People can live in modernist glass houses…if they have 6 acres in the woods

I have argued Americans prefer McMansions to modernist homes. Another reason this might be the case: the glass modernist house works better on certain kinds of properties.

But it wasn’t until they found the perfect piece of property in the Lake Minnetonka community of Woodland that they were able to make their glass house dream a reality.

They’d been planning to sell their three-story Arts & Crafts-style home in Orono, and were on the hunt for secluded, wooded acreage in the western suburbs…

In 2012, a 6-acre property with wetlands, a bog and a small lake popped up on the MLS. The land, which was in foreclosure, was in Woodland.

Kathleen was entranced by the tiny woodsy hamlet of twisting and turning roads. So, the couple consulted architect Tim Alt of ALTUS Architecture + Design about the property. He advised them to go for it.

This home holds all kind of appeal to modernists: black, low to the ground, lots of windows, multiple wings for different uses, and utilizes materials that fit with the unique natural setting. Yet, how realistic is it to expect such a home to be located near other homes? Even residents who like such architecture are unlikely to sacrifice all their privacy by living in this home within a traditional neighborhood. Americans like single-family homes partly because of the privacy they tend to offer away from prying eyes of neighbors of the government.

Then, finding the right kind of property – away from other homes, attractive nature views – becomes an extra burden or set of resources required for this kind of modernist home. These requirements likely mean it is outside the reach of many homeowners. The modernist home becomes the elite home.

All this means that it is unlikely such homes will be popular. Perhaps this was already clear since one of the models for the Minnetonka home dates back to 1949 and that design is not exactly all over the place. Such modernist homes will continue as curiosities or give people a home to aspire to even as they continue to buy mass-produced McMansions and ranches.

Cities, animals, and intelligence

Research regarding the effect of cities and urban areas on wildlife can be fascinating. See the discussion about how cities could affect the intelligence of different animals:

One of the great mysteries of urban adaptation is what, if anything, living in cities does to animal minds. Research on urban wildlife has already shown that cities can have jaw-dropping effects on animals’ behavior. Gehrt’s coyotes have not only learned where it’s safest to cross roads, but have also learned to avoid traffic based on its speed and volume. Do behavioral shifts like this reflect deeper changes in how urban animals think? In what urban animals are?

These questions vex the small subset of wildlife ecologists that is wading into the murky waters of urban-animal intelligence. In several metropolitan areas, researchers have devised simple puzzles—usually difficult-to-open boxes of food—in order to compare the problem-solving abilities of city-dwelling creatures with those of their wild relatives. The results have been tantalizing: Urban animals as varied as Canadian raccoons and Barbadian bullfinches can outperform their rural counterparts. While it pays to be cunning in almost any setting, some scientists propose that foreign, volatile environments like cities demand an especially broad range of cognitive abilities. Eventually, the thinking goes, cities may bend evolution enough to make whole populations of animals within them smarter—if, of course, the animals can survive city life in the first place.

This is a controversial theory. Even researchers who back it are quick to warn that intelligence is complicated. No one is suggesting that new situations are the only driver of animal smarts: The ways animals interact, how they learn from one another, and the nature of their physical surroundings are all thought to influence how individual animals behave and how their brains take shape over generations, no matter where they live…

But studying animals in new environments may help scientists develop a definition of intelligence that applies across species. Along with others in her field, Benson-Amram has zeroed in on flexibility, long considered an essential criterion for intelligence. “When the environment is changing, you’re able to change your behavioral response, and you don’t perseverate on old responses that used to work but no longer do,” Benson-Amram says. This way of defining intelligence—which researchers also call “behavioral plasticity”—is notably distinct from what could be considered an animal’s specific intelligence. A scrub jay that hides away thousands of seeds and remembers the location of each one certainly has a particular kind of acuity, Benson-Amram notes. But an animal needs a diverse, general set of mental skills—perceptiveness, resourcefulness, foresight, and so on—to tackle the foreign obstacles of cities, she posits.

