The role of suburbs in “a nearly natureless world”

An MIT professor describes our current world as “nearly natureless”:

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Many of us invest hours each day staring at the screens of our televisions and computers and smartphones. Seldom do we go outside on a clear night, away from the lights of the city, and gaze at the dark starry sky, or take walks in the woods unaccompanied by our digital devices. Most of the minutes and hours of each day we spend in temperature-controlled structures of wood, concrete, and steel. With all of its success, our technology has greatly diminished our direct experience with nature. We live mediated lives. We have created a natureless world.

Much is made here of how recent technology like smartphones, computers, and television has cut our connection to nature. But, I wonder about the role of urbanization and, more specifically, the suburbs that supposedly connect people to nature even as they enjoy the conveniences of the modern world.

From the beginning of suburbs in the United States, part of their definition and appeal was a closer connection to nature. As cities rapidly urbanized and this coincided with a host of changes (industrialization, immigration, much higher densities, new social relationships), the suburbs offered a private home in nature (a “cottage in the woods”). Suburban homes became associated with trees, lawns, and open space.

Of course, the kind of nature found in suburbia was a particular kind. As suburbs expanded, the natural elements disappeared or became more planned. Humans leveled land, constructed roads and buildings, and whizzed by the landscape at speeds relatively unknown in nature. The nature of suburbia was suited to and used for human purposes.

Granted, humans have interacted with and shaped nature for a long time. Yet, the suburbs are relatively new in human history. Even as they promised a connection to nature, they offered a truncated version of nature with relatively little regard for the organisms and ecosystems already present. Might the suburbanites of today be closer to nature if they did not have a smartphone in one hand and a 60-inch TV in front of them? Maybe – but the natureless world of suburbia has been here for a while already.

Who should be able to live on or near the coast?

A new federal government flood insurance plan highlights an ongoing question: should living near the ocean coast be available to many?

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At the center of the fight are the questions of who gets to live by the water, and who should shoulder the burden of costs that rise with the sea level. The estimated 13 million people who reside in the officially designated floodplain are divided between those who can buy pricey waterfront homes and those consigned to live in less desirable, low-lying areas because that’s all they can afford. Some of the people hardest-hit by major recent storms have been vulnerable communities in New Orleans; Port Arthur, Texas, outside Houston; and poor neighborhoods in the farthest reaches of New York City. The updated flood-insurance system is designed to help those populations, but in coastal communities across the country, uncertainty about the new prices is spreading fear that however well intentioned, the administration’s policy will exacerbate the inequality of beachfront living, pushing out homeowners most sensitive to climbing insurance rates.

Real estate is famously about location, location, location with recent examples – COVID-19 migration and opportunities in the metaverse – illustrating this maxim. The coast may be one of the most desirable locations as there is only so much of it and people like the views and access to the water and beaches. Even though not all coastal properties are really expensive, such land near big cities and destinations can be very pricey with high demand.

Even as the insurance program is updated, perhaps the real long term question is just how many people should be able to live on the coast at all given climate change, environmental concerns including erosion and habitat degradation, and an interest in keeping shoreline available for public use. Is there any chance more coastline in popular areas is protected fifty or one hundred years from now or are the market pressures just too strong?

Suburban lawns and religious alternatives

With religious motivation, the suburban lawn can be transformed into an area of biodiversity:

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Mr. Jacobs is an ecologist and a Catholic who believes that humans can fight climate change and help repair the world right where they live. While a number of urban dwellers and suburbanites also sow native plants to that end, Mr. Jacobs says people need something more: To Reconnect with nature and experience the sort of spiritual transcendence he feels in a forest, or on a mountain, or amid the bounty of his own yard. It’s a feeling that, for him, is akin to feeling close to God…

Mr. Jacobs, for his part, looks around at all the pristine lawns (“the lawn is an obsession, like a cult,” he says) and sees ecological deserts that feed neither wildlife nor the human soul. “This is a poverty that most of us are not even aware of,” he said.

And he has started a movement to promote better ecology:

About 20 years ago, he began compiling quotes from the Bible, saints and popes that expound on the sanctity of Earth and its creatures, and posting them online. He considered naming the project after St. Francis of Assisi, the go-to saint for animals and the environment. But, not wanting to impose another European saint on American land, he instead named it after Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th Century Algonquin-Mohawk woman who converted to Catholicism as a teenager and, in 2012, became the first Native American to be canonized…

Three years ago, Mr. Jacobs took a step further, teaming up with a fellow Catholic ecologist, Kathleen Hoenke, to launch the St. Kateri Habitats initiative, which encourages the creation of wildlife-friendly gardens that feature native plants and offer a place to reflect and meditate (they also teamed up to write a book, “Our Homes on Earth: A Catholic Faith and Ecology Field Guide for Children,” due out in 2023). They enlisted other ecology-minded Catholics, and have since added an Indigenous peoples program and two Indigenous women to their board.

