The suburban lawn and patio as protection against COVID-19

If people gather for Thanksgiving, experts are advising they meet and eat outside. Here is one example:

How much safer is an outdoor meal than an indoor meal?

Much, much safer. Almost all transmission of this virus happens indoors.

Even if people are close together?

Eating outdoors doesn’t mean you’re invincible. Still try to stay six feet apart. If you huddle together around a cramped table and have close, face-to-face conversations with the people next to you, you could absolutely infect them.

This is time for the patio or lawn, found in millions of single-family homes and in many suburbs, to shine. The lawn does not just have to be a status symbol; it can confer health benefits by allowing people to spread out.

This is not the first time that the suburban lawn was said to boost health. In the gathering urbanization of the nineteenth century, suburban lawns provided space away from polluted and noisy cities. Listening to the radio the other day, I again heard mentioned how River Forest, Illinois was intentionally built with features meant to highlight nature.

Before COVID-19, the suburban lawn was also said to aid good health. It helps people get outside to work and move around (canceled out by the use of gas-powered equipment?). It encourages kids to play in a safe space. Depending on the season and/or weather, the patio and yard can act as an outdoor extension of private living space.

Now, the lawn and patio can be a private spot away from COVID-19. Outsiders are not welcome. The fresh air, breeze, and distance can limit transmission. Nature, or “nature” in many suburban settings, can serve as an oasis. All that lawn and patio maintenance can be put to use. And, hopefully, people can stay COVID free.

It’s the time of year of suburban pressure to clear leaves

Cleaning up the leaves in a suburban lawn is rarely enforced or legislated. It is just an expected task for the suburban homeowner: thou shall not have many (or any) leaves in your lawn by the end of the fall season. Why is this the case? Here are a few possible reasons:

  1. A well-kept lawn, from green grass neatly kept to an absence of weeds to being cleared of leaves, is a marker of social class. It is part of keeping up the neighborhood and supporting property values. Lack of attention paid to the lawn signals less-invested homeowners, less valuable properties.
  2. Clearing leaves is an unquestioned social norm that simply continues on because people did it before. That leaves could be beneficial for lawns and garden beds may not matter; the inertia is already there for clearing leaves and it could take time for new patterns to emerge.
  3. There are commercial and industrial forces invested in making sure lawns are seeded, treated, and cleared. There are rakes and leaf blowers to sell. It is big business helping Americans remove leaves.
  4. Suburbanites pass along this social norm to each other through conversation and exhibited behavior. Neighbors share words while outside about their lawns. One suburbanite rakes their leaves because they see their neighbors doing it.

Perhaps this practice will pass into history at some point. But, as long as we have a suburban emphasis on single-family homes and their lawns, there will be more years of raking, bagging, mulching, and clearing leaves.

Home all day, hear the noise of daily work around your residence

With more people at home during the day, they can hear more of what goes on during a typical day. And they may not like it:

Cities, towns and villages in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere in the country have created bans or sought voluntary cuts in the use of leaf blowers in suburban neighborhoods. Town leaders noted that with everyone sheltering in home, the constant din was an added nuisance…

The municipal actions are a departure in the ongoing saga of leaf blowers, one marked, in many towns, by equal parts irritation and inaction. Everyone hates hearing them down the block, but no one complains about the swift and eye-pleasing work they accomplish on their own lawns. And so a silent majority has carried on, under the whine of the motor.

Some residents have apparently questioned whether the machines could be spreading the coronavirus. The village of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. raised the same worry on Twitter this week…

In Westfield, N.J., Mayor Shelley Brindle, in a statement, asked homeowners and landscapers to keep the blowers locked away until at least noon ever day.

This comes amid broader discussions about banning gas leaf blowers and other gas-powered outdoor equipment. Compared to electric or battery-powered equipment, they produce more noise and exhaust. This could be an interesting time to nudge people toward different equipment – in the name of noise, environmental concerns – though asking them to do so in the midst of a crisis will make it more difficult.