A simplistic popular approach to these questions might say this: cities and urban development is simply bad for animals and nature. Because such development takes up land and subjects it to particularly harmful uses (pollution, poor water run-off, etc.), humans should limit their development and its effects.

On the other hand, this research and others suggests human-wildlife interaction can be quite complicated. And could it even possible lead to positive change for some animals? I’m also thinking of the book Subirdia which suggests some bird species do well in urban environment even if others do not.

Humans may have the upper hand here and have done some pretty destructive things regarding the environment in recent years. Yet, in the long run, both humans and wildlife adapt to each other.

Why Americans love suburbs #7: closer to nature

A consistent appeal of suburbia for many Americans is to be closer to nature and green space. While suburbanites appreciate their proximity to urban amenities without having to actually live in the big city, they also often appreciate more open space and closeness to nature. American suburbanites may be out of touch with nature and children may be exposed to less nature these days but the suburbs are viewed as offering access to nature just outside the single-family home.

As cities grew in the nineteenth century, they became dirty places. While this is an ongoing issue in many large cities still (think smog in Paris or air quality in Beijing), these growing cities had particular problems including how to construct sewers (Chicago’s efforts in battling excrement helped it grow), dealing with waste from all the horses, and soot (see pictures of Pittsburgh turned dark in the middle of the day). The suburbs offered some distance from the grime of the city and more proximity to pristine nature.

Exactly what kind of nature suburbanites experience is up for debate. As one critic of suburbia suggests, the suburbs often involve “nature band-aids.” Suburbanites may be interested in farms or “agrihoods” but the average suburban dweller has a small plot of land around their home. I am reminded of one situation I discovered in my research on suburban development where residents of a newer subdivision complained vociferously when the adjacent cornfield turned into a new development. This common process of suburban development – more agricultural or rural land or open space is turned into sprawl – can frustrate many residents.

One consistent experience involves using and caring for the lawns that surround many single-family homes. The green lawn is an important symbol of the owner’s social class as well as a space for outside recreation. Caring for the lawn is vitally important. Neighborhoods and communities exert pressure. Residents make sure their lawns are green in a variety of conditions ranging from watering during droughts, painting their lawns, and searching out the best seeds. They often have plenty of trees, prized by suburbanites for their foliage, functioning as key symbols of nature, and ability to define edges of properties and hide views of others.

Beyond lawns, suburbanites are often interested in parks, forest preserves, and green spaces. Theoretically, these uses limit the possibility that the green space can be turned into other uses. Even somewhat protected green space like a golf course can provoke concerns if it is turned into something else. Additionally, these spaces enhance property values of single-family homes, allow space for children to play, and can become sites of local social activity. Some of these places can offer more authentic nature (less controlled by humans) though many of these sites are carefully kept. Furthermore, even in these preserved spaces, it is difficult to truly escape the suburban noise and evidence of civilization.

Sometimes, nature can be perceived as the enemy of suburbanization. A great example is dealing with water. Flooding is a persistent issue. More housing alongside roadways and parking lots do not allow water to soak into the ground. Think the Houston area after a hurricane. In spaces with less human activity, flooding and waterways changing course do not have the devastating or annoying effects that they can in suburbia. Turning land into suburbia can have the effect of bulldozing over natural ways of dealing with water and instead trying to channel it or eliminate it around homes and other uses. This is not always successful and much money can be spent on the issue. For example, the Deep Tunnel project in the Chicago region is a massive civil engineering project born out of urban and suburban development.

Of course, the opposite can be true as well: suburbanization can be the enemy of nature. Rachel Carson’s influential work emerged by suburban settings. At the same time, nature itself can also adapt to suburbanization. The wildland-urban interface can move as creatures like coyotes, deer, baboons, and birds adapt to human activity.

While critics of suburbs may not understand why suburbanites cannot see the ugliness of sprawl, many Americans believe the suburbs offer a little more natural space in which to move and breathe.

Suburbs, “mutilated urbanism,” and “nature band-aids”

James Howard Kunstler’s TED Talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” includes a discussion of the role of “nature” in suburbia. This excerpt starts at about 10:15 into the talk:

Then because the relationship between the retail is destroyed, we pop a handicapped ramp on that, and then to make ourselves feel better, we put a nature band-aid in front of it. And that’s how we do it.

