Hyperbole: we are a country of McMansions and sprawl everywhere

In a real estate blog at Boston.com, I ran into a reader’s comment who made some common claims about how much space we have used in the United States:

America is a country of excess. We have such suburban and exurban sprawl that we’ve covered almost every square inch of land with some ugly McMansion. Part of the “American Dream” was born out of the pioneer, self-sufficiency school of thought – so that everyone’s goal is to have at least, a 2,500 sq foot house on 2 acres with no neighbors close by. It’s wasteful. It’s also why we have bears and moose in the suburbs – the animals have no place left to live! How much to we pay to keep all of that up? How much do we spend on gas (and time!) driving the huge distance between work and the exurb where we can afford that big beast? How much water do we waste on watering those massive lawns? We’ve become so isolated and insular in this country.

I think Europeans have it right. Density and living in smaller spaces is more conducive to a higher quality of life. To watch a footy game, most Europeans go to the neighborhood pub, where everybody knows your name and neighbors actually speak to and know one another. Here, we barricade ourselves in our McMansions and watch the game in our great room and miss out on the social interaction.

I’ve always been a champion of living below my means. I seem to be the exception, not the rule.

In Europe, when the toaster breaks, they get it fixed. Here, we throw it out and buy a new one. Over here, I doubt you could find anyone who still fixes toasters.

Opponents of sprawl could make their case more effectively without resorting to unnecessary hyperbole. “Almost every square inch of land” has been used? Only about 3% of land in the United States is in urban areas. And then all of that land is covered with McMansions? The average new house has been around 2,500 square feet in recent years and this is probably not big enough to qualify as a McMansion. Homes larger than 3,000 square feet are a small percentage of new and existing homes. Everyone wants 2 acres of land? Most suburban plots are much smaller than this, often less than .25 acres. One growing housing segment in recent decades, townhouses and condos, take up much less land. The desires and actually buying patterns of Americans are not exactly the same thing, owning 2+ acres in many communities would be prohibitively expensive, and some communities wouldn’t even allow this zoning.

The comparison to densities in Europe is more effective. Americans do promote sprawl, driving, and private property more than some other countries. This has been tied to some declines in civic life such as outlined in Bowling Alone or Suburban Nation. Excessive consumption is an issue larger than houses and sprawl though they could be indicative of American habits of spending larger amounts of discretionary income.

My takeaway: limit the hyperbole and stick to more defensible comparisons to other ways of living.

Culture affects how one gives directions

A new study suggests that Europeans and Americans have different ways to give directions:

The researchers brought test participants into a lab and presented them with a map of a small district containing 17 landmarks and 29 streets. These wayfinders were then assigned a starting point and a destination and asked to provide directions to someone navigating the area. Half the time they were told the navigator was driving; the other half they were told the navigator was just looking at a map.The different navigator conditions were meant to encourage different types of directions. Hund and colleagues believed wayfinders would offer drivers more first-person descriptions (including landmarks) and would offer map-readers more third-person descriptions (including street names and cardinal directions).

These conditions did have some impact, but what really influenced the type of directions was the culture of the wayfinder. Americans were far more likely, across all tests, to give navigators a street name or a cardinal direction (i.e. north, east, south, or west). Dutch wayfinders, on the other hand, provided far more landmarks and left-right turn-descriptors…

The researchers note that many of the Dutch wayfinders became frustrated when asked to give map-readers directions. “They realized there might be a more effective way of describing the route on the map, but never came up with the idea to switch from left-right descriptors to cardinal terms,” Hund and company write. They suppose the Dutch would have improved considerably if given enough time to convert cardinal directions into relative terms — equating “east” with “right,” for instance.

I’ve wondered if it isn’t the culture that matters but rather the spatial arrangement of the places of which someone is familiar. For example, a good number of major Americans cities are laid out in grids. Think of Manhattan: the avenues are north-south, the numbered streets are east-west, and this makes it easy to find a lot of different routes to the same place. In contrast, some older settlements such as some older sections of European cities and several American cities like Boston are more prone to have winding streets that are more aligned to the topography. If you are from a grid area, you are used to giving cardinal directions because they are easy to follow. If operating in a less grid-like format, landmarks matter more as one can remain oriented even if the streets don’t seem to be headed in that direction.

I’ve also wondered how this changes in the suburbs. Are landmarks as easy to identify and utilize? Without as many tall buildings plus a landscape that contains more repetitive features (even if the strip malls and big box stores look different, they are not as distinctive), noteworthy landmarks can be hard to find.

A third option: are Americans used to traveling longer distances for each trip, making it more difficult to use verbal turn-by-turn directions?


Sociological study: American individualism limits support for national health care

A new sociological study argues that the American cultural values of individualism and choice are behind the lack of support for national health care:

American obsession with individual rights and choice are killing any chance of a universal solution on health care, according to an analysis in the authoritative trade publication “Current Sociology” which argues that Europe’s health care is the model the U.S. should follow…

Other “western nations,” he said, are smarter on the issue because they have an all-for-one approach and aren’t obsessed with choice and individualism. “These countries have more communitarian- and solidarity-based value systems, their populations are much more willing to live with what Americans would see as an unfair system, in other words, one that sets limits on medical care for those with coverage,” said Blank…

“The U.S. is the prototype of an individualistic society. Although individual rights are emphasized in all western countries, in the US rights have been elevated to a status of supremacy over collective interests. Moreover, by rights Americans mean negative rights, and, as a result, they are hesitant to sacrifice perceived individual needs for the common good. Thus, there is no guaranteed universal coverage, but also no limits on what healthcare individuals can buy if they can afford it. This cultural tenet goes a long way to explain why the US expends so much more of its GDP on healthcare than other developed countries without providing universal access.”

