McMansions as symptomatic of overconsumption in all areas

Reporting on the growing size of American houses, one writer starts off the column this way:

Americans’ waistlines aren’t the only things expanding. Their houses are, too.

This is a common tactic used by journalists and other writing about McMansions in the last fifteen years ago. This could have two purposes:

  1. Link the size of large homes – not owned by the majority of Americans – to other areas of life where Americans are likely to experience larger items.
  2. The problem may not be big houses but rather the fact that Americans like to consume all sorts of things.

I’ve seen a number of examples cited including SUVs, large TVs, air conditioning, and steak. Food comes up occasionally, whether steak or big restaurant portions or oversized sodas.

Regarding the second purpose, few of the news stories have space for tackling how to reduce overall consumption. The criticism is clear – leading the story with the quoted line implies that both things are bad – yet unexplained.

Why small rural towns turn down economic development opportunities

Not every rural small town wants to add a meat processing plant:

Regional economic development officials thought it was the perfect spot for a chicken processing plant that would liven up the 400-person town with 1,100 jobs, more than it had ever seen. When plans leaked out, though, there was no celebration, only furious opposition that culminated in residents packing the fire hall to complain the roads couldn’t handle the truck traffic, the stench from the plant would be unbearable and immigrants and out-of-towners would flood the area, overwhelming schools and changing the town’s character…

The village board unanimously voted against the proposed $300 million plant, and two weeks later, the company said they’d take their plant — and money — elsewhere.

Deep-rooted, rural agricultural communities around the U.S. are seeking economic investments to keep from shedding residents, but those very places face trade-offs that increasing numbers of those who oppose meat processing plants say threaten to burden their way of life and bring in outsiders…

Nickerson fought against Georgia-based Lincoln Premium Poultry, which wanted to process 1.6 million chickens a week for warehouse chain Costco. It was a similar story in Turlock, California, which turned down a hog-processing plant last fall, and Port Arthur, Texas, where residents last week stopped a meat processing plant. There also were complaints this month about a huge hog processing plant planned in Mason City, Iowa, but the project has moved ahead…

The question of who would work the tough jobs was at the forefront of the debate, though many were adamant they aren’t anti-immigrant. Opposition leader Randy Ruppert even announced: “This is not about race. This is not about religion.”

On one hand, not all jobs are necessarily good jobs. On the other hand, there seem to be larger issues at play: who will get these jobs? What happens when all the workers – who may not share the background of the small town – show up? It would be intriguing to explore what changes to the processing plants would lead to support from community members: guarantees of local hires? Higher wages? No minorities hired?

It would also be worth tracking where these processing plants end up. What one community turns down may be seen as an economic savior in another area. For example, scholars have noted the rise of immigrant populations in American rural areas in recent decades including places like Iowa and Georgia which don’t have the traditional immigrant gateway big cities.

Bringing food waste recycling to the suburbs

The next step in recycling may be coming to a suburb near you:

So far, food scrap collection programs have been voluntary. But starting in May 2017, it will be mandatory in Highwood, a first in Illinois. Several towns in Lake County and other suburbs have or will have some option to recycle food scraps this year.

“We’re going to be trend setters, I like to think,” said Adrian Marquez, assistant to the Highwood city manager. “We know this is going to be big test.”…

U.S. residents throw away up to 40 percent of their food, which amounted to more than 35 million tons in 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported…

With an overall recycling rate of 48 percent but a goal of diverting 60 percent of waste from landfills by 2020, Lake County has emerged as a regional leader in residential food scrap collection. That diversion rate is priming Lake County’s effort, but DuPage, Will, Cook, and Kane counties also are promoting food composting as municipal hauling contracts go to bid or are renegotiated, Allen said.

This article leaves me with a number of questions:

  1. When the program is mandatory as opposed to voluntary, what does that mean? Residents have to participate as opposed to not participate?
  2. I assume this is more effective in the long run in encouraging participation and disposing of more food waste but are there numbers to back this up? As noted, some people have composted for years; is that a viable alternative to promote in suburbs or are very few people willing to go to that trouble?
  3. Is being the first to this a marker of a particular quality of life in some suburbs? In other words, do communities want to participate partly because it signals something important about what their community values?

It will be interesting to see if this does become the new normal within a few years.

Questioning “the barbecue effect” as city residents travel more each year

One European researcher wanted to explain why city residents travel more kilometers each year than suburbanites:

Why do city dwellers so urgently need to get away? Statistics show that they cover a large number of kilometers in their free time, often travelling much longer distances than suburban residents. What are they after? And what is the energy cost? Research carried out at EPFL shows that, rather than making up for a supposed lack of green space, city dwellers also seek the density of other cities or the company of friends and family. And despite the distances they cover, their carbon footprint is lower than that of suburban residents. And for good reason: they use public transports more and cars less.

These conclusions contradict a hypothesis commonly advanced to explain the large number of kilometers covered by city dwellers: to enjoy nature and some quiet time, things not available at home. Under this same hypothesis, people who live in suburban areas are thought to take advantage of their surroundings and therefore do not need to get away in order to grill some sausages or build a snowman. This is referred to as the ‘barbecue effect’ or ‘offsetting effect.’ This explanation runs counter to the concept of the compact city that, from the transport perspective, should translate into lower per-capita energy use than in more sprawling cities.

