Pushing to ban grass in Las Vegas

Americans like grass lawns. Las Vegas is not an environment where it is easy to grow grass. What has to give? The city of Las Vegas wants to ban ornamental grass:

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Las Vegas-area water officials have spent two decades trying to get people to replace thirsty greenery with desert plants, and now they’re asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw roughly 40% of the turf that’s left…

They say this ornamental grass requires four times as much water as drought-tolerant landscaping like cactus and other succulents. By ripping it out, they estimate the region can reduce annual water consumption by roughly 15% and save about 14 gallons (53 liters) per person per day…

The proposal is part of a turf war waged since at least 2003, when the water authority banned developers from planting green front yards in new subdivisions. It also offers owners of older properties the region’s most generous rebate policies to tear out sod — up to $3 per square foot…

Last year was among the driest in the region’s history, when Las Vegas went a record 240 days without measurable rainfall. And the future flow of the Colorado River, which accounts for 90% of southern Nevada’s water, is in question.

There are multiple interesting components to this. Here are at least a few:

  1. I remember flying into Las Vegas a few years ago. The difference between the desert and the city and suburbs was remarkable. I do not remember too much grass outside of the very green golf courses that stood out. Even without much grass, the city in the desert is a different sight.
  2. As the article notes elsewhere, this sounds like efforts in California during their big drought. At the same time, the article also mentions how other locations like Phoenix and Salt Lake City are not interested in curbing the grass.
  3. More Americans than just people in Las Vegas might be rethinking the lawn. In addition to the need for watering, there is fertilizing, mowing, keeping out weeds and leaves, designing features, and more. Who has time and money for all of that?
  4. Las Vegas is a sprawling metro area and the single-family homes of American suburbs are often surrounded by green lawns. It is part of the package tied to kids playing and a green nature buffer around the private dwelling. Are the suburbs the same without these patches of grass?

Perhaps this becomes a model for communities, in the desert or not, across the United States.

Interpreting a 50% chance of rain

We have had multiple days recently where there is a threat of rain all day. The hourly forecast from yesterday was not unusual:

One of my first thoughts in seeing such a forecast is to say that there is a 50/50 chance of rain. Flip a coin. With this in mind, I would not necessarily stay inside but I would be prepared when going outside.

The idea of a meteorologist flipping a coin when predicting rain is tempting. This could lead to thinking that the meteorologists do not really know so they are just guessing.

However, this is not exactly how this information works. If I look at the hourly forecast and see 0% chance of rain or even anything under 20-30%, I am not going to worry about rain. The probability is low. In contrast, if I see 70% and above I might alter my behavior as the probability is high.

The 50/50 information is still very useful even if it leaves a reader unsure if there will be rain or not. It is not conclusive information but it is not no information or just a guess. With rain at 50%, bring an umbrella, have a coat, or do not stay too far away from shelter but do not just stay inside.

How Americans arrived at converting rooms into closets

Is it as simple as Americans own a lot of stuff so they then need giant closets?

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That model held for the next century or so, until the postwar American economy lurched into motion, setting the country on the conveyor belt that would eventually deliver it to Kylie Jenner’s mirrored hall of designer handbags, a tour of which has been viewed more than 15 million times on YouTube. Prosperity settled in the suburbs, where millions of families moved into progressively bigger homes. Today, the average new single-family home is more than 1,000 square feet larger than it was in the early 1970s, even though new homes have, on average, fewer people living in them. (Regardless of Americans’ lack of need for giant houses, our zoning laws create them; many local governments have made building apartments or condos effectively illegal, and they are supported in this by homeowners, many of whom fear attracting less wealthy neighbors but welcome anything that pumps up property values, such as bigger houses down the street. Developers are happy to comply.)…

American homes not only have more space and fewer people than they once did; they also have a lot more stuff. “We’re conditioned that we need the right thing for the right activity,” Jill LaRue-Rieser, the senior vice president and chief merchandising officer for the custom-storage company California Closets, told me. As clothing in particular has gotten less expensive and more bountiful, big closets have become a selling point unto themselves. “The builders really figured it out,” she said. “If they could hook women with enough space for their shoes, they could sell the whole house.” Which is why, for decades, the country’s closets have had no reason to do anything but grow, fueling the perpetual-motion machine of the modern wardrobe—you have more space, so you don’t hesitate to buy more stuff, but eventually your big new closets seem cramped and small. At that point, maybe it’s time for a new place with even bigger closets…