What exactly is the connection between religious faith in America and the suburban lawn? Two hints above:

  1. First, Jacobs suggests the lawn is “like a cult.” Americans put a lot of effort into keeping the lawn looking good. The lawn signals status and is part of necessary upkeep for the sacred single-family suburban home. The lawn may provide insight into someone’s soul. The devotion to the lawn has its own practices, beliefs, and organizations.
  2. Religious traditions have something about how to approach the earth and land. Jacobs draws on Catholic theology, tradition, and practice to develop both his personal personal practices and an organization that now has members around the world. In a country where a majority of residents are Christians of one tradition or another, how many suburbanites draw on religion to help them interact with their yard and nearby nature?

As more people reconsider whether to have a lawn or consider modifying their lawn, bringing religion into the conversation could help clarify what the lawn is all about. Is the lawn itself worthy of religious devotion or does it help point to larger and transcendent realities?

The newest skyscraper attraction/commodification: climbing the outside with just a safety harness

It may not quite be climbing the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible but a new attraction in New York City offers the opportunity to climb at 1,300 feet up with just a safety harness:

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This was City Climb, an attraction opening Tuesday at 30 Hudson Yards, one of the city’s tallest buildings. It gives thrill-seekers a unique perspective on New York that no observation deck could hope to match: No walls, no glass windows, no railings. Just skyline…

Climbers are equipped with specially designed safety harnesses that let them ascend an outdoor staircase, from the first lookout known as the Cliff, to the top platform called the Apex, located 1,271 feet (387 meters) above 10th Avenue.

There, they can lean out over the edge and look down at the Empire State Building. City Climb will operate rain, snow or shine, but will close if the temperature drops below 23 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 5 degrees Celsius) or if there is dangerous weather in the area…

Then, she leaned back, arms stretched out, hanging over the city as a cable tether kept her from falling to the streets below.

I find two features of this striking:

  1. The quest for humans to conquer obstacles and/or natural forces in two ways. First, the goal of building tall structures that stretch far beyond the size of people and many natural features. Second, the willingness of many to test their limits, conquer their fears, to try something new. And do it all on one of the tallest buildings in a city and country known for stretching these limits. What comes after this?
  2. The ongoing commodification of the skyscraper experience. Skyscrapers emerged because of a land for space where land was limited and expensive. With the rise of skyscrapers came sky decks and seeing from such a great height. Then came new experiences, ranging from glass floors to tilting parts to now being outside. People are used to seeing the world from the air – airplanes offer even better views – and also desire new experiences. All of this for $185 a person.

Communities moving to limit gas leaf blowers but leaving the leaves alone all together might be a hard sell

The movement to limit gas-powered leaf blowers appears to be picking up steam:

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More than 100 cities across the country have already passed regulations to ban or restrict gas-powered leaf blowers. For people committed to their manicured lawns, the good news is that powerful electric and battery-operated leaf blowers now exist, and they are quieter and greener and healthier than gasoline-powered blowers. Their market share is also growing rapidly; electric equipment now represents roughly 44 percent of lawn-care machinery sales.

But, would this movement extend to not doing anything about fallen leaves?

But the trouble with leaf blowers isn’t only their pollution-spewing health consequences. It’s also the damage they do to biodiversity. Fallen leaves provide protection for overwintering insects and the egg sacs of others. Leaf blowers, whether electric or gasoline-powered, dislodge the leaf litter that is so essential to insect life — the insect life that in turn is so essential to birds and other wildlife.

The ideal fertilizer and mulch can’t be found in your local garden center. They are available at no cost in the form of a tree’s own leaves. The best thing to do with fallen leaves is to mulch them with a lawn mower if your lawn consists of entirely of unvariegated turf grass (which it should not, given that turf grass requires immense amounts of water and poison to maintain). Our yard is a mixture of grasses and clovers and wildflowers, so we can safely let our leaves lie. If a high wind carries them away, it’s hard not to wail, “Wait! I was saving those!

And the leaves that fall across every inch of this wild half acre of suburbia are so much prettier than any unnaturally green lawn beaten into submission by stench-spewing machinery. All those golden sugar maple leaves hold onto the light, and for weeks it looks as though our whole yard is on fire, even in the rain. Who could be troubled by a blanket made of light? A blanket keeping all the little creatures safe from the cold?

