Paper suggesting Americans adopt sufficiency limits for the size of homes

A new study looks at what amount of space might be sufficient for American single-family homes:

Social scientists have extensively documented the strategies used over the past century to purposefully upsize the preferences of consumers in high-income countries (Collins 2000; Nickles 2002; Cohen 2003; Horowitz 2004; Clarke 2007; Jacobs 2015). These practices became increasingly prevalent during the years following World War II and have been revamped and augmented to encompass an ever-expanding array of products. The most notable example of this phenomenon – abetted by builders, architects, realtors, mortgage bankers, public-policy makers, and numerous others is housing which in particular has in the United States, Canada, and Australia approximately tripled in size in just a half-century. This process of residential upsizing is understandable as individuals and organizations were for the most part responding to prevalent social and economic incentives and investing a portion of the gains accruing from increasing productivity and rising incomes into more spacious accommodation. While the trend contributed to unambiguous improvements in standards of living, evidence is now emerging that the process of residential upsizing is not contributing to gains in “house satisfaction” (Bellet 2019).

However, the contemporary era, characterized by climate change, economic inequality, and deep social divisions, requires new priorities. Rather than looking to enlargement as a panacea for all manner of problems, the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development require high-income countries to pursue a sustainable consumption transition. The downscaling of home size, because of the substantial volumes of resources required to meet residential needs, will be a critical part of this undertaking. While the methodology to formulate a minimum social floor and a maximum biophysical ceiling is necessarily provisional, it provides a place from which to begin to consider this important issue.

And from a summary of the article:

In the U.S., average floor space per person would need to be reduced from 754 square feet to 215 square feet, which perhaps surprisingly, is roughly comparable to the amount of space available during the baby boom of the 1950s.

While Cohen acknowledges the myriad political, commercial and cultural challenges of imparting such a sufficiency ceiling on current housing practices, he highlights five examples that he asserts point to shifting sensibilities: the tiny-house movement in the United States; the niche market for substantially smaller houses and apartments in the Nordic countries; the construction of accessory dwelling units in west coast cities of North America; the growing popularity of micro-apartments in New York City and San Francisco; and the emergence of co-living/co-working facilities in Europe.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. There are a lot of factors pushing Americans toward bigger houses in recent decades. Pushing against these factors would require a lot of time and energy. For example, reducing consumption might help people think about smaller spaces.
  2. Given the local nature of building and real estate, I have a hard time imagining this happening top-down. On the other hand, I could imagine some locales adopting such guidelines and then it spreading to similar locations or even the whole country. At the least, it could be popular in expensive real estate markets – think Bay Area or Seattle – though it would be interesting to see how wealthier homeowners deal with such guidelines. Perhaps if it was instituted for a housing units going forward, there would still be a supply of big homes for those that want them.
  3. Related to #2, I would guess more Americans would be motivated to pursue smaller homes because of cost and lifestyle preferences, not because of environmentalism and realizing that single-family homes make significant contributions to carbon emissions and require a lot of resources.
  4. How much of this is dependent on building a better public realm? People might be more willing to give up private space if they saw attractive alternatives like coffee shops, libraries, and other public settings where they could live their lives. Americans do not have developed public living spaces or many do not have regular patterns of spending important hours away from their private homes.

Addressing “green gentrification”

As American cities develop land in ways to combat climate change, researchers have examined who benefits from the new development:

Fighting climate disasters is a good idea for the planet, but can have unintended consequences for neighborhoods. “In order to construct a green, resilient park or shoreline, we get rid of lower-income housing … and behind it or next to it, you’ll have higher-income housing being built,” says Isabelle Anguelovski, an urban geographer at the Autonomous University of Barcelona who co-wrote an article about green gentrification in December’s PNAS. It can get even worse, she says. Hardening one neighborhood so that water can’t flow inland there means the water goes somewhere else. “The flooding and storm events go into the basements of the public housing next door,” she says.