I wonder how much the perception of the noise problem is also due to the time of year. I wrote two years ago about common summer noises that can interrupt tranquility: air conditioners, lawnmowers, construction, etc. Once the weather starts warming up, more people are outside and more people are doing work outside. The person in one house who wants to sit on their deck and enjoy some peace and quiet competes with the person next door who enjoys keeping their yard neat and green. And both of them may dislike the municipal road project that reconstructs the next street over and produces noise for weeks. If the COVID-19 induced lockdown started in November, would people have the same noises to complain about?

At the same time, dealing with noise is tricky among neighbors and within a community. People generally know that certain locations are noisier than others and adjust accordingly. Some people even live right under runway paths. Businesses also have a stake in this; as is noted at the end of the article cited above, not using certain yard equipment is possible but raking and pruning by hand will take more time and cost more money. Keeping everyone happy regarding noise is likely to be difficult.

McMansions intrude on supersized ski resort

A look at a busy ski resort in Vermont references the supersized houses along the slopes:

Stratton’s 11 lifts move 33,928 skiers upward per hour, up from 21,078 in 1995—far more efficient than the child-eating, circa-’70s rope tow at Snow Valley. Quicker than expected, I was aloft, cozily wedged into the six-person chair, thrust into exhilaration. Evoking the rare weeks my family had skied in the Rocky Mountains, it all seemed blissfully familiar until our chair zipped past McMansions scattered up the hill—jarring, very 2020, real estate intrusions.

Add ski resort to the collection of consumer goods and experiences that have become supersized. While I do not think linking McMansions and skiing will have the same resonance or reach as McMansions and SUVs, the general idea is the same: Americans want to consume and bigger is better.

At the same time, does the view of a McMansion disturb a ski lift ride or a trip down a hill? In general, skiing aims to put people back into nature. The soundscape should be peaceful. The slopes can be challenging but enjoyable. The atmosphere should be relaxed. The focus of the article is on the larger crowds – but this also hints at the increased level of development. If skiing is so popular, what developer would pass up the opportunity to plant McMansions nearby?

A famous author mowing the lawn, giving purpose to caring for the suburban yard

As I raked most of the remaining leaves this weekend, I pondered again the task of taking care of the lawn. Should I continue to help uphold the class status of the neighborhood or let the leaves break down naturally and nourish the grass?

But, if a famous author also took the time to care for his lawn, perhaps so could I. From a recent Facebook post:

ChurchillTolkienMowingthelawn

Caring for a lawn (or garden or field or yard) may just be part of the human tendency to want to cultivate the land around us. Maybe the motivation matters here: if I am more interested in raking because of the property values, this is worse than wanting to get some fresh air and participate in the changing of seasons. Maybe the quotidian tasks give the brain and body a chance to to relax and recharge. Maybe the truly inspired parts of life often follow everyday tasks. Maybe only people who keep fairly regular journals can figure this stuff out (and notice how much Tolkien did not comment on).

All that said, I would guess the average American suburban homeowner would feel better about mowing the lawn or raking leaves or caring for their landscaping if they could connect it to a purpose larger than just wanting the lawn to keep up appearances.

Adaptations in nature to urban life

More research shows animals can and do adapt to urban environments:

Whitehead’s work on killifish is one of the signature triumphs of urban evolution, an emergent discipline devoted to figuring out why certain animals, plants, and microbes survive or even flourish no matter how much we transform their habitats. Humans rarely give much thought to the creatures that flit or crawl or skitter about our apartment blocks and strip malls, in part because we tend to dismiss them as either ordinary or less than fully wild. But we should instead marvel at how these organisms have managed to keep pace with our relentless drive to build and cluster in cities. Rather than wilt away as Homo sapiens have spread forth bearing concrete, bitumen, and steel, a select number of species have developed elegant adaptations to cope with the peculiarities of urban life: more rigid cellular membranes that may ward off heat, digestive systems that can absorb sugary garbage, altered limbs and torsos that enhance agility atop asphalt or in runoff-fattened streams.