I call them nature band-aids because there’s a general idea in America that the remedy for mutilated urbanism is nature. And in fact, the remedy for wounded and mutilated urbanism is good urbanism, good buildings. Not just flower-beds, not just cartoons of the Sierra Nevada mountains, you know, that’s not good enough. We have to do good buildings.

(photo: two pictures of tree lined pedestrian paths, caption: “Role of ‘Green’ In City Center Is Formal”)

The street trees have really four jobs to do, and that’s it. To spatially denote the pedestrian realm, to protect the pedestrians from the vehicles in the carriage-way, to filter the sunlight onto the sidewalk, and to soften the hardscape of the buildings and to create a ceiling -a vaulted ceiling- over the street, at its best. And that’s it. Those are the four jobs of the street trees. They’re not supposed to be a cartoon of the north woods, they’re not supposed to be a set for The Last of the Mohicans. You know, one of the problems with the fiasco of suburbia is that it destroyed our understanding of the distinction between the country and the town, between the urban and the rural. They’re not the same thing. And we’re not gonna cure the problems of the urban by dragging the country into the city, which is what a lot of us are trying to do all the time.

(new photo, unshown on screen)

Here you see on a small scale- the mother-ship has landed, R2D2 and CP3O (sic) have stepped out to test the bark mulch to see if they can inhabit this planet.

This last paragraph, in particular, always gets me: comparing two lonely bushes stranded in a suburban streetscape to aliens is funny.

But, his larger point holds: suburban settings often use nature as a possible enhancement and often afterthought rather than a fundamental feature of the space. Why save original trees when you can just plant new ones later? If there is not enough greenery, add a flower bed and some bushes. Make sure the suburban yards are always lush and green (even if this does not really happen in nature). Put in some parks here and there so people can experience wildlife displaced from other settings.

The suburban nature millions of Americans see on a daily basis is not the real nature that was once in these locations (though you would have to go back quite a ways before any human intervention and this is important to remember) or that could be there given different choices by local officials, developers, and residents.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring emerged from suburbia

Rachel Carson’s influential Silent Spring may have emphasized nature but according to Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in the Twentieth Century, the suburbs played an important role:

As global a vision as one might concoct, Silent Spring nevertheless had its firmest roots in suburban locales. The letter sparking Carsons’s commitment to write the book came from a woman in suburban Boston who had watched a DDT spraying decimate the birds in her own and her neighbors’ yards. Carson also drew heavily on the 1957 anti-DDT lawsuit on Long Island. Her research began with the trial transcript, and Marjorie Spock, leader of the lawsuit, then became Carson’s “chief clipping service.” The web of experts Spock had brought in to testify at the trial served as Carson’s own. They and others on whom Carson most relied lived and worked in suburbs, including Dr. Morton Biskind of Westport, Connecticut, and Wilhelm Hueper, at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. Even Carson herself was, arguable, a suburbanite: though she loved her spot on the Maine coast, she spent most of the year in Silver Spring, Maryland, on the edge of Washington, D.C.

Silent Spring reached out to suburban readers in a host of ways, both subtle and overt. Ignoring cities, limiting her invocations of the urban to “a small town in the heart of America,” Carson flattered the conceit of the suburban better-off that their homes were not in any “suburbia,” that they led essentially nonurban lives. Factories also feel into the shadowy backdrop: quick-striking maladies and death among workers appeared only briefly and in passing. Dwelling at much great length on cancer and other chronic ailments, more likely to trouble a suburban readership, she studiously avoided mention of infectious diseases, whose absence suburb dwellers of this period, at least in metropolitan New York and Los Angeles tended to take for granted. On shifting from dangers to human health to threats to wildlife, Carson explicitly summoned the self-interest of the “suburbanite.” For the “suburbanite who derives pleasure from birds in his garden,” she wrote, “anything that destroys the wildlife of an area for even a single year has deprived him of a pleasure to which he has a legitimate right.” (256-257)

