Fight McMansions to slow down the sixth mass extinction

A letter to the editor in the Eugene Weekly links McMansions and broad environmental concerns:

We’re living through the sixth mass extinction. We see this firsthand in Lane County. Oak savannah is the most endangered habitat in the United States…

In this context, a group of neighbors and I are fighting a multi-million dollar “McMansion” development project in our area. “The Vineyards at Gimpl Hill” describes itself as a selection of “gracious estates” for “secure, sophisticated country living … the premier development in Lane County for discerning people.”

This project will destroy or impact 80 acres of prime wildlife habitat home to deer, elk, bears, cougars, wild turkeys, bobcats and a wide variety of other species.

Destroying large areas of habitat and impacting the area with higher traffic and additional access roads is a course of action I cannot support. These ostentatious houses will cost millions, and the developer (Roy Carver) stands to make millions more.

On one hand, 80 acres of land is a drop in the bucket of land in urban areas in the United States. On the other hand, this argument involving McMansions is a common one: McMansions represent the senseless sprawl that is gobbling up land, threatening wildlife, and contributing to our destruction of the environment.

I also suspect that because these homes are larger and more expensive (as well as more profitable, as this letter notes), they tend to get more attention in the same way that McDonald’s and Walmart receive attention for their environmental impact in their own sectors (fast food restaurants and retail stores, respectively). Sprawl over the past century or so in the United States involves a broad range of homes and other buildings, not just the big homes for the wealthy.

It also helps in this case to have a pejorative term for these large homes. They are not just “luxury homes” or places where wealthier people live; they are mass-produced, inferior quality homes that do not deserve the space they are taking up.

Finally, I wonder what the more compelling environmental appeal is to other locals: is it better to refer to (1) massive-scale change like the sixth mass extinction, (2) the loss of local nature (land and animals), or (3) the unnecessary use of land and resources for these larger homes? I suspect each of these could appeal to different people.

The number of dandelions in the yard as an indicator of social class

It is the time of year around here when dandelions are sprouting now that we have some warmer weather and rain. If you walk, bike, or drive around, it is not hard to spot stark differences between yards with no dandelions and those with a lot of dandelions. Here are some quick connections between the number of dandelions and social class:

  1. There are certain expectations in the United States, particularly in suburbs, about lawns. Americans are obsessed with lawns: it must be green (even under drought conditions), of a certain height (lest you violate local ordinances), and free of weeds. It is big business to help Americans keep their lawn looking good. Residents experience pressure from neighbors to keep their lawn nice. Even senators can be attacked for not keeping their lawn in a way that pleases the neighbors.
  2. Those with more money can more easily (a) pay for lawn care and treatments as well as (b) pay for lawn care products that they apply themselves. It is not necessarily cheap to keep a pristine lawn. It is not just a matter of avoiding dandelions but having lush greenery all around, consistency in the kind of grass, and a regularly manicured height.
  3. A nicer and larger lawn is connected to wealth and social class. It is a signal of the homeowner’s ability to tame and maintain nature. It supposedly shows they care about their property. It suggests they want to present a tidy image, which is always connected to property values.
  4. As a test of numbers 1-3 above, imagine trying to sell a decent priced house in a major metropolitan area where the yard is just covered in dandelions. Even if the house is in good shape, wouldn’t all those dandelions harm the image of the home? How many realtors would want to present an image of a lawn filled with dandelions to prospective buyers?
  5. Homeowner’s associations for townhouses, condos, apartments, and houses tend to do a good job of keeping dandelions in check. I assume this has to do with keeping up a positive appearance for the community. Fewer dandelions means a better image, more exclusivity, and higher rents or prices.
  6. The landscaping on our campus tends to look really good around graduation time when plenty of families and visitors are in town. The dandelions are largely in check.

In sum, I would suggest that the dandelion-free yard is yet another American status symbol. Just as people passing by might infer the social class of residents based on the size of the dwelling and the exterior appearance and the cars in the driveway, the number of dandelions may be used as a marker of social class.

(There certainly could additional factors that influence the number of dandelions in the yard. In addition to resources as noted above, addressing the dandelions requires time and physical ability which could be in short supply for a variety of reasons.)