That’s double jeopardy. And it turns into triple jeopardy, thanks to economics. New amenities plus new luxury housing drive up local housing prices, which drive out working-class and poorer residents. “The question is not only what Boston is facing, which is middle-class gentrifiers with a slightly higher income and education. It’s über-rich people who end up taking over cities until they are unable to fulfill their direct functions,” Anguelovski says. The gentrification wave is its own kind of economic apocalypse. If it hits, none of the people who make a city work—teachers, police officers, health care workers, bus drivers—can afford to live there. “Or it becomes so important from an economic standpoint, so desirable and hardened with infrastructure that entire buildings are empty—purchased by real estate funds or individuals from the Middle East or Russia,” Anguelovski says.

The problem that cities face is the difference between physics and real estate. Climate change happens on the scale of decades or centuries; real estate development and politics happen on fiscal and electoral timescales. “I get it. Green space is great, and while it may not be much of an improvement in terms of climate adaptation, it’s good for people’s well-being and quality of life,” says Ken Gould, an environmental sociologist at Brooklyn College and coauthor of Green Gentrification: Urban Sustainability and the Struggle for Environmental Justice. “Does it sequester much carbon? Not really. It’s fine. But you have to manage the real estate markets, because markets left to themselves, when you put in an amenity, are going to generate development.”…

Obviously, cities are facing more and more climate-related hazards. It’d be policy malpractice to not get ready for them. “It’s not too difficult for a city to make green infrastructure investments in neighborhoods that have been historically underinvested in, but the housing side needs to kick in,” says Constantine Samaras, an energy and climate researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. “The people who live in these underinvested neighborhoods deserve a neighborhood with bike lanes and green space. It’s up to city policy to make sure they can stay.” The trick is to build new housing while not uprooting people who live in the old stock—so that everyone benefits from the protection against disaster, not just a wealthy, lucky few.

This sounds like a twenty-first century version of urban renewal programs in American cities. In the name of the good of the whole community – now to protect neighborhoods and cities against environmental risks – lower-income housing is removed and the land eventually ends up in the hands of wealthier residents and property owners.

The sociological literature on urban development would suggest this is not surprising. Through a variety of means, leaders and wealthier people find ways to procure desirable land and profit from them. Redevelopment, whether undertaken to improve properties or make places greener, tends to benefit those who move into the neighborhood, not the ones who have been there a long time.

As is noted in the portion above, what is good for real estate and property values may not be good for the community even though the changes themselves – such as putting up barriers to water or creating more green space – would be welcome. At least now, the American system tends to privilege the real estate side, not the community improvement and well-being side. What could be done to limit the real estate market for the good of the city? Which city leaders will lead the way in arguing that green improvements should not be tied to market forces?

Turning a 55 year old suburban split-level into a LEED platinum home

A couple in Arlington Heights is committed to a green home for the upcoming decades of its lifespan:

Amy Myers and Mike Baker could have torn down their 1964 split-level home in Arlington Heights and replaced it with a McMansion…

It will be the first LEED Platinum home renovation in Arlington Heights. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is governed by the U.S. Green Building Council and serves as the most widely used green building rating system in the world.

The house has been designed with such features as net zero energy consumption, smart stormwater management and integrated rainwater storage. Plans include wrapping it in a tight thermal envelope and utilizing materials like airtight drywall to maximize the home’s energy efficiency…

“We’re really trying to do everything we can to make his a model of how you can recycle a 1960s home into something for the future,” Kollman said.

A Google Street View image of the home in question:

ArlingtonHeightsHome

This is a serious commitment to a fairly nondescript suburban single-family home. I would guess few suburbanites would make such an investment. At the same time, this does hint at possibilities for the many postwar suburban homes. Rather than being torn down for better homes, there might be relatively cost-effective ways to such homes operating as improved dwellings. (And this could apply to ranch homes as well as McMansions which are maligned early in this story.)

Does the green retrofitting of such homes help wipe out the more destructive aspects of suburban sprawl? Even if this house achieves LEED Platinum status, it is in a setting revolving around the car. The owners might have an electric or hybrid car – but driving is still required and making those vehicles is not all good for the environment. Would the reduced heating and energy costs be more efficient than living in a multifamily building? Do landscaping changes offset the changes subdivisions made to the landscape there beforehand?

