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.

McMansions lead to water runoff damage in Kirkwood, Missouri

The construction of new housing can lead to water issues for existing homeowners. See the ongoing case of Kirkwood, Missouri homeowners dealing with more water due to the construction of McMansions:

Next week, a new Kirkwood water runoff regulation will take effect, but longtime residents say it’s all too little too late…

Like many other longtime Kirkwood residents, Liskew said water began invading her home when new construction started near her neighborhood. Behind her home, she noticed new, large homes—often called ‘McMansions’—were being built on small lots…

That special council created a new storm water management regulation. The ordinance requires all “infill development” to capture rainfall runoff, and submit a plan to the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District for review and approval prior to the issuance of any building permits…

And she said it’s been an expensive, never-ending problem to worry about. In addition to several French drains, Liskew has installed a sump pump, taken out basement windows, graded a large portion of her yard and even commissioned a water runoff study to find out where the water was originating. The study found the water was coming from the neighborhood directly behind her home, and heading directly into her backyard.

See an earlier blog post on the Kirkwood situation. To some degree, the construction of any new residential units is likely to affect water runoff. Switching land from non-use or agricultural use to homes, driveways, yards, and streets will have an effect. Add to that the pejorative term McMansions used here: big homes take up more space and in the interest of keeping water away from them even more water is channeled elsewhere.

I sometimes wonder if the way water issues in suburbia work is like this: every new development attempts to push the water somewhere else and the problem simply moves onto someone else’s property. Generally, developers and municipalities do their best to move the water away from existing buildings and uses but this may not be possible depending on the topography and existing infrastructure. Cleaning up the water issues after the fact – such as in Kirkwood or the Deep Tunnel project in the Chicago region – is costly and very frustrating. But, without a commitment to avoid sprawl or widespread adoption of greener techniques, the water problems will just get pushed down the road. Flooding will continue to be a major suburban problem.

Lawns as sources of and signs of boredom

In a discussion of the development of the concept of boredom in The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch explores the boredom of the lawn:

This world is lost to many of our children, and to ourselves. Even the “nature” that surrounds many of our homes is shallow in a technological way. A typical suburban lawn depends on many technological devices, each of which makes something far easier than it was for previous generations: lawn mowers, pesticides and fertilizers, highly refined seed, and automatic sprinklers. The lawn itself is a kind of outdoor technological device, composed of uniform green grass, kept crew-cut short, with little variety or difference.

A peasant family in the Middle Ages had none of this technologically uniform pleasantness. They would not have had a lawn, or possibly even a yard. Their children would have wandered out into meadows and perhaps the thin edges of forests. A meadow has countless different species of grasses and other plants, plus flowers in the spring and summer, of different heights and habits. If you pay attention, you cannot possible get bored in a meadow. It is all too easy to be bored on a lawn…

It is surely not coincidental that all the earliest citations of the word bore in the Oxford English Dictionary – from the mid-eighteenth century – come from the correspondence of aristocrats and nobility. They did not have technology, but thanks to wealth and position they had a kind of easy everywhere of their own. The first people to be bored were the people who did not do manual work, who did not cook their own food, whose lives were served by others. They were also, by the way, the very first people to have lawns. (144-145)

The common American lawn is indeed a peculiar piece of “nature.”

The connection between lawns and technology is helpful, particularly since this link is likely lost amidst all the new technology of recent decades. Yet, having a lush and short lawn requires a lot of tools and innovation that many now take for granted. I’m reminded of running into advertisements between competing grass seeds: there is a lot that goes into the components of the lawn.

It also strikes me that the lawn has become increasingly boring in recent decades. It is true that American children in the last 70 years had very different experiences with nature than Middle Age peasant children (though humans have affected nature throughout history and contexts). At the same time, children today spend less time outdoors and utilize those boring lawns even compared to just a few decades ago. Perhaps we could argue that the lawn never offered much and once the world of television, video games, and fears about safety set in, it was exposed for the boring item it really is.