My translation: who wants to tell individuals that they can’t get certain kinds of health care? Of course, not everyone has these options now but Americans like the idea that people could have these options. I assume opponents of European style health care would not call these traits individualism (which often has negative connotations) but rather people interested in liberty and freedom.

This also reminds me of research from scholars like Barry Schwartz (see The Paradox of Choice) that suggests having more choice can actually have negative consequences. Faced with too many options, some people can be paralyzed and feel worse after they make a choice compared to people choosing among more limited options. I hear tons of radio commercials for hospitals and medical centers for serious and not so serious conditions – do these all really lead to better medical outcomes in the long run?

At this point, it looks like there is some time to still debate the different value systems behind different health care proposals. I wonder, however, if there will be a turning point soon where economics or other factors (Supreme Court decisions?) will force the end of such ideological debates.

Current trends in Finnish suburbs

This blog contains a number of posts about American suburbs but I am also interested in learning more about suburbs in other countries. Here are some insights into the changes taking place in Finland’s suburbs:

Urban geographer Venla Bernelius says that the same process that took place in other parts of Europe is now under way in Finland. A previous low level of immigration, combined with relatively small income disparities has delayed the phenomenon.

“The direction appears clear. Differentiation is increasing all the time.”

Experiences from other parts of Europe and North America suggest that it is very difficult to reverse a process of ethnic differentiation. Bernelius says that the time to act is now.

At present, conditions in Finnish suburbs are nowhere near those of slums or ghettoes in other countries.

However, Matti Kortteinen, professor of urban sociology at the University of Helsinki says that isolation from the population at large makes it more difficult for immigrants to adapt to Finnish society.

“The development harms people’s overall well-being”, Kortteinen says.

One reason for the trend is that immigrants often end up living in areas where there is much municipal housing. Many Finns who are long-term unemployed also live in these areas.

“The issue is not only about ethnic differentiation. The worst-off Finns and the worst-off immigrants live in isolated suburbs”, Bernelius says.

It might be helpful to compare these trends with what is taking place in American suburbs. To start, more minorities and immigrants are moving to the American suburbs (just as it sounds like Finland). More broadly, the American suburbs contain a variety of communities and suburbs, some very wealthy and some quite poor. But, the suggestion here is that immigrants and minorities become isolated in Finnish suburbs while we would tend to think the opposite in the United States. If people have “made it” in the US or have certain income levels, they tend to move to the suburbs. A more general European pattern works in reverse: the poorer segments of the population, immigrants and natives, live in suburbs away from the city and its wealth.

It will be interesting to see how Finland, and other European nations, adjust and respond to this kind of suburban population growth.

A proposal to rid European Union cities of cars by 2050

The European Commission, part of the European Union, recently proposed getting rid of “conventionally fueled cars” in all EU cities by 2050:

Top of the EU’s list to cut climate change emissions is a target of “zero” for the number of petrol and diesel-driven cars and lorries in the EU’s future cities.

Siim Kallas, the EU transport commission, insisted that Brussels directives and new taxation of fuel would be used to force people out of their cars and onto “alternative” means of transport.

“That means no more conventionally fuelled cars in our city centres,” he said. “Action will follow, legislation, real action to change behaviour.”

The Association of British Drivers rejected the proposal to ban cars as economically disastrous and as a “crazy” restriction on mobility.

“I suggest that he goes and finds himself a space in the local mental asylum,” said Hugh Bladon, a spokesman for the BDA.

“If he wants to bring everywhere to a grinding halt and to plunge us into a new dark age, he is on the right track. We have to keep things moving. The man is off his rocker.”

Mr Kallas has denied that the EU plan to cut car use by half over the next 20 years, before a total ban in 2050, will limit personal mobility or reduce Europe’s economic competitiveness.

This would be a radical change, even in countries with lower rates of car ownership and more mass transit use compared to the United States. I can only imagine the outcry if such a plan were introduced in the United States.

It is interesting to see that one British commentator brings up mobility and the economy. I would think mobility is more of a proxy for freedom, the ability for an individual citizen to hop into a car and drive wherever they want. This idea is particular prevalent in America where freedom is paramount and the suburbs are built around this idea of driving where one wants. I’m not sure about the economic issue: surely, cars and related industries (gas, maintenance, insurance, etc.) are an important part of the economy. But I am more skeptical that such a ban would lead to a “new dark age.”

Debate over food portions in Last Supper paintings

ARTnews reports on a debate concerning a study that was published earlier this year in the International Journal of Obesity. The study from Brian and Craig Wansink examined depictions of the food at the Last Supper in artwork dating back to the sixth century. Their conclusions: “the food portions became increasingly generous over time, with the main dish expanding by 69 percent, the bread portions by 23 percent, and the plates swelling in size by 66 percent.” The study hit the news wires in March; read reporting from the New York Times here.The implication in some of the news coverage was that food portions have increased over time, contributing to issues like obesity.

According to ARTnews, some art historians have taken issue with the study. Some of the issues listed in the article:

1. Is the Last Supper the best meal to examine?

2. Is the growing importance of still-life art over this time period more responsible for the growing size of plates?

3. Is there a growing amount of food because the cuisine of European cultures expanded over time?

4. Is this an appropriate methodology for measuring something like food portions?

An interesting study and an interesting debate over what it means.