I would be interested to see the possibilities of more LEED suburban homes, particularly if the costs are reasonable enough for homeowners to consider this as opposed to moving or tearing down the home. In the end, this would require more homeowners to think about keeping a home for a much longer scale and investing money in a way that might not lead to a huge return in their property values.

Reasons for replacing “Freeways Without Future”

A new report from the Congress of New Urbanism titled “Freeways Without Futures” looks at the ten urban highways and interchanges that need to go. Why might cities pursue these projects? Here are some common themes in such plans:

1. Reconnect neighborhoods and communities that highways split. When constructed, highways with their width and imposing traffic split social collectives. Or, highways can impede development by providing a barrier. Removing the highway allows for more pedestrian traffic as well as more meaningful connection between residents and businesses on both sides of the highway. New development can span the former highway or help bridge the divide.

2. Create more green space. Highways are the result of auto-oriented urbanism that trampled over and through communities. Removing the highways allows for more parks and trees, among other natural features. Plus, it reduces noise and emissions from the highway (though these might be simply moved to another kind of thoroughfare).

3. Remove eyesores. Highways can create visual blight on the urban landscape. Highways block sight lines and present an imposing concrete structure. Without their presence, particularly elevated highways, people are free to see more of the city.

4. Removing the highway could be part of a larger project of reducing dependence on cars and vehicles and a shift toward mass transit and pedestrians. Removing the above-ground highway is one step but that same highway could simply be routed elsewhere or underground without affecting transportation choices.

Limiting cooling and heating emissions from the largest city buildings

New York City has plans to limit emissions from its skyscrapers:

Point is, 70 percent of NYC emissions come from heating and cooling a million buildings—and a third of that carbon comes from just 50,000 buildings of 25,000 square feet or more. Blame the skyscrapers. Trump Tower is apparently a representative of the 2 percent of very, very bad emitters, for what it’s worth. So one of the new bills tells the owners of those big buildings they have to cut their emissions by 40 percent in 2030, and 80 percent by 2050. That’s a lot. “We have to pay attention. The water is speaking to us. In the last century New York Harbor is up one foot,” says John Mandyck, CEO of the Urban Green Council, which helped design the bill. “There’s no question that this bill sets tough, tough carbon limits. It’s not going to be easy. That’s a reflection of the fact that climate change is a tough issue.”

As to how those buildings get there, their owners have a few paths. They can buy green power, which is really more hopeful than realistic at this point; 70 percent of New York City’s power comes from carbon-emitting fossil fuels. But ideally this option will incentivize a market for wind turbines and hydro power, and in fact another bill in the omnibus aims to pave the way for green rooftops with solar panels. Also the building can work with the city to figure out what kinds of improvements would get emissions down—new boilers, better insulation, new windows, all kinds of new investments that would, not coincidentally, translate to thousands of construction and building-trade jobs in the city. Ey, these boilers ain’t gonna install themselves, knowwutImean?

And in an approach out of Kim Stanley Robinson’s post-climate-flood novel New York 2140 (or maybe the Crimson Permanent Assurance) individual buildings would be able to trade carbon credits. “That’s a real breakthrough policy tool. It’s never been done at this scale at a city level,” Mandyck says. “It’s a flexible tool especially for building owners that own portfolios.” So those folks could trade credits among their own buildings, or form alliances and breakaway archipelagos of skyscraping carbon trade routes.

I would guess that few residents would think about buildings as large sources of carbon. This could be for a variety of reasons: building occupants may rarely notice when the heating or cooling is on (though they may be aware of the temperature); carbon reduction efforts have targeted other sources, such as vehicles; and the percent of carbon emissions in New York in buildings may reflect both the number of large buildings and a region unusually dependent on mass transit.