Whitehead and his colleagues, many of whom are at the dawn of their careers, are now beginning to pinpoint the subtle genetic changes that underlie these novel traits. Their sleuthing promises to solve a conundrum that has vexed biologists for 160 years, and in the process reveal how we might be able to manipulate evolution to make the world’s cities—projected to be home to two-thirds of humanity by 2050—resilient enough to endure the catastrophes that are coming their way…

Like so many of their scientific peers, urban evolution researchers are grappling with the question of how their work can help us make this new environmental reality a bit less grim. On the surface, at least, their inquiries can seem largely aimed at addressing theoretical matters—notably the issue of whether the evolution of complex organisms is a replicable phenomenon, like any ordinary chemical reaction. Cities provide an accidental global network of ad hoc laboratories to test this question: Office towers the world over are fabricated from the same glass panels and steel beams, night skies are illuminated by the same artificial lights, auditory landscapes thrum with the noise of the same cars, food waste comes from the same KFCs and Subways.

This urban sameness is allowing researchers to determine whether isolated populations of the same species develop similar adaptations when placed in parallel environments. “What cities offer us is this amazingly large-scale, worldwide experiment in evolution, where you’ve got thousands of life-forms that are experiencing the same factors,” says Marc Johnson, who heads an evolutionary ecology lab at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Perhaps sociologist Robert Park was more correct than he knew by suggesting the city was a laboratory. Furthermore, Park and other sociologists like Herbert Spencer borrowed concepts from biology and applied them to social processes and communities.

This research could also help address two other issues (in addition to climate change as discussed in the article):

  1. What really is “nature” in cities? Adding parks and trees is not really grappling with what nature is nor with how cities and their residents see nature around them. And what is the ideal end goal of people-nature interaction in big cities?
  2. Urbanization is not just about harm to the environment but it is also about long-term changes. Humans have been interacting with and affecting nature for a long time but the specific process of urbanization in roughly the last 150 years has been different.

“Trophy ranches” may disappear with Baby Boomers

One segment of the luxury property market does not appeal to younger buyers or those who do not understand the appeal of a “trophy ranch”:

Decades ago, a generation of America’s wealthiest, raised on television shows like “Howdy Doody” and “The Lone Ranger,” headed west with dreams of owning some of the country’s most prestigious ranches. Now, as those John Wayne- loving baby boomers age out of the lifestyle or die, they or their children are looking to sell those trophy properties…

Jeff Buerger, a local ranch broker with Hall & Hall in Colorado, said there are more large trophy ranches on the market right now than he can recall in his nearly three decades in the business. There are about 20 ranches priced at over $20 million on the market in the state, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of listings…

Unlike other sectors of the U.S. high-end real-estate market, ranches can’t fall back on international purchasers. Broker Tim Murphy said there is virtually no demand for ranches from international buyers, many of whom “don’t get it.”…

“The last wave of buyers was the baby boomers who fell in love with John Wayne and wanted that experience for themselves,” Mr. Buerger said. “Today, it’s more about conservation. You’re starting to hear more landowners talking about wildlife habitat enhancement and ecological work.” Other targeted groups include wealthy families from the East Coast or Silicon Valley.

I would guess this is not just about baby boomers: it is about broader conceptions of what is the ideal property if someone came into significant money. The implication in the story above is that media, particularly John Wayne films, created a desire for these locations. Presumably, other media depictions would fuel desires for other properties. Depending on the tastes and background of buyers, this could range from:

1. Pricey downtown condos or penthouses in the middle of urban action (whether in well-established wealthy neighborhoods or in up-and-coming places).

2. Suburban McMansions that offer a lot of space and unique architecture.

3. Traditional mansions with sprawling homes whose size and design imply old money (in contrast to the flashy yet flawed McMansions).

4. Impressive vacation homes right on desirable beaches.

Perhaps the trick of any of these is to try to ensure that there are future buyers for your property. If demand drops, your hot high-status property may not hold up as a desirable location for the long-term.

Implicating suburban sprawl in the spread of ticks and pathogens

As new tick-borne illnesses spread, sprawl is part of the problem:

But as climate change, suburban sprawl, and increased international travel are putting more ticks and the pathogens they carry in the paths of humans, what’s becoming more urgently apparent is how the US’s tick monitoring systems are not keeping pace.

“It’s really a patchwork in terms of the effort that different areas are putting into surveillance,” says Becky Eisen, a tick biologist with CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne diseases. The federal public health agency maintains national maps of the ranges of different tick species, but they’re extrapolated from scattered data collected in large part by academic researchers. Only a few states, mostly in the Northeast, have dedicated tick surveillance and control programs. That leaves large parts of the country in a data blackout.

