Limiting teardown McMansions with ordinances requiring demolitions reuse and recycle materials?

Palo Alto, California will soon require the reuse or recycling of the majority of materials for demolished buildings:

[W]orkers will now be required to systematically disassemble structures, with the goal of reusing or recycling the bulk of the material on the site. Based on experiences in Portland, Oregon, which has a similar law in place, staff believes that up to 95% of the construction debris can be salvaged — either reused or recycled — through “deconstruction.”…

Construction and demolition materials represent more than 40% of Palo Alto debris that gets disposed in landfills, according to an estimate from the city’s Public Works Department. As such, it represents a prime opportunity for diversion and recovery, staff told the City Council at the June 10 meeting, shortly before the council voted unanimously to adopt the new ordinance…

The new model calls for buildings to be systematically disassembled, typically in the reverse order in which they were constructed. Based on two recent pilot projects, deconstruction work using this method would take about 10 to 15 days to complete and require a crew of four to eight people, with the cost ranging from $22 to $34 per square foot….

The new deconstruction ordinance is expected to help the city divert 7,930 tons of waste annually (by contrast, the disposable-foodware ordinance that the council adopted at the same meeting would divert 290 tons). The deconstruction ordinance is also expected to reduce the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 22,300 metric tons annually (for the foodware ordinance, the number is 470 tons).

This would be an interesting way for communities to limit teardown McMansions without having to explicitly mention big houses. When there are public discussions about ordinances regarding residential teardowns, it often comes down to a discussion of property rights versus neighborhood or community character. These can get ugly. But, an ordinance like this does not have to explicitly mention residential properties or single-family homes in order to affect them. Going through the reuse/recycle mode would require more time and labor and this might either constrict what is built on the site or stop the teardown process before it begins. Of course, those pursuing teardowns might simply pay more to deal with the new requirements. People who have the money to buy a lot and house (sometimes a perfectly functioning or not very old house) and just tear it down and build a new one might just be able to easily pay these new costs.

With this ordinance in mind, I imagine there are other ways local governments could restrict residential teardowns without necessarily targeting them. Why set up a battle about property rights, aesthetics, and community if it can be avoided by regulations that nudge people certain directions?

Why Americans love suburbs #7: closer to nature

A consistent appeal of suburbia for many Americans is to be closer to nature and green space. While suburbanites appreciate their proximity to urban amenities without having to actually live in the big city, they also often appreciate more open space and closeness to nature. American suburbanites may be out of touch with nature and children may be exposed to less nature these days but the suburbs are viewed as offering access to nature just outside the single-family home.

As cities grew in the nineteenth century, they became dirty places. While this is an ongoing issue in many large cities still (think smog in Paris or air quality in Beijing), these growing cities had particular problems including how to construct sewers (Chicago’s efforts in battling excrement helped it grow), dealing with waste from all the horses, and soot (see pictures of Pittsburgh turned dark in the middle of the day). The suburbs offered some distance from the grime of the city and more proximity to pristine nature.

Exactly what kind of nature suburbanites experience is up for debate. As one critic of suburbia suggests, the suburbs often involve “nature band-aids.” Suburbanites may be interested in farms or “agrihoods” but the average suburban dweller has a small plot of land around their home. I am reminded of one situation I discovered in my research on suburban development where residents of a newer subdivision complained vociferously when the adjacent cornfield turned into a new development. This common process of suburban development – more agricultural or rural land or open space is turned into sprawl – can frustrate many residents.

One consistent experience involves using and caring for the lawns that surround many single-family homes. The green lawn is an important symbol of the owner’s social class as well as a space for outside recreation. Caring for the lawn is vitally important. Neighborhoods and communities exert pressure. Residents make sure their lawns are green in a variety of conditions ranging from watering during droughts, painting their lawns, and searching out the best seeds. They often have plenty of trees, prized by suburbanites for their foliage, functioning as key symbols of nature, and ability to define edges of properties and hide views of others.

