They saved our recession.” The new residents are from China’s rising millionaire class—entrepreneurs who’ve made fortunes building railroads in Tibet, converting bioenergy in Beijing, and developing real estate in Chongqing. One co-owner of a $6.5 million house is a 19-year-old college student, the daughter of the chief executive of a company the state controls.

Arcadia is a concentrated version of what’s happening across the U.S. The Hurun Report, a magazine in Shanghai about China’s wealthy elite, estimates that almost two-thirds of the country’s millionaires have already emigrated or plan to do so. They’re scooping up homes from Seattle to New York, buying luxury goods on Fifth Avenue, and paying full freight to send their kids to U.S. colleges. Chinese nationals hold roughly $660 billion in personal wealth offshore, according to Boston Consulting Group, and the National Association of Realtors says $22 billion of that was spent in the past year acquiring U.S. homes. Arcadia has become a hotbed of the buying binge in the past several years, and long-standing residents are torn—giddy at the rising property values but worried about how they’re transforming their town. And they’re increasingly nervous about what would happen to the local economy if the deluge of Chinese cash were to end.

Interesting look at how this affects one particular community. It seems to bring together several issues that might trouble the average American suburbanite:

1. An influx of immigrants. This is happening across the suburbs as many new immigrants move directly to the suburbs. At the same time, there are a number of ethnoburbs in the LA region so this is not unknown.

2. An influx of immigrants from China. The United States has an interesting current relationship with China and Americans didn’t treat Chinese immigrants well in early California. A large group of wealthy foreigners from a country with a huge economy and shadowy government might make some nervous.

3. This big money means older homes are being torn down and replaced with big houses. A large number of teardowns in an established community tends to attract attention as the homes can change the character of neighborhoods as well as raise prices (though this is also presented positively in this story as long-time residents can cash out).

All together, this rapid change will be worth watching.

Satire: Hamptons residents tear down McMansions to build mini-mansions

This is unlikely to happen anytime soon:

The latest thing in the Hamptons are Mini-Mansions. People everywhere are tearing down their 15,000-square-foot McMansions and replacing them with little three-bedroom houses of 2,000 square feet. This trend is unprecedented in America. But here in the Hamptons, it’s the latest craze.

Alice Henderstreep did this. She’s married to the steel magnate Charles Henderstreep and they tore down their McMansion in Quogue for a Mini.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “Some friends of ours in East Hampton did this. I call my husband, he’s in the next room and comes. We’re never far away from one another. And I love it. The dog runs around underfoot. The kids are in the kitchen. It’s family. And the room we now have on our five acres is just phenomenal. We have huge lawns, we now have tennis courts. The kids have parties in our new pool house. We even built a baseball diamond.”…

“This is the way the original settlers lived,” Fred said when we called. “We followed the plans for a saltbox pictured in the historical museum. And so did the Henderstreeps in Quogue. It’s not like that old split level that was here we tore down for the McMansion. This is a recreation of the early settlers. Hand-hewn beams. Wavy old glass in the windows. It wasn’t cheap. In fact, it cost more than the McMansion we tore down.”

The only way I could imagine this happening is if downsizing becomes the new marker of luxury. It would be the opposite of conspicuous consumption: you can afford to downsize your vacation home and live small for a few days. Or, the tiny house movement could go upscale, perhaps with gratuitous use of innovative yet expensive technology. Of course, such claims might be followed up by a pricey trip to another mini-mansion in another wealthy vacation spot…

Key to national railroad on-time performance is Chicago?

In an interview, Amtrak’s leader suggests Chicago plays a critical role in the nation’s railroad structure:

I want to talk about on-time performance, and especially the role of freight prioritization. How has that played out?

The big problem I see right now is the on-time performance in and out of Chicago. Chicago is the hub for the long-distance system. All freights today are having a fluidity problem in and out of Chicago.

One of the things I’ve just done recently is every senior manager of this company had to adopt a train that operates in and out of Chicago. The reason for that is to get them really paying attention and focusing on a major part of what we do as a business. To make sure that our employees know that senior management’s paying attention to this. Communities know that senior management is out there looking at this. So that they understand our business better than they have in the past. That they can see what might be hurting us. Where can we improve ourselves? So that we can continue to hold a higher ground on the need for the freights to move our trains.

This is both a boon and a problem. For Chicago, this means that there is a tremendous amount of rail traffic going through the region, providing more opportunities for jobs and facilities. On the other hand, there is a limited amount of land, a lot of at-grade crossings, and getting trains through this bottleneck can be a headache. These issues have helped push more trains and facilities further out from the Loop, whether beltway lines or new intermodal facilities.

And this isn’t just a railroad problem in Chicago. As a transportation center, Chicago can be a bottleneck for air traffic with the soon-to-be world’s busiest airport (and recent infrastructure issues). The road traffic isn’t so great either.

New way of measuring poverty gives California highest rate

The Census Bureau tried changing the definition of poverty and it put California at the top of the list for poverty:

California continues to have – by far – the nation’s highest level of poverty under an alternative method devised by the Census Bureau that takes into account both broader measures of income and the cost of living.