To help address that problem the CDC is funding an effort to identify the most urgent gaps in surveillance. It has also begun publishing guidance documents for public health departments on how to collect ticks and test them for diseases, to encourage more consistent data collection across different states and counties.

In an ideal world, says Eisen, every county in the US would send a few well-protected people out into fields and forests every spring and summer, setting traps or dragging a white flannel sheet between them to collect all the ticks making their homes in the grasses and underbrush. Their precise numbers, locations, and species would be recorded so that later on when they get ground up and tested, that DNA would paint a national picture of risk for exposure to every tick-borne pathogen in America. But she recognizes that would be incredibly labor-intensive, and with only so many public funding dollars to go around each year, there are always competing priorities.“But from a research perspective, that’s the kind of repeatable, consistent data we’d really want,” says Eisen. “That would be the dream.”

While there is little direct discussion of sprawl, I wonder if there are two problems at play.

First, sprawl puts more people in interaction with more natural settings. As metropolitan areas expand, more residents end up in higher densities in areas that previously had experienced limited human residence. More people at the wildland urban interface could potentially lead to more problems in both directions: humans can pick up diseases while nature can be negatively impacted by more people.

Second, increasing sprawl means more data needs to be collected as more people are at possible threat. Metropolitan areas (metropolitan statistical areas according to the Census Bureau) typically expand county by county as outer counties increase in population and have more ties to the rest of the region. Since many metropolitan regions expand in circles, adding more counties at the edges could significantly increase the number of counties that need monitoring. And as the article ends with, finding money to do all that data collection and analysis is difficult.

Making a horror film about illnesses carried by ticks would take some work to make interesting but these sorts of hidden and minimally problematic in terms of number of suburbanites at this point issues could cause a lot of anxiety.

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.”

“In the suburbs, trees take on a outsize role”

With local plans to remove the trees along her suburban street in New Jersey, one writer considers their role in suburban communities:

Despite these losses, I had not expected to lose so many at once. And yet, West Orange is grappling with a problem faced by communities around the country. Street trees planted decades — and in some cases, a century — ago were not ideal species for a paved environment and are now large, mature and in need of maintenance. With little soil available beneath the sidewalk, roots interfere with drainage systems, and buckle concrete. Utility companies aggressively prune tree limbs away from power lines, leaving awkward, and potentially unstable, V-shaped trees…

And so, the iconic Norman Rockwell-style streetscape is fading away. As West Orange replaces sidewalks and curbs, it often removes old town-owned trees and plants new species that are more compatible for the location, if homeowners request them. “Over the next 20 or 30 years, there won’t be any tall trees where there are overhead wires,” Mr. Linson said.

Conservationists espouse maintenance methods that could protect more trees, like permeable sidewalks and more careful pruning. While these efforts are often costly for cash-strapped towns, they could preserve a resource that cleans particulate matter from the air, absorbs runoff and reduces the heat index. “The benefits to society far outweigh the costs” of higher maintenance, said Robert McDonald, the lead scientist for the Global Cities program at the Nature Conservancy…

But for all the hope for the future a sapling may represent, I wonder if I will be here long enough to see these new young ones fill out and replenish my block. Instead, I may only get to experience them as sparse reminders of the giants that have been lost.

I’m reminded of a short section of James Howard Kunstler’s TED talk about suburbs where he talks about the role of trees along streets: to provide shade, to frame the street, and to protect pedestrians from vehicles on the road. When the trees must be removed or they are not there in the first place, it is noticeable.

Our suburban street has a nice collection of sidewalk trees that do just the things Kunstler suggests they can, including curving nicely over the curving road. Yet, right before we bought the property, our big tree in the front had been removed – I can see it an older Google Street View image – and several months after moving in the city put in a new sapling. This left the front of our home exposed to the summer sun. While we are fortunate to still have several big trees in the front and back, it will be nice to have that one tree back in 10-20 years.

As the writer suggests about the outsize role of suburban trees, I am still surprised to see so many new subdivisions that still show little regard for keeping trees. A new home may be great but an empty yard is so much less enjoyable than one with even just a few interesting and/or stately trees.