A world without leaf blowers and/or all of the pieces of lawn equipment that sit within many suburban garages and sheds is hard to imagine. Suburbanites and lawn keepers in America can be very fastidious about what needs to be done: the lawn should be well-seeded, green, manicured, weed-free, and leaf-free. The lawn may even be “a window into your soul.” Simply leaving the leaves on the lawn…this would appear negligent, lazy, unkempt.

The argument above suggests the leaves are better for the lawn, creatures, and the environment more broadly. Perhaps this is the way to sell it: your lawn will be healthier if you leave the leaves. But, if the goal is a better relationship with nature, does this also mean other forms of lawn care should be undone as well? Once the leaves stay, what else about American lawn practices should be jettisoned?

The bigger question may not be about gas powered machines but about what a better suburban or single-family home relationship with nature might look like. Amid all of the sprawling land use and driving, how could the open space in individual lots better serve nature? Less emphasis on well-maintained grass could limit water use and provide more habitat space. Whether Americans could find this acceptable in appearance, for property values, and in connection to nature, is another matter.

The problem of loud noises in suburbia

Reading this story of Cold War air raid sirens going off in Sacramento reminded me of one problem that comes up consistently in suburbia: loud noises.

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Suburbs are supposed to be quiet. Residents buy a home and yard with the idea that they can shut out the busy noise of the world or city and enjoy peace. Cities are noisy with sounds of traffic, emergency sirens, voices, and activity. Suburbs offer access to those cities but without all of that soundscape.

From my experiences in the suburbs and reading social media in the suburbs, here are some of the noises, known and unknown, that lead suburbanites to wonder or fume:

  1. A loud barking dog or animal somewhere. Sometimes this dog is not unknown but the loud animal from an unknown source is not what people want to hear.
  2. A loud bang or pop. If it is fireworks, this could be okay if it is part of a community celebration and it is less okay if it is some resident enjoying loud sounds and lights. Suburbanites speculate whether the noise could be gunshots or vehicle noises.
  3. Vehicle noises and/or crashes. A vehicle or motorcycle with a loud engine or muffler sounds much louder in the nighttime hours. A car crash might be mistaken for something else.
  4. Extra-loud music from a vehicle or residential unit. Many communities have ordinances about sound. Having too-loud music can be viewed as disturbing the peace.

Children’s noise is more acceptable, whether coming from a park – the sound of a ball game or kids playing in the neighborhood – or a school. Suburbs, after all, are about raising children. Nature noises are fine, including rain and thunderstorms. Suburbs are supposed to help residents get closer to nature.

How these concerns about noise get adjudicated probably varies. The number of people willing to go to social media to ask and/or complain about noise might be the outworking of “moral minimalism” in the suburbs. Many probably hope the noise simply goes away and does not intrude much on their private lives.

An arboretum next to a parking lot for Amazon vehicles

The Morton Arboretum is no stranger to the juxtaposition of nature and suburban development. Founded in 1922 in Lisle, the Arboretum later adjusted to the construction and opening of the East-West Tollway (now I-88) on its edges:

1957

Construction of the East-West Tollway and widening of Illinois Route 53 changed the Arboretum landscape, resulting in new lakes, roads, and a staffed gatehouse.

In a recent popular exhibit, the Arboretum even leaned into the nearby development with one installment looming over the highway:

Note the large power lines, the evidence of two major highways nearby (I-88 and I-355), and office buildings.

Recently, I drove around the east side of the property. This land has had a number of office and warehouse properties for years. This makes sense: the properties have access to multiple highways and there are plenty of residents/workers nearby.

However, I have noticed a more recent addition to this set of land uses: there is a parking lot just for Amazon trucks and vehicles. As far as I could see, there was no building next to the lot; just many spaces for vans and trucks. Looking at Google Maps, there is indeed a parking lot there among some other development and some undeveloped land. There is an Amazon facility nearby – one of many in the Chicago region – but it is not directly connected to the parking lot so drivers would have to exit to the main road and then turn back into the Amazon facility.

It is hard to completely escape development when in the Arboretum. Traffic noise can be heard, airplanes fly overhead, and houses and other signs of suburbia are visible from different vantage points. Yet, the presence of an Amazon parking lot reminded me of what nature is in the suburbs: present but often in-between roads, homes, and other buildings that speak to the ways that humans have and continue to transform natural features to their own particular suburban goals.