Nearly a quarter of the state’s 38 million residents (8.9 million) live in poverty, a new Census Bureau report says, a level virtually unchanged since the agency first began reporting on the method’s effects.

Under the traditional method of gauging poverty, adopted a half-century ago, California’s rate is 16 percent (6.1 million residents), somewhat above the national rate of 14.9 percent but by no means the highest. That dubious honor goes to New Mexico at 21.5 percent.

But under the alternative method, California rises to the top at 23.4 percent while New Mexico drops to 16 percent and other states decline to as low as 8.7 percent in Iowa.

Not surprisingly, the new methodology has become political:

It’s now routinely cited in official reports and legislative documents, and Neel Kashkari, the Republican candidate for governor, has tried to make it an issue in his uphill challenge to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, even spending several days in Fresno posing as a homeless person to dramatize it.

The definition of poverty is an interesting methodological topic that certainly has social and political implications. I assume the Census Bureau argues the new definition is a better one since it accounts for more information and adjusts for regional variation. But, “better” could also mean one that either reduces or increases the official number which then can be used for different ends.

Several of Chicago’s most dangerous intersections the result of diagonal streets

A new list of the most dangerous intersections in Chicago for pedestrians includes several with three streets:

The six-way intersection of Milwaukee, North and Damen avenues on the North Side is the most dangerous junction for pedestrians in Chicago, according to a list released by the advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance…

There were 43 crashes involving either a pedestrian or a bicycle at the Milwaukee/North/Damen intersection from 2006 through 2012, the highest number of any city intersection for that period, the group found…

“There are proven solutions to make crossing these intersections safer,” said Kyle Whitehead, a campaign directorat the alliance, said Tuesday. “Things as simple as improving the markings on a crosswalk or installing a pedestrian countdown signal can make a difference.”…

The three most dangerous intersections in Chicago were Milwaukee/Damen/North; Cicero and Chicago avenues on the West Side; and Halsted Street/Lincoln Avenue/Fullerton Parkway in Lincoln Park.

It makes sense that some intersections with more streets involved are more dangerous: there are more routes for vehicle traffic and pedestrians have to navigate more crosswalks while having to look in unique directions for potential danger.

Yet, I was struck by two features of these diagonal, and potentially dangerous, streets.

1. The diagonal streets have a long history preceding the efforts of Americans to impose a grid on the Midwestern landscape:

Well, it turns out that most of Chicago’s diagonal streets were originally Native American trails. No, really. Milwaukee Avenue (originally West Plank Road), for example, was once a buffalo route that led to the Chicago River. Eventually settlers moved in, kicked the Native Americans out, and started building taverns along the trail. Once there were taverns, homes and businesses cropped up and the street thrived. Sound familiar? These diagonal paths in the city (Lincoln was Little Fort Road, Elston was Lower Road, Ogden was Southwestern Plank Road) became plank toll roads, and then finally regular streets that serve as some of the major arteries of Chicago.

In other words, the diagonal streets were more direct routes between settlements.

2. Diagonal streets are one of the features of Daniel Burnham’s lauded Plan of Chicago. Such roadways cut through a grid, providing quicker access into and out of the center of the city. However, only one major diagonal was even extended as the result of Burnham’s plan: Ogden Avenue was extended to go closer to the lake. Burnham had a number of avenues intended to radiate out from his proposed Civic Center which was never constructed. (Read more in this booklet in honor of the centennial of the Burnham Plan.)

Democratic McMansion in Maryland

A newly renovated home in Maryland may just be a Democratic McMansion:

If you are a Democratic politician getting wined and dined in D.C., chances are you’ve spent an evening or two at the Norton Manor, a faux-Old European estate in Potomac, Maryland that arrived seemingly out of nowhere last year. After a six-year renovation, the extravagant Neoclassical McMansion on nine acres, owned by the Indian-American technology entrepreneur Frank Islam and his philanthropist wife Debbie Driesman, is now fêting guests like Vice President Joe Biden and the Afghan ambassador. Apparently all you have to do to get well-connected politicians at your dinner table is build a pastiche of a Gilded Age mansion, an 18th-century French chateau, and (of course!) the gardens of Versailles in a rich suburb of D.C. Fittingly, the couple says they built Norton Manor as a tribute to the American dream. The Washington Post recently profiled the house, unloading a slew of facts about the place. Here now, 10 of the most interesting details:…

10. This couple prefers Democrats. Just this year, they’ve hosted a dinner for Vice President Biden, a fundraiser for Senator Al Franken, and an event for Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, among other important left-leaning politicos…

6. $1.5M was spent on landscaping, and now there are 1,600 boxwoods, 11,000 outdoor lights, several artificial streams, waterfalls, and stone bridges. Also, there’s a backyard teahouse with a koi pond and a reflecting pool…

2. The house was built by GTM Architects, and decorated by DC interior designer Skip Sroka, who is known for his methods for hiding electronic appliances (so as to not detract from faux-Old European flourishes). He spent three years decorating this “American palace,” as he called it in the Washington Post.