Lawn, yard issues affect even senators living in exclusive gated communities

The attack on Senator Rand Paul by his neighbor may have involved disagreements about yard maintenance:

That day may have come last month, when Boucher’s attorney said in an interview his client attacked Paul over long-simmering disagreements between the two about the care of grass, trees and other landscaping on their adjacent properties in an exclusive gated community…

“There is absolutely no political motivation behind this,” said Boucher’s attorney Matthew J. Baker. “It all stems from maintenance, or lack of it, at these two neighboring properties.”…

Skaggs said Boucher was exacting about the standards for his yard — landscaping bags filled with waste were a common site on his property. Neighbors said Paul had a reputation for a more relaxed style that some felt didn’t always jibe with a community that features gas lamps, Greek statuary and a 13-page packet of rules.

The senator had a pumpkin patch, compost and unraked leaves beneath some of his trees. Goodwin said it annoyed Boucher that Paul did not consistently cut his grass to the same height, and leaves from Paul’s trees blew on his property.

Early on in the article, this dispute is described as “the type of small-time neighborly conflict that has vexed many a suburban relationship.”

To some degree, this is why people move to gated communities or places with homeowner’s associations: they expect that the level of wealth or quasi-governmental oversight will relieve of problems with their problems. Instead of having to talk with their neighbors about potential problems, the issues are covered by community rules that can be enforced by a party that does not live on the property. And people often think that their property values are on the line: if my neighbor has a scraggly pumpkin patch or doesn’t rake their leaves, then I am going to be hurt by their lack of action that can clearly be seen from my house.

Still, even if such disputes are common, it is rare that they would reach the level of physical assault. More common is what the article describes as a lack of communication between the neighbors for years, what Boucher’s lawyer called “a cold war of sorts.”

Linking environmental degradation and McMansions

A recent op-ed discussing how to respond to the extinction of species suggested building McMansions is not the way to go:

The solution is simple: moderation. While we should feel no remorse about altering our environment, there is no need to clear-cut forests for McMansions on 15-acre plots of crabgrass-blanketed land. We should save whatever species and habitats can be easily rescued (once-endangered creatures such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons now flourish), refrain from polluting waterways, limit consumption of fossil fuels and rely more on low-impact renewable-energy sources.

This is an interesting perspective of McMansions: they all include clearing broad swaths of land for giant houses and large lawns. If they all had 15 acres, these would be some pretty expensive McMansions. Indeed, I’m guessing these would be far out of the reach of the typical McMansion buyer (or builder) and this is territory for the true mansions.

At the same time, it hints at one of the key critiques of McMansions: they are an unnecessary use of resources. Because of their large size, they often require sizable plots of land to add the yard that is often required for American single-family home life. This does not even include how the resources to build the McMansion were procured. McMansion critics would often rather to build denser housing on smaller lots with more sustainable materials rather than carve out a large domain for one home in a large house.

Presumably, there is some middle ground between 15 acre McMansions and more acceptable McMansions. What if they did have much smaller lots? (This then often leads to complaints that they are too big for their lot.) What if they could be made with sustainable materials? What if they could be net-zero energy homes? What if they were built in denser areas where driving was not as necessary? (This can lead to concerns that they do not fit the character of denser neighborhoods.) There are some possibilities here that might render the McMansion more environmentally friendly.

Alaska suburbs to become less Alaska, more suburban

Changes are coming to the suburbs of Alaska:

PALMER, Alaska — For years, pet owners in this Anchorage suburb of big homes and lawns have fretted over snares set in the local parks by fur-trappers going after fox, lynx and rabbits. But in a quiet revolution this spring, dog lovers got the upper hand, and after a series of public meetings where few trappers showed up to fight back, trapping was banned by the borough council. The suburbs had won.

“That part of old Alaska is moving further out into the bush,” said Mike Albright, 44, a business owner who was lounging at a park with his three dogs on a recent afternoon. “It’s a good thing.”…

But many longtime residents, writers and businesspeople here said that the sense of “only in Alaska” exceptionalism underlying this place and its identity for generations is fading. Improvements in communications and transport are shrinking the sense of physical distance. High-speed internet is reaching tiny villages, opening communities and families to greater connection with the outside world for everything including social media and commerce.

