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.

Sprawl disturbs cicada cycles

Clearing land for suburban development disrupts cicada cycles:

“They have a tight connection with the tree,” says Dan Babbitt, the manager of the insect zoo at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Cicadas spend their underground years feeding off the roots of trees. Then when they’re ready to come up, they crawl back out along the tree trunk to the branches where they lay their eggs, all in the hopes that the next generation of cicadas will fall back into the soil, burrow down to the roots, and feed there for another 17 years.

This is why leafy residential neighborhoods often have some of the best cicada sightings (and sounds). It’s also why the absolute worst thing we could do to the creatures is clear-cut whole stretches of once-rural land for new development while they’re down there. Get rid of the trees, and you get rid of the cicadas. And re-planting those sad saplings common along many freshly paved roads in the exurbs won’t help…

“When they go out and build these things around Champaign-Urbana, they cut the trees down, they bring in the bulldozers, they pull up the top soil, and they stick the houses down,” Cooley says. “None of the cicadas in the ground there would have survived that. None of anything in the ground would have survived that.”

Some periodical cicadas do well in older, tree-lined suburbs, Cooley says, those places where houses were built slowly over time, “where they didn’t take the big trees.” Across history, it’s hard to tell if the shape and geography of broods has altered significantly around the footprint of expanding cities. Early records on when and where they appeared – and which broods were which – aren’t all that reliable. Some “straggler” cicadas also appear off the cycle of the rest of a brood, further confusing history’s witnesses.

Just another way that suburban development disrupts natural habitats. But, I’m still left with two pressing questions:

1. Would the average suburbanite see this as a problem? For those who live in the areas with more cicadas, are they viewed as a big nuisance even if they are only around every 17 years?

2. There is no indication in this article about how destructive this is. How bad is it if suburban development wipes out cicadas? What are the side effects? This is related to Question 1: perhaps suburbanites would be friendly toward cicadas if they knew they were making their lives and the habitat better.