Sébastien Munafò, a researcher in the Urban Sociology Laboratory, wanted to challenge the barbecue effect and made it the subject of his thesis. He took two cities, Geneva and Zurich, and divided them into three sectors: downtown, inner suburbs and outer suburbs. He then analyzed the daily and occasional comings and goings of residents, using figures from the “Mobility and Transport Microcensus” that is carried out every five years by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. When it comes to daily commuting, no surprises: urbanites don’t go far – nearly everything is close by – while suburban dwellers rack up the kilometers…

“The barbecue effect implies that one does not freely choose where one lives and that city dwellers find themselves prisoners of unpleasant surroundings,” said Sébastien. “But in most cases, city living is very expensive. Those who live there are thus making a choice, one that offers advantages as well.” This means people decide where to live as a function of their lifestyle: the suburbs for those who like to be close to nature, or the city for those who prefer its density and diversity. And having a little patch of green nearby doesn’t keep urbanites from travelling extensively, because in the end that is also part of their lifestyle. “One could say that there is an urbanity effect: the more we live in cities, the more regularly we move around, the more comfortable we are travelling, and the better access we have to reliable means of transportation,” concludes the researcher.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. It would be very interesting to see whether this holds up across cities and countries. For example, the researcher suggests city living is quite expensive in Switzerland (and generally elsewhere in Europe) and this means residents are wealthier. In the United States, there are definitely wealthier city residents but large cities are also the places where many of the poorest neighborhoods are located and the lack of resources severely limits travel.
  2. I would be in favor of more theories or mechanisms having clever names like “the barbecue effect.” It is probably too colloquial for many researchers but it is more accessible to the public. Plus, it invokes food and this can’t be a bad thing.

Farmers markets nearly dead in 1971; exploding in number today

A study looking at what motivates shopping at a farmers market includes figures on the number of farmers markets over time:

Farming is back, long after Jane Pyle, in true Population Bomb thinking of 1971, said farmers markets were “doomed by a changing society” in an editorial for The Geographical Review. At the time, there were about 340 farmers markets left in the United States and many were “populated by resellers, not farmers, and were on the verge of collapse,” Pyle wrote.

Yet like Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, Pyle could not have been more wrong…The number of farmers markets listed in the USDA National Farmers Markets increased from 3,706 in 2004 to 8,268 in 2014.

That is quite an increase. What is behind it?

“A growing number of communities have attempted to gain control of their own economies by encouraging civic engagement that supports investing in locally owned businesses instead of outside companies,” states the study.

But that requires wealthy elites. Local food markets (i.e., farmers markets, food co-ops, etc.) are far more likely to be located in cities and counties with higher income levels.

Here is my interpretation of the findings: as farming has become an industry with large corporations and selling food products has become dominated by big box stores (Walmart now has about 25% market share among grocery stores), the farmers market gives those with the resources an opportunity to retain control of where their money goes. Americans tend to like local control and this gives grocery buyers the ability to see more directly where their money goes (directly to producers, closer to where the purchasers actually like).

Wealthier communities are also likely to see farmers markets as desirable economic contributors. The markets don’t require that much space – they can even put underutilized parking lots to use – and don’t create trouble in terms of pollution or noise. The markets can attract higher-income residents who will then associate the nicer shopping option with a higher quality community as well as possibly spend more money elsewhere in the community. As an illustration of this, look where the 150+ farmers markets in the Chicago region are located.

Americans spend more at restaurants than at grocery stores; use restaurants in new ways

Spending data from the Census shows that for the first time Americans spent more at restaurants than on buying food at grocery stores:

More than two decades ago, Americans spent $162 in groceries for every $100 they spent in restaurants. But this past January, they spent nearly equal amounts of money in both places: $50.475 billion in restaurants and bars, and $50.466 billion in grocery stores.

There are several social changes behind this:

Perry attributes the numbers to dropping gas prices, which have left many people with more disposable income. But it’s unlikely that a single factor is to thank for the trend. “I think it’s a combination of a recovering economy and changing eating habits,” he said, extrapolating that “the millennial generation [may be] more likely to eat out than cook at home.” Perry also noted that dining in restaurants simply isn’t the once-in-a-blue-moon event it used to be…

Martha Hoover, the founder of sprawling Indianapolis restaurant empire Patachou, goes one step further: Restaurants have earned a role in society that is equal to “work” or “home.”…

“We’ve seen a huge shift in San Francisco,” she told Yahoo Food. “I’ve seen people who treat restaurants like they do in New York City: as their kitchens.” Weinberg attributes the change to people working longer hours, leaving them with little time to prepare their own meals. Grocery shopping, too, can be a pricey proposition if one develops a predilection for organic and local fare.

In other words, home and family life has changed alongside different economic options. We might also see restaurants more as “third places” between work and home where people can socialize and pay for their meals in a comfortable in between space.

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…

 

asdf