Bradford said that converting a spare room to a closet has become particularly popular in recent years because it accommodates various internet home-design fantasies: natural lighting, room for a center island, seating areas, and space to show off particularly beloved collections of sunglasses or handbags or sneakers. “If people have something they value a lot, they want to create a perfect space for it, to highlight it,” she told me…

In other words, extreme closets may be starting to resemble those of, say, 16th-century Europe: a collection of prized things on loving display, a comfortable seating area in the innermost sanctum of one’s home, maybe a little desk area to work in solitude. “It’s about being proud of your space, feeling really good and calm in your space,” Adams said. Just like the Renaissance-era closet enthusiasts—though they probably lacked a wine or coffee station.

Jay Pritchett was ahead of his time: what America really needs are closets, closets, closets.

As the article notes elsewhere, if HGTV is to be trusted in this matter, a lot of bedrooms have been turned into large closets. This is a formal statement: a homeowner wants a large closet with particular features. But, this is a formal declaration of what has been happening for decades as Americans used spare rooms, attics, basements, and garages to store all of their items. As a person with a fair amount of stuff myself, I was intrigued by the first neighborhood we lived in as homeowners where all of the units had one car garages. Very few people parked in those garages. Instead, they held various items that did not fit in the relatively-small-by-today’s-standards 1,450 square foot residents.

I do think the curating and display of one’s possessions is worth noting. Today, it is not just about owning items but also about having ways to organize and show these items. Traditionally, closets are not something a homeowner might show to visitors. But, convert a room into a closet, put in an island and custom shelving plus a dazzling light fixture and this is now part of the home and possessions tour. How much time people actually spend in the expanded closet does not matter; this is a luxury item for the homeowner and the visitor.

I wonder if the reduced size of American households plays a large role here. If households have three-plus bedrooms but only a few members living in the home, there is now a free room. This could become an office; this has also picked up in recent years, even before working from home due to COVID-19, due to an interest in a clearly-defined and purposeful space. But, it could also become a closet or a theater room or a workout space.

Fighting zoning restrictions with “carrot, no stick” approach

The Biden administration has plans to encourage more housing by offering infrastructure money for loosening zoning regulations:

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The Biden proposal would set up a $5 billion fund for local governments to compete for grants to pay for new schools, roads or bridges if they agreed to loosen zoning rules.

“This is a new approach that is purely carrot, no stick,” said a White House official on condition of anonymity…

Trump himself explicitly campaigned against the idea last year, warning “suburban housewives” that crime would spike and home values drop if zoning rules were relaxed.

Housing experts praised Biden’s proposal, but said it may do little to influence affluent communities that have the tightest zoning laws, which have little need for federal assistance.

It will be interesting to see which communities would accept the carrot and loosen zoning. My guess: suburban communities that are already in the midst of demographic and community change and looking for funds that could help point the community in a particular direction.

Turnout for local Chicago area elections low again: under 20% in counties

Americans have regular opportunities to vote in local elections and Chicago area voters did not turn out in large numbers in this week’s election:

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At the county level, voter turnout mostly hovered in the low to midteens, typical for many counties in consolidated elections. On the lower end, McHenry County reported a voter turnout of 9.5%, and Kankakee County topped voter turnouts across the counties at 18.6%. The pandemic didn’t have a significant effect on voter turnout, according to county clerks’ offices, with sufficient alternative options for people to vote early or by mail instead of in person.

In Cook, DuPage and Lake counties, turnout was 14.7%, 15.6% and 13.7%, respectively.