Two quick thoughts:

1. This is definitely a mansion, not a McMansion. Given the costs, 40,000 square feet, and the extra features, this is beyond normal McMansion territory. Indeed, I suspect a normal McMansion would definitely not be up to par for hosting important politicians.

2. I thought McMansions were for conservatives? The headline may be playing around with these stereotypes by suggesting that Democrats with money also live in and visit such homes. Going further, I would guess the homes of wealthy Republicans and Democrats may not differ all that much.

Noting the “ghosts of place” in gentrifying neighborhoods

A sociologist who has studied gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City suggests neighborhoods have “ghosts of place”:

Sociologist Michael Mayerfeld Bell has described “ghosts of place” as “the sense of the presence of those who are not physically there,” and argued they are a “ubiquitous aspect of the phenomenology of place.” Who among us has not felt the spirited animation of the spaces we inhabit, and the objects we see, sometimes independent of our own memories or feelings of nostalgia? Based on his longstanding public socializing and photography, Bob, and other longtime downtown residents, identify the transformation of the neighborhood’s characters, marginal groups, and social misfits into collective ghosts, through the social transformation of the “place” of the neighborhood, and in spite of their continuous physical presence. Even an advanced level of gentrification does not lead to immediate wholesale displacement of existing groups and cultures. Co-presence and co-existence among diverse groups signify the everyday lived experience for people in gentrified areas. The sense of community they possess is in part composed of the mundaneness of everyday life in a neighborhood: the people and places people see and their daily and nightly rounds. But some groups are at greater risk than others of losing a physical, social, and cultural stake in a gentrifying neighborhood. Under conditions of rapid change and threats to their way of life, people work to preserve a sense of community, and in effect fight for their stake in place, in a multitude of ways…

The street gives residents like Bob the opportunity to feel the ghosts of place from their youth. Meanwhile, the nightly encounters he has with today’s living ghosts—physically present but increasingly socially invisible—anchor him to his community and allow him to cope with what he has lost. As upscale downtown living and nighttime consumption increasingly characterize his neighborhood, ghosts have become Bob’s life.

In other words, as neighborhoods gentrify, the original residents fade to the background as they try to live their normal lives. Eventually, these ghosts haunt the changed place, occasionally popping up, sometimes drawing attention, but not leaving much of a mark.

Calories, as a statistic, don’t mean much to consumers

A group of scientists is suggesting food packaging should replace calories with data on how much exercise is required to burn off that food:

A 500ml bottle of Coke, for example, contains 210 calories, more than a 10th of the daily recommended intake for a woman.

But US scientists think that statistic is ignored by most people and does not work as a health message.

Instead, telling them that it would take a 4.2 mile run or 42-minute walk to burn off the calories is far more effective.

The researchers, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, found that teenagers given the information chose healthier drinks or smaller bottles…

They say that if a menu tells you a double cheeseburger will take a 5.6-mile hike before the calories are burned off, most people would rather choose a smaller hamburger which would require a walk of 2.6 miles…

Study leader Professor Sara Bleich said: ‘People don’t really understand what it means to say a typical soda has 250 calories.

The public vaguely knows what a calorie is – a measure of the amount of energy in food. However, the technical definition is difficult to translate into real life since a calorie is defined as “the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1 °C.” (Side note: does this mean Americans are even worse in judging calories due to not using the metric system?) This proposal does just that, translating the scientific term into one that practically makes sense to the average person. And, having such information could make comparisons easier.

I would wonder if the new exercise data would have diminishing returns over time. A new interpretation might catch people’s attention for a while. But, as time goes on, what is really the difference between that 3.6 mile burger and that 2.6 mile burger?

Florida vacation home McMansion built on the wrong lot

I’ve seen this story in a number of places but only some are calling it a McMansion: a large Florida vacation home was built one lot over from its correct location.

Their three-story vacation rental house with an estimated construction value of $680,000 actually sits on the lot next to the one they own in the gated Ocean Hammock resort community.

“We are in total disbelief, just amazed this could happen,” said Mark Voss, who owns a property management and real estate company in central Missouri. “We may have moved (to Ocean Hammock) someday. But, with this headache and grief, we’re not so sure. The Midwest is looking pretty good right now.”

The Voss’s builder, Keystone Homes, which is based in Ormond Beach but builds primarily in Flagler County, has contacted the two lot owners and other parties and is trying to negotiate a settlement, said Robbie Richmond, company vice president…

The house has five bedrooms and 5.5 bathrooms. It also includes a home theater, game room and screened-in pool.

The builder and owner say the initial survey of the land for construction is at fault. On one hand, this story is getting headlines because it seems like an egregious mistake, perhaps the builder version of the doctors who perform surgery on the wrong arm or leg. On the other hand, one lot over is not actually that much land and the article notes that there are about 10 vacant lots in a row without any distinguishing features.

Boing Boing likely claimed the home is a McMansion – which appears to have some validity – to help draw readers.