Beyond lawns, suburbanites are often interested in parks, forest preserves, and green spaces. Theoretically, these uses limit the possibility that the green space can be turned into other uses. Even somewhat protected green space like a golf course can provoke concerns if it is turned into something else. Additionally, these spaces enhance property values of single-family homes, allow space for children to play, and can become sites of local social activity. Some of these places can offer more authentic nature (less controlled by humans) though many of these sites are carefully kept. Furthermore, even in these preserved spaces, it is difficult to truly escape the suburban noise and evidence of civilization.

Sometimes, nature can be perceived as the enemy of suburbanization. A great example is dealing with water. Flooding is a persistent issue. More housing alongside roadways and parking lots do not allow water to soak into the ground. Think the Houston area after a hurricane. In spaces with less human activity, flooding and waterways changing course do not have the devastating or annoying effects that they can in suburbia. Turning land into suburbia can have the effect of bulldozing over natural ways of dealing with water and instead trying to channel it or eliminate it around homes and other uses. This is not always successful and much money can be spent on the issue. For example, the Deep Tunnel project in the Chicago region is a massive civil engineering project born out of urban and suburban development.

Of course, the opposite can be true as well: suburbanization can be the enemy of nature. Rachel Carson’s influential work emerged by suburban settings. At the same time, nature itself can also adapt to suburbanization. The wildland-urban interface can move as creatures like coyotes, deer, baboons, and birds adapt to human activity.

While critics of suburbs may not understand why suburbanites cannot see the ugliness of sprawl, many Americans believe the suburbs offer a little more natural space in which to move and breathe.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring emerged from suburbia

Rachel Carson’s influential Silent Spring may have emphasized nature but according to Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in the Twentieth Century, the suburbs played an important role:

As global a vision as one might concoct, Silent Spring nevertheless had its firmest roots in suburban locales. The letter sparking Carsons’s commitment to write the book came from a woman in suburban Boston who had watched a DDT spraying decimate the birds in her own and her neighbors’ yards. Carson also drew heavily on the 1957 anti-DDT lawsuit on Long Island. Her research began with the trial transcript, and Marjorie Spock, leader of the lawsuit, then became Carson’s “chief clipping service.” The web of experts Spock had brought in to testify at the trial served as Carson’s own. They and others on whom Carson most relied lived and worked in suburbs, including Dr. Morton Biskind of Westport, Connecticut, and Wilhelm Hueper, at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. Even Carson herself was, arguable, a suburbanite: though she loved her spot on the Maine coast, she spent most of the year in Silver Spring, Maryland, on the edge of Washington, D.C.

Silent Spring reached out to suburban readers in a host of ways, both subtle and overt. Ignoring cities, limiting her invocations of the urban to “a small town in the heart of America,” Carson flattered the conceit of the suburban better-off that their homes were not in any “suburbia,” that they led essentially nonurban lives. Factories also feel into the shadowy backdrop: quick-striking maladies and death among workers appeared only briefly and in passing. Dwelling at much great length on cancer and other chronic ailments, more likely to trouble a suburban readership, she studiously avoided mention of infectious diseases, whose absence suburb dwellers of this period, at least in metropolitan New York and Los Angeles tended to take for granted. On shifting from dangers to human health to threats to wildlife, Carson explicitly summoned the self-interest of the “suburbanite.” For the “suburbanite who derives pleasure from birds in his garden,” she wrote, “anything that destroys the wildlife of an area for even a single year has deprived him of a pleasure to which he has a legitimate right.” (256-257)

These two paragraphs remind me of several aspects of American suburbs:

  1. Given that more Americans lived in suburbs than cities by the early 1960s, does this simply reflect the movement of Americans in large numbers to suburbs?
  2. Could the wealth of suburbia – the ability to own a home, have a middle-class or higher lifestyle – provide more resources to pursue causes like environmentalism compared to being concerned with subsistence in other settings?
  3. From the beginning of American suburbs, they were touted as spaces close to nature. This argument was primarily made in comparison to cities which by the late 1800s were viewed as dirty and overcrowded. (Of course, the nature of suburbia has always been carefully shaped by humans rather than being untamed nature.)