Sadly, the rest of the article says little more about suburbs and instead looks at the whole state and the Alaska spirit. Yet, it is interesting that this nature-human interchange is used an example of how the suburbs are changing. This comes up occasionally with American suburbs across the country as some suburbs encroach on natural habitats while other places experience natural adaptation (such as overpopulations of deer or the reemergence of coyotes).

This could also lead to helpful questions of how people would know that Alaska suburbs are truly no different than other American suburbs. Cookie-cutter subdivisions? Little to no open land? A landscape dominated by single-family homes and driving? An emphasis on middle-class family life and excluding those who don’t fit those categories? Given that suburbs today take many forms, it may not be very easy to say Alaska suburbs have finally crossed the line.

Flooding as a major suburban problem

Suburbs are often derided for their sprawling development that chew up acres of land and significantly alters more rural settings. Within that sprawl, one problem that consistently shows up but receives less attention than it should is flooding. For example, the significant rain received in parts of the Chicago region this past Wednesday (July 12) has impacted a number of suburbs:

While some suburban communities Saturday saw water levels begin to recede in the wake of Wednesday’s downpour, others still are bracing for the worst of the fallout from flood-ravaged rivers experts expect will crest later today into next week.

In Algonquin, the Fox River reached 11.79 feet by noon Saturday, with the National Weather Service predicting it will crest nearly a foot higher, at 12.9 feet, sometime Tuesday.

As of noon Saturday, The National Weather Service reported the Des Plaines River near Gurnee had reached a record-setting 11.96 feet and was expected to crest at about 12 feet sometime in the next 24 hours. In Lincolnshire, the level had dropped to 15.5 feet, but official predictions indicate the river may rise again to crest at 16.3 feet sometime Sunday.

While Wednesday’s rain was unusual (and we could argue about how frequently such big storms do and should occur), the results highlight a common issue across suburban landscapes: what happens to all that water? Suburbs don’t just change rural or farm land into developments; they change how water flows and is absorbed into the soil.

A variety of techniques are available to deal with the water. Common in this area are retention ponds, sunken areas within developments that are often dry but serve as places where water can pool when excessive rainfall occurs. In the Chicago area, the need to deal with flooding led to one of the largest civil engineering projects in the world: Deep Tunnel. Floodplains are fairly visible during heavy rains as homes and other structures near large bodies of water, particularly rivers, are affected. Less easy to see are  formerly swampy or marshy land which have been filled in, the channeling of creeks and rivers (or even covering them up completely), and covering the ground with less permeable surfaces such as roads and driveways (this can be combated by using different kinds of surfaces).

Instead of viewing flooding within major metropolitan regions as the unfortunate result of large storms, we should see it as a regular issue within suburban settings. And if we do so, that might prompt better plans to avoid the flooding that comes when so much land is altered.

McMansions to blame for the decreasing tree cover in Los Angeles

A recent study suggests the rise of McMansions has contributed to a loss of trees in Los Angeles:

Americans’ growing preference for large single-family houses, along with the increase in driveways and swimming pools that come with home expansion, is the largest driver of tree cover loss in the US, according to the study.

Looking at satellite imagery and data from the LA County assessor’s office, the researchers found about one-third of the city’s trees in single-family housing neighborhoods was eliminated from 2000 to 2009. During that period, tree cover may have decreased up to 55%…

Surprisingly, the researchers also found that 1950s suburban development may have been good for trees, at least in LA. Private land owners planted trees on their land during that decade, contributing to a richer urban forest in the city.

“These ecologically beneficial consequences occurred organically — not as the result of conscious environmental policy, but rather as an outgrowth of the cultural aesthetic and economics of the times,” the researchers write.

This leads to several thoughts:

  1. Perhaps it is time to again modify Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” to something like: “They paved paradise to put up a McMansion.”
  2. Cities can often have a lot of trees. This may be counterintuitive: when people imagine cities, they think of skyscrapers and a concrete jungle. While there may not be many forests in the city, there can be plenty of trees.
  3. With the praise given to ranch homes here, couldn’t McMansions reduce the issues by just planting trees? Those 1950s subdivisions didn’t have many trees at the time either – the classic images of Levittown often shows houses and bare land – and it took time for them to become the classic tree-lined suburban streets.