Finally, the lawn continues to be a status symbol just as it once marked the properties of the wealthy. Those with lawns have pressure to keep their lawns free of weeds and leaves and can differentiate their lawn from those of others. Failing to follow these norms can lead to problems.

Every house should come with pictures of the land before houses were built

While recently working on a research project, I found 1930s pictures of the place where my in-laws live. Later the home to a master-planned suburban community, the picture presents quite an alternative vision:

SuburbanFields

Having such images could help give current suburbanites a better sense of what came before their home as well as some insight into how their home fits into an altered landscape. There would be some continuity between then and now – similar natural elements including wildlife, foliage, and topography – and notable differences such as the presence of modern roads and buildings.

Tracking down these images is often not easy. Many communities have historical societies or museums that keep such images. To see them, a community member or researcher would have to go ask for them. (And there is no guarantee they have pictures of every property; they are likely to have pictures of the more famous buildings in town.) Searching online can reveal some old maps and images of places but much of the material of local historical groups is not kept online.

“The conceit of the American suburb is that we’re all in a great park together”

In a recent documentary, Michael Pollan discusses the American lawn:

“The conceit of the American suburb is that we’re all in a great park together,” Pollan says in the film. “The lawn symbolizes that continuity.” And yet, Pollan explains, despite the fact that lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the country, Americans tend to avoid spending time on them.

“Pollan raises this question in the film about what our relationship with our front lawn says about our relationship with our neighbors,” Fabrizio told The Atlantic. “I find that really interesting. We don’t go out on our front lawn; we hunker down in the back where no one can see us. I wonder what that says about us and how we all get along these days.”

The lawn of the single-family American home often serves two purposes:

1. A supposed connection to nature. It is evidence that suburbanites want to be away from the city and all its pollution, concrete, and density and instead want to connect with nature. This has a long history in American suburbs dating back to the mid-1800s ideas that suburban homes should be cottages in the woods. The fact that well-manicured lawns do not occur “naturally” in nature does not matter much here.

2. The lawn is a showpiece that is intended to both enhance the impression and value of the home as well as indicate how much the property owner cars about their investment. Regular care and maintenance, usually aimed at producing a green, lush, and relatively low-cut lawn free of weeds and edged by attractive bushes and flowers, broadcasts a message about the class status of the owner.

As Pollan suggests, the front lawn is then not really for use, either by the community (like a park) or the homeowners (who would prefer to limit their outdoor activities to the more private space in back). Indeed, certain activities in the front would be quite odd, such as grilling in the front of the house or placing a swings set in the front lawn.

Indicating social class by having no leaves present on the lawn

Now that blooming dandelions are not a threat and warmer weather and thick green grass is less common, how can the suburbanite indicate his social class through his or her lawn in the fall and keep it a notch above his or her neighbors? No leaves may be present.

Within the next month or so in the Chicago region, leaves will fall at varying rates and cover lawns. These could be leaves from trees in that yard or, given occasional high winds, leaves from several houses away. They could be wet or dry, big or small, green, red, orange, or other shades. And Americans will spend countless hours trying to corral them all, stuff them in bags or bins, and ship them somewhere else.

Why? Because even in the fall, a season that can be good for growing grass, the sanctity of the lawn must be upheld. Even as trees and bushes grow sparse and the flowers that once adorned the property wither, the well-kept lawn is important. Rakes must be employed. Blowers can be even better (at least when the leaves are drier) to efficiently move large amounts. Mowers can be used not only to keep that grass looking uniform but to mulch leaves.

And the best fall lawns, the ones showing the suburbanites of a higher social class or those who care the most about their property (values), will have no visible leaves. They are a blemish and may be removed daily. Carpets of leaves may be pretty in more natural settings but not on the suburban lawn: it must continue to show off the home and its owner until either covered by snow or gone dormant for the winter.