More broadly, nature and the environment likely looks different from the suburbs than from urban or rural settings. If Sellers is correct in his argument about Silent Spring‘s suburban roots, perhaps it should be more widely read with the suburban context in mind.

Linking environmental degradation and McMansions

A recent op-ed discussing how to respond to the extinction of species suggested building McMansions is not the way to go:

The solution is simple: moderation. While we should feel no remorse about altering our environment, there is no need to clear-cut forests for McMansions on 15-acre plots of crabgrass-blanketed land. We should save whatever species and habitats can be easily rescued (once-endangered creatures such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons now flourish), refrain from polluting waterways, limit consumption of fossil fuels and rely more on low-impact renewable-energy sources.

This is an interesting perspective of McMansions: they all include clearing broad swaths of land for giant houses and large lawns. If they all had 15 acres, these would be some pretty expensive McMansions. Indeed, I’m guessing these would be far out of the reach of the typical McMansion buyer (or builder) and this is territory for the true mansions.

At the same time, it hints at one of the key critiques of McMansions: they are an unnecessary use of resources. Because of their large size, they often require sizable plots of land to add the yard that is often required for American single-family home life. This does not even include how the resources to build the McMansion were procured. McMansion critics would often rather to build denser housing on smaller lots with more sustainable materials rather than carve out a large domain for one home in a large house.

Presumably, there is some middle ground between 15 acre McMansions and more acceptable McMansions. What if they did have much smaller lots? (This then often leads to complaints that they are too big for their lot.) What if they could be made with sustainable materials? What if they could be net-zero energy homes? What if they were built in denser areas where driving was not as necessary? (This can lead to concerns that they do not fit the character of denser neighborhoods.) There are some possibilities here that might render the McMansion more environmentally friendly.

Perceptions of extreme weather affected by social context

A new study in Environmental Sociology finds that people view extreme weather differently depending on their context:

“Odds were higher among younger, female, more educated, and Democratic respondents to perceive effects from extreme weather than older, male, less educated, and Republican respondents,” said the study’s author, Matthew Cutler of the University of New Hampshire.

There were other correlations, too. For example, people with lower incomes had higher perceptions of extreme weather than people who earned more. Those who live in more vulnerable areas, as might be expected, interpret the effects of weather differently when the costs to their homes and communities are highest.

Causes of extreme weather and the frequency of extreme weather events is an under-explored area from a sociological perspective. Better understanding is important to building more resilient and adaptive communities. After all, why prepare or take safety precautions if you believe the weather isn’t going to be all that bad or occur all that often?…

“The patterns found in this research provide evidence that individuals experience extreme weather in the context of their social circumstances and thus perceive the impacts of extreme weather through the lens of cultural and social influences. In other words, it is not simply a matter of seeing to believe, but rather an emergent process of both seeing and believing — individuals experiencing extreme weather and interpreting the impacts against the backdrop of social and economic circumstances central to and surrounding their lives,” Cutler concludes.

Context matters! (Many sociology studies could be summed up this way.) Weather may have some objective features – it can be measured, quantified, examined, and predicted (to a small degree). Yet we all experience slightly differently based on what shapes us. While it sounds like this study focuses more on demographic factors, I wonder if there would also be big differences based on general attitudes about nature: is it something that is bigger than humans/has a life of its own vs. it is something that humans can control or not be affected by because of our increasing knowledge? Plus, humans are often not the best at detecting patterns; we perceive things to be related when they are not or vice versa.

Perhaps this helps explain why so many people can make small talk about the weather. It isn’t just that it affects us; rather, we all view it in slightly different ways. One person’s big storm that requires changing their behavior might be just an inconvenience to someone else.

Will outlining the monetary and environmental costs of lawns change behavior?

Americans may like their green lawns around their single-family homes but they come at a cost:

These days, front lawns cost Americans $40 billion a year to maintain, and are spread over about 50,000 square miles—the land area equivalent of the entire state of Alabama.