All that said, it will be interesting to watch how these efforts to alter buildings go. The article says little about how building owners have responded. For many, New York will still be a desirable enough market that leaving over these changes i unlikely. Would it make any property owner or potential owner refocus their attention elsewhere? And buying green power or buying and trading credits could prove popular compared to actually making significant changes to buildings which could be costly and require a lot of time and effort. Finally, could alterations remake or restyle some large buildings and introduce a different aesthetic to one of the most important skylines in the world? Images of future cities tend to show more curvy skyscrapers covered in greenery instead of the glass and steel that dominate New York and other American cities. I’m sure there would be ways to make changes that would not just reduce emissions but also push a new look.

The demise of gas-powered leaf blowers

One tool in the arsenal of those who care about lawns (i.e. many Americans) may be on the way out due to pollution and noise. See this brief overview of how Washington, D.C. will soon be free of gas-powered leaf blowers:

Back in the fall of 2015, in the first installment in this series, I mentioned that a group of community activists in our hometown of Washington, D.C., had begun an effort to get noisy, hyper-polluting, gas-powered leaf blowers banned in the capital, as has already happened in more than 100 cities across the country.

The reasons for the ban are: the obsolescence of the technology, which is orders of magnitude more polluting than other machines and engines now in common use; the public-health danger, above all to hired work crews, of both the emissions and the damagingly loud noise from the gas blowers; and the rapid advent of battery-powered alternatives, which are quieter and dramatically less polluting.

The purpose of this post is to record how the story turned out:

  • From 2015 to early 2018, more than one-third of all the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in the District, elected bodies covering seven of the eight wards in the District, voted to endorse this mandatory shift.
  • In July 2018, the council had hearings on a phaseout measure, sponsored by the council member Mary Cheh.
  • Late in the year, the 13-member council passed Mary Cheh’s bill, unanimously.
  • D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser then signed the bill, and it will take effect as of January 1, 2022.

The pollution aspects of these tools is little-known. The gas powered devices that are used around the yard and home can generate significant amounts of pollution. As Fallows points out in his longer piece on this topic in the April 2019 print edition of The Atlantic, significant advancements have been made in reducing pollution in other devices but two-stroke engines pollute a lot.

The noise dimension is also worth paying more attention to. Suburban communities, home to many leaf blowers, can be noisy places during the summer months. Those who actually use the leaf blowers can have more direct negative consequences.

While the solution to these problems seems to be battery operated or electric tools, I wonder if homeowners and business owners could advance to a point where grass clippings on sidewalks and driveways or leaves do not always need to be removed. Is it a huge problem that there is some grass left over on the sidewalk? Could leaves be left to naturally break down? This would require a significant shift in thinking about lawns as pristine showpieces and “nature.”

Limiting suburban redtape to installing solar panels

A program is helping a number of Chicago area communities make it easier for residents to add solar panels:

If you want to install solar panels for your house or business, you’re likely to find a faster and more user-friendly permitting process if your community has earned a SolSmart designation.

Illinois has 18 SolSmart communities, including Aurora, Hanover Park, South Barrington, and Cook and Kane counties. Another 22 — including Elgin, Lake in the Hills, Naperville and DuPage County — started the designation procedure last month.

The designation means towns and counties have streamlined processes and reviewed ordinances to clearly spell out requirements, and staff members have been trained to properly examine installation plans and inspect the finished work…

There are 223 SolSmart communities across the country. The program launched in April 2016 with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to the International City/County Management Association and The Solar Foundation, which provides technical assistance.

Residents of the American suburbs like their local government and local control yet this is an example where local bodies can get in the way: does every suburb have to go through separate processes to address solar panels? It sounds like the SolMart program helps provide resources and guidance so that suburbs do not have to do all the work on their own.

Thinking more broadly, what other suburban initiatives could be addressed at a similar level? I’m guessing a national campaign to have more permeable driveways might not work as well or one that installs containers to catch rainwater from gutters. I wonder if the solar panels issue works in part because the demand for them is still relatively small in the Chicago suburbs. Or, perhaps it is because it deals with roofs – a part of buildings that is not as visible – so concern is minimized.