In Will County, southwest of Chicago, 15.8% of voters cast a ballot Tuesday. That’s nearly 3 percentage points higher than the previous consolidated election in 2019, which had a voter turnout of 13.2%, said Charles Pelkie, chief of staff for the Will County clerk’s office…

Finding information on local candidates presents a challenge for voters, Pelkie said, confined mostly to mailed flyers and local radio or television ads. In general elections, Will County voter turnout can reach about 80%, Pelkie said, but local races don’t “inspire” voters in the same way as presidential or gubernatorial races.

I think this explanation is correct in that residents have to do a lot of work to find out about all the candidates and races. See my post on this yesterday.

But, there are other factors at work as well. As noted in the article, national races drive up turnout. I wonder if national politics has now completely overshadowed local and state politics through the last few presidential cycles. Americans often say they like local government but many eyes are now only turned to Washington.

Big issues in communities can drive up turnout. County level data can obscure higher levels of turnout for intriguing races. Yet, even interesting or important local issues might be drowned out by larger politics or the overwhelming number of choices.

A little thought experiment. Imagine a local government unit decided elections are no longer necessary or will not take place as frequently. They could cite the amount of money that is needed to run elections. Lots of energy is expended from both winning and losing candidates. I would guess there would be local protest; how can you have local government without regular elections? Would it prompt people to vote more often in local elections?

Or, could eliminating government bodies or consolidating such bodies in Illinois help? Reduce the number of candidates to choose from. Limit the number of taxing bodies that local funds go to. Focus some of the positions on broader issues rather than details of particular institutions. Again, this could be viewed as being anti-democratic but the current system does not seem to interest many voters.

The difficulty of keeping up with all the choices in local elections

I voted in the local elections held yesterday. I study suburbs and am aware of the fondness many Americans have for smaller and/or local governments. And I find it difficult to know who or what I am voting for in local elections.

In class yesterday, I started by talking about the importance of local elections. If residents care about their community, they can run for local offices or serve on volunteer committees. Without all of this important work that can require high levels of commitment for limited compensation, things would not get done. Because turnout can be low in local elections, candidates can be elected with relatively few votes.

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In certain elections, certain parts of the ballots stand out. Perhaps it is a development issue. Perhaps it is a referendum on a local tax increase to fund local schools. Perhaps it is a particular race, like a heated mayoral election or a pandemic facing members of the school board.

Beyond those more noteworthy circumstances, there are many choices. Forest Preserve commissioners. County Board members. Local judges. Township leaders. And so on. Sometimes, I know something that helps me make a choice. I read local news that helpfully presents local candidates. I watch some local forums where candidates talk. I am aware of some of the local concerns. I may know someone or know of someone. But, I cannot keep track of everything. Hence, the popularity of just voting a slate or a party for particular positions. Or, a set of endorsements from local media. This is all on top of what might be happening at the state of federal level.

This problem might be exacerbated by the number of units of local government Illinois has. However, I suspect this is a larger issue among Americans. Having many choices for many offices may help lead to lower turnout. Only some people have the motivation and wherewithal to find all of the information needed on local issues and candidates. People are disconnected from local groups and institutions through which they might hear about candidates and issues.

Americans like the idea of local elections but it is hard to keep up with all of the local government activity.

Looking to “produce, preserve, and retrofit” American homes for the future

What will happen to American homes in the coming homes, particularly all the suburban tract homes and McMansions? One path forward is to provide resources to fix up and improve existing homes. According to plans from the White House:

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Build, preserve, and retrofit more than two million homes and commercial buildings, modernize our nation’s schools and child care facilities, and upgrade veterans’ hospitals and federal buildings. President Biden’s plan will create good jobs building, rehabilitating, and retrofitting affordable, accessible, energy efficient, and resilient housing, commercial buildings, schools, and child care facilities all over the country, while also vastly improving our nation’s federal facilities, especially those that serve veterans.

As housing ages, issues pop up. They need maintenance. Standards change regarding efficiency, local codes, and what residents desire. The community around houses and housing can change in terms of demographics and development, affecting the reputation of the neighborhood.

This plan emphasizes retrofitting homes, among other options. Energy efficiency is one reason as features like new windows, better furnaces and air conditioners, insulation, and more can cut down on energy use and utility bills. Retrofitting can also help maintain the appeal of homes; instead of falling into disrepair or failing to keep up with the times, retrofitting can spruce up houses that have been around for a while.