The importance of a house’s roof to its longevity

In thinking of houses in light of both recent tornado activity in the Chicago area and reading the book The World Without Us, I was reminded of the importance of the roof for a building. Here is how author Alan Weisman puts it when discussing an abandoned home:

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The resin in your cost-conscious choice of a woodchip roof, a waterproof goo of formaldehyde and phenol polymer, was also applied along the board’s exposed edges, but it fails anyway because moisture enters around the nails. Soon they’re rusting, and their grip begins to loosen. That presently leads not only to interior leaks, but to structural mayhem. Besides underlying the roofing, the wooden sheathing secures trusses to each other. The trusses – premanufactured braces held together with metal connection plates – are there to keep the roof from splaying. But when the sheathing goes, structural integrity goes with it.

As gravity increases tension on the trusses, the 1/4-inch pins securing their now-rusting connector plates pull free from the wet wood, which now sports a fuzzy coating of greenish mold. Beneath the mold, threadlike filaments called hyphae are secreting enzymes that break cellulose and lingin down into fungi food. The same thing is happening to the floors inside. When the heat went off, pipes burst if you lived where it freezes, and rain is blowing in where windows have cracked from bird collisions and the stress of sagging walls. Even where the glass is still intact, rain and snow mysteriously, inexorably work their way under sills. As the wood continues to rot, trusses start to collapse against each other. Eventually the walls lean to one side, and finally the roof falls in. That bard roof with the 18-by-18-inch hole was likely gone inside of 10 years. Your house’s lasts maybe 50 years; 100, tops. (19)

The roof helps connect all of the walls and hold the house together and it also serves to keep the elements out from above. Once a hole begins and air, sun, rain, snow, and creatures can get in through the roof, it is just a matter of time before it all starts falling apart. Without a functioning roof, a house may not last long.

Granted, the scenario above discusses when homes are abandoned, an unlikely outcome in many communities. At the same time, this provides a reminder of the need to stay vigilant about roofs. For many homeowners, this is not an easy task: it might be hard to view all of the roof from the ground or from inside the house, accessing the roof might be difficult, and not everyone regularly looks at the underside of the roof depending on the layout of the home and the access.

So when people complain about the build quality of homes or McMansions, I wonder how much they consider the roof. If a mass produced McMansion truly is inferior in quality, would the roof go first or the siding or the walls or the foundation or something else? All could be problematic for the longevity of a home but the roof in particular presents important problems.

The random name generator for Chicago suburbs

After thinking about Chicago suburbs with elevation clues in their names, I was reminded of the names of Chicago suburbs more broadly. To quote again from the WBEZ story:

One-hundred years ago we named places very differently, Callary says. Places were named after a town founder, or family member, or after something that indicated the place’s actual, physical presence in the world. Today, it’s more common to name a place after what you want it to be, rather than what’s actually there.

So how exactly did developers and local leaders come up with all of the existing Chicago area names? It could have looked like this:

I had to check on Willowridge because it puts together two commonly used words in suburban place names. I found some companies with this name as well as one suburban street but no official place.

Here are the next ten names generated:

Romeowoods

Franklinsville

Elmburn

Hillhurst

Musmukda

Glenside

Rolling Bluff

Hillwoods

Highfield

Crystalfield

Out of these, I would vote for Glenside as the most probable.

On one hand, this all makes sense: suburbs often want to invoke nature and idyllic settings. On the other hand, such anodyne names invoke the conformity and dullness of suburbs many suburban critiques have noted.

Reactions to suburban yards filled with dandelions

Is a mark of a suburbanite who cares about their property values and yard a lawn free of dandelions? In a recent walk, I saw this yard:

On a corner lot, this yard was filled with dandelions all around. And to compound the issue, two of the next three yards adjacent to this home looked similar.

What does this all mean? Is this a set of households devoted to eco-friendly lawn care? Or, is it a sign that the owners do not care about their property and/or their neighbors?

Remarkably, many of the nearby lots have no dandelions whatsoever. Even as these three lots have helped spread thousands of dandelion seeds, the weed killers used nearby have done their job. The whole neighborhood is not overrun with dandelions. The damage – mostly visual? – is contained to three lots.

At the same time, I could imagine some of the neighbors might not be happy about the situation. The optics of yards given over to dandelions might not play well in a middle-class neighborhood where green manicured lawns are an expectation. What kind of neighbors are these to subject others to this blight? What if someone was trying to sell their home nearby?

Soon enough, the most visible signs of these dandelions will be gone. The seeds will have scattered, contributing to windy days where the air is visibly full of plant matter. Will the neighbors forget the dandelions? Will they be back next year? Is all of this a matter of overwrought suburbanites policing their artificial nature known as a lawn? The grass and the weeds may be more than just that; they are markers of social class and social norms in suburbia.