This vast swath of ornamentally maintained land is generally bad for the environment. A lawnmower generates more greenhouse gas emissions per hour than 11 cars, according to the Environmental Protection Agency; nitrous oxide emitted by fertilizer has 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, and lingers in the atmosphere for as long as 120 years. Swept into waterways, those fertilizers strip the water of oxygen, causing algal blooms and “dead zones” that kill freshwater and marine life.

Then, of course, there’s water use. Americans consume around 9 billion gallons of water a day on average on outdoor use—most of it watering their lawns. That’s more water than families use for showering and laundry combined. As populations rise, water needs will only get more taxing in many states.

The writer concludes by suggesting that California’s drought and trend-setting may just help limit lawns in the future. However, there are at least two major hurdles to overcome:

1. The cultural importance of a lawn should not be undervalued. The minor connection to nature (or “nature” modified appropriately by humans) is important.

2. Simply citing large numbers or figures like above may not go very far. In the abstract, $40 billion sounds like a lot until you consider what kind of money is spent on other things. Or, what might people do instead with that $40 billion? Even the environmental concerns – and the effects sound quite harmful – are more abstract since the consequences are pushed down the road either in time or place.

Perhaps the best way to combat the American lawn would be to change the American view of nature and what is appropriate around single-family homes. We have seen some of the shaming efforts in California, from overhead photos of celebrity compounds to neighbors reporting each other over water violations. This could be done more positively with incentives (such as being paid to remove turf in Western state) or new trends. What suburban resident would want to be the only one on the block with the green costly lawn if all the neighbors had moved on?

Miami fights climate change with fees derived from new waterfront condos

Miami can could lose big with the consequences of climate change but in order to fight the consequences, the city needs to approve more oceanfront development:

The more developers build here, the more taxes and fees the city collects to fund a $300-million storm water project to defend the shore against the rising sea. Approval of these luxury homes on what environmentalists warn is global warming quicksand amounts to a high-stakes bet that Miami Beach can, essentially, out-build climate change and protect its $27 billion worth of real estate.

The move makes budgetary sense in a state with no income tax: Much of South Florida’s public infrastructure is supported by property taxes…

By 2020, Miami Beach plans to complete 80 new storm pumps that will collect and banish up to 14,000 gallons of seawater per minute back into Biscayne Bay. Construction started in February. The goal is to reduce sunny day flooding — which frequently invades streets at high tide whether or not it is raining — and prepare the community for future ocean swell…

The $300 million project is ambitious for a city with a $502 million annual budget. A new stormwater utility fee on homeowners, hotels and stores helped Miami Beach save enough money to borrow the first $100 million.

The project started before planners worked out all the funding. It’s unclear how the city will raise the rest. “We don’t have time for analysis-paralysis,” said Levine. We are going to have to get creative.”

It is hard for cities to turn down development when the luxury market is hot. Not only does an overheated housing market attract new residents, a hip reputation, and the interest of developers, it can also generate money for the city through taxes, fees, and increased spending.

Yet, development isn’t simply a game where more equals better. Whether the consequences are flooding or gentrification or a lack of affordable housing, cities tend to approve such projects that bring in money and growth. But, this ignores the bigger picture and the broader consequences that could affect everyone. The money may be pouring in now but what happens if this leads to flooding and a hampered tourist and investor economy for decades to come? What if avoiding the question of affordable housing contributes to other social problems or causes needed workers and citizens to move to other communities? As urban sociologists have asked for decades, who wins when big development takes place? Usually not the normal citizens. Instead, the growth machines – the powerful businesspeople and politicians – tend to profit.

Of course, funding to combat future problems is not easy to obtain. No state income tax in Florida helps contribute to hot housing markets. Should the federal government help pay to alleviate climate change? Should there be state or federal policies that do not allow building such expensive developments right on properties near the ocean (similar questions are raised about floodplains around major rivers)? Cities and other governments have a long way to go in order to figure out this issue.