Some of this has been available through various means for a while. The concept does stand in contrast to another approach Americans have taken: just build new homes in sprawling suburbs or as teardowns and leave the older homes and their issues to others. Retrofitting single-family homes could be quite a project in the long-term with the emphasis on the United States on single-family homes in the suburbs. Does every suburban home require or deserve retrofitting at some point?

How a fictional psychiatrist turned radio host lives in a swanky Seattle condo

Television residents do not always match reality. One writer set out to find how Frasier Crane lived in such a large and well-appointed residence in Seattle:

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While characters living in unrealistically spacious apartments is a sitcom mainstay, the extravagance of Frasier’s apartment is central to the show, rather than an incidental. Frasier, ever class-conscious, takes great pride in furnishing his condo in the Elliott Bay Towers because it’s how he expresses his refined sensibilities. What better way to show off his yuppie bona fides than an Eames chair and a Wassily, a Le Corbusier lamp, a Chihuly vase, many questionable global artifacts, and, as he brags in the pilot, a couch that is “an exact replica of the one Coco Chanel had in her Paris atelier”? As a 1994 Chicago Tribune article points out, the decor choices were extremely deliberate—and extremely pricey…

From the available numbers, I learned that in 1989, the average salary for a psychiatrist was $117,700. Though Frasier likely would have made less starting out and more by the end of his tenure, for the sake of simplifying things, let’s say he worked that job at that salary from 1983 through 1993. If he saved the recommended 20% of his income during this period, he would have $235,400 stashed away at the end of that 10-year period—of course, this is before taxes…

“We talked about, ‘If anybody wonders how he can afford this it’s because Frasier has an investment income,’” Keenan told me. “He made a fair amount of money in Boston as a private therapist and he lectured and he wrote articles and he just invested very well. And at one point somebody said, ‘He’s from Seattle, maybe he got in on the ground floor of Microsoft.’ Little dividends arrived to augment what he was making in the station.”…

Keenan also pointed out that Frasier wouldn’t have seemed as wealthy compared to Niles, who lived in a “preposterously baronial house” thanks to Maris’s money. Plus, to an unfamiliar audience, “radio host” would have probably seemed like a pretty impressive and well-paying job.

In other words, the viewer should not ask so many questions. Just enjoy the show.

Seriously though, I could imagine a few additional points of explanation:

  1. Perhaps there was some unusual circumstance around the acquisition of the condo. Given the strange circumstances Frasier could get himself into, this is not hard to imagine. A short sale. Some gift or reduced price from a thankful client. He used his dad’s pension money from working as a cop. There could be lots of ways to explain this given the hijinks of the show.
  2. Frasier might have saved some money from good investments or had some extra earnings. At the same time, his character is not exactly one who makes wise long-term decisions. Was he smart enough to employ a good investment fund manager? Did he fall into some money (such as Microsoft stock as hinted above)?
  3. Frasier needs this condo as part of who he is. The expensive items, the preening tastes, the haughtiness are all tied to a pattern of conspicuous consumption. He likes to show off and does so with what he owns, including his residence. And the running gag with his father’s old chair does not work without everything attesting to Frasier’s acquisition habits.
  4. What other residence would suit Frasier? A single-family home in the suburbs? A tacky show of impressiveness like the home of his brother? A smaller city bachelor pad?

Cities that rise from the dead

With Easter today and Atlanta in the news, I was thinking of American cities that claim to have risen from the dead. The phoenix has been the symbol for Atlanta for over a century:

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Like the Phoenix, Atlanta had risen from its own ashes following its destruction in 1864. Many times during the city’s history, Atlanta has redefined and reinvented itself, rising again as the city slogan, Resurgens, suggests. The “Atlanta Spirit” is another oft-referenced slogan describing an entrepreneurial and ambitious attitude that has shaped the city’s historical identity.

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, boosters and others were eager to rebuild:

On October 11, 1871, three days after the fire started that devastated the city, Bross’s Tribune proclaimed, “CHEER UP. In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world’s history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN.”