These two paragraphs remind me of several aspects of American suburbs:

  1. Given that more Americans lived in suburbs than cities by the early 1960s, does this simply reflect the movement of Americans in large numbers to suburbs?
  2. Could the wealth of suburbia – the ability to own a home, have a middle-class or higher lifestyle – provide more resources to pursue causes like environmentalism compared to being concerned with subsistence in other settings?
  3. From the beginning of American suburbs, they were touted as spaces close to nature. This argument was primarily made in comparison to cities which by the late 1800s were viewed as dirty and overcrowded. (Of course, the nature of suburbia has always been carefully shaped by humans rather than being untamed nature.)

More broadly, nature and the environment likely looks different from the suburbs than from urban or rural settings. If Sellers is correct in his argument about Silent Spring‘s suburban roots, perhaps it should be more widely read with the suburban context in mind.

Now that the dandelions are almost gone, how lawn owners of different social classes can set themselves apart

I argued nearly two months ago that how different households treat dandelions in their yard could be a sign of their social class. Now that dandelion season is mostly over in our area, how might homeowners continue to exhibit their social class through their lawns?

  1. Green grass. Significant patches or brown spots are not good signs of a higher social class. This reminds me of celebrities and leaders in California caught with very green lawns even during a severe drought.
  2. The lawn should be cut to a good height regularly and meticulously trimmed. And this should probably done by someone else to indicate a higher social class.
  3. Sprinkler systems, soaker hoses, and elaborate ways to water the grass and plants indicate both caring more about the lawn as well as additional money to pull it off.
  4. Attractive plants, bushes, and trees. Many a real estate listing says yards are “professionally landscaped” but the implication is that more professionalism in this area – presumably related to expertise, thought, and effort – improves the quality of the property. A nice house with a sizable yard that is only the greenest lawn is likely not going to be as desirable as the greenest lawn complemented by other natural features.

Now that I have listed these options, I wonder at what point these different measures must be done in certain neighborhoods and communities. Imagine having a brown lawn in a less desirable neighborhood versus a ritzy one or being the one with a million dollar home who still cuts the lawn and trims the edges on their own. Perhaps there is a baseline of lawn care expected in most American locations and then extra features accrue depending on local practices and social class.

The never-ending summer hum of lawn mowers, construction, ACs, pressure washers, and more

As soon as the weather started turning warmer, the summer drone began. Not crickets or the sounds of children playing baseball or swimming at the pool. Rather, it was the background noise of summer that seems unavoidable for months: in a suburban subdivision with numerous nearby subdivisions, there is always someone within a relatively short distance using a lawnmower, a weedwacker, a pressure washer, or construction equipment. The noise starts as early as 7:30 AM and stops around 8 PM.

The typical idyllic summer looks something like this with green lawns, sunshine, and peaceful looking homes:

Lawn

But, this image fails to include the background noise that is ever present. That noise is often less than idyllic, particularly if it is close and/or persistent.

I know the expectation of having quiet is one that is not possible in many settings, particularly in urban areas. Many American residents have little exposure to true quiet (and may even find it unnerving). But, the early suburban ideal of the mid 1800s was to help urban residents get back to nature (or an altered environment that fit certain standards of “nature). That quiet of nature – rustling trees, bird calls, insects, stillness – is simply not possible in most suburban settings today either. Some of this is due to location and the need to locate near major roads or other land uses (such as commercial or industrial properties). Some is due to the rise of air conditioning which made development possible in certain climates. Yet, it also comes from all the maintenance required for single-family homes and their environment. Home upkeep to typical standards, such as a good looking lawn, is aided by noisy tools.

I thought recently about having noise free days in suburban neighborhoods. Could everyone in a certain portion of a community schedule their outdoor maintenance for two or three days a week? This would make it more difficult to schedule things but the trade-off could be less noise for everyone. This could work with homeowner’s associations since they already contract for regular lawn service that typically happens on the same day each week. Imagine residents could have at least one weekday in which they knew the only noise outside would be from vehicles – would it be a better experience?