Bross, who was an avid promoter of the city, predicted that Chicago would be rebuilt in five years and would reach a population of 1 million by the turn of the century, as Donald Miller reports in City of the Century.

There is an accepted narrative that the fire created a blank slate upon which Chicago was quickly rebuilt. That blank slate allowed it to become a dynamic city of innovative architecture with a fresh skyline dotted with a brand-new building called the skyscraper.

“The great legend of Chicago is that it’s a ‘phoenix city’ – it almost instantly rebuilt itself bigger and better from the ashes. And to a certain and significant extent, that’s true,” said Carl Smith, professor emeritus of English at Northwestern University and author of Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City.

And the city of Phoenix draws on the presence of people hundreds of years before:

Those former residents were industrious, enterprising and imaginative. They built an irrigation system, consisting mostly of some 135 miles of canals, and the land became fertile. The ultimate fate of this ancient society, however, is a mystery. The accepted belief is that it was destroyed by a prolonged drought. Roving Indians, observing the Pueblo Grande ruins and the vast canal system these people left behind, gave them the name “Ho Ho Kam” — the people who have gone…

By 1868, a small colony had formed approximately four miles east of the present city. Swilling’s Mill became the new name of the area. It was then changed to Helling Mill, after which it became Mill City, and years later, East Phoenix. Swilling, having been a confederate soldier, wanted to name the new settlement Stonewall after Stonewall Jackson. Others suggested the name Salina, but neither name suited the inhabitants. It was Darrell Duppa who suggested the name Phoenix, inasmuch as the new town would spring from the ruins of a former civilization. That is the accepted derivation of our name.

Many cities have faced crises, disasters, or unusual starts. Local histories and narratives can also emphasize positive moments (and downplay negative moments). The rising from the ashes, overcoming great obstacles, coming back to life, these are all powerful narratives for big cities. They imply success, progress, and hopefully growth.

What these narratives mean now may be harder to ascertain. What does the aftermath of the Chicago Fire mean for Chicago today? Is Phoenix still rebuilding a great civilization? More than 150 years after the Civil War, is Atlanta continuing to reinvent itself? A city rising from the dead once is impressive but it may be harder to pull off over decades of change.

Searching for the perfect name for a slate of candidates in local elections

Keeping in mind regulations, non-partisan traditions, and what might appeal to voters, candidates running for local elections in the Chicago area come up with some clever names for their slate:

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A court ruled in 2017 that candidates in Illinois don’t need to be part of a slate to run under the banner of a political party. So Dubiel decided to create a party of which he would be the only member — LZ Thrive…

When the calendar turns to the spring municipal elections, political passions are no longer contained to Republicans and Democrats. In suburb after suburb, you’ll find parties with monikers like People Before Politics, We’re in This Together, You Are the Village’s Heart, the Common Sense Again Party, the United Party for Progress or, most expansive of all, the Party of the Past, Present and Future…

One way to avoid such complications is to change the party’s name for every election, thereby making it a brand-new entity that can control its slate. That has been a routine practice in Bolingbrook, which for more than three decades was run by former Mayor Roger Claar under a variety of party names…

Those included Citizens for Bolingbrook First, the Bolingbrook First Party, Bolingbrook First and, in its most recent iteration following Claar’s 2020 retirement, the First Party for Bolingbrook.

I imagine there is an art to this. What exactly can capture a particular local spirit? Many of the names quoted above emphasize a bright future or emphasize a collective community spirit. There is a sense of optimism or forward momentum. (There could be the occasional anti-growth or preserve the community slate names in there as well – just not quoted above.)

If many of these are in the suburbs, other names might fit with the broad themes of suburbia: Making the Best Suburb for Your Children! Boosting Your Property Values! Keeping Certain Land Uses (and People) Out! Maintaining Our Lead Over Other Nearby Suburbs! And so on.

What if this was possible at the national level? What could Democrats and Republicans come up with every two and/or four years to really emphasize their particular focus in that election? Since each party does reconfigure their platform each election to fit current priorities, perhaps this would make some sense. It could also help eliminate the confusion over long-term shifts where one party used to support something but now it is the other party that pushes it.