Good for preserving suburban green space…but is it also contributing to inequality?

A group in the northwest suburbs of Chicago announced an agreement to buy and preserve nearly 250 acres of land:

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In a watershed moment for suburban land preservation efforts, a Barrington-based conservation group announced Monday it is buying the Richard Duchossois family’s 246.5-acre Hill ‘N Dale Farm South, long considered one of the most important and desirable tracts of open space in northern Illinois.

Citizens for Conservation’s acquisition of the land near Barrington Hills will ensure it remains protected open space and provide a critical wildlife corridor with the 4,000-acre Spring Creek Forest Preserve next door…

All told, the acquisition and restoration carries an estimated $10 million price tag, according to the organization. Citizens for Conservation received nearly half that through a $4.9 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, the largest such grant awarded for a single-parcel purchase…

Although not within Barrington Hills’ corporate limits, the property is surrounded by the village. Village President Brian Cecola was enthused by Citizens for Conservation’s acquisition of the land.

“Citizens for Conservation’s dedication to land preservation aligns with our village’s objectives of preserving open spaces and maintaining our 5-acre zoning. It’s a win-win for everyone involved,” he said.

With all of the concerns about land use and environmental degradation due to suburban sprawl, isn’t preserving space for animals, plants, and nature a win?

Here is another possible way to read this: the purchase of this land continues patterns of uneven development and inequality in metropolitan regions. How this might happen:

-Who has this kind of money to purchase the land? In this particular case, a non-profit secured a sizable grant – not an easy task in itself – and found other money. This group purchased and maintains property on its own and has contributed to Forest Preserve acquisitions.

-This green space is in a wealthier suburban setting. According to 2020 Census data, Barrington Hills has a median household income of over $157,000.

-As described above, Barrington Hills has a guideline involving 5-acre zoning. Such zoning practices mean properties are larger and both the land and housing is more expensive. This limits who can live in the community.

Hopefully, there is some consideration given to who benefits from using this green space and how all people in metropolitan regions could benefit from proximity to and access to nature and green spaces.

What is gained and lost in trading a grass lawn for artificial turf?

Prompted by climate change and other factors, more property owners around the world are switching to artificial turf. What is gained in the trade?

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A couple of decades ago, artificial turf was often a thin carpet atop a hard surface—rough on the knees as well as the eyes. Athletes playing on it complained that it wore their legs out. But as the product improved, so did homeowners’ interest. From the US to the UK, artificial grass retailers have seen sales tick up during pandemic lockdowns, when housebound property owners put their money toward home improvements. Indeed, Google Trends shows a worldwide surge in searches for “artificial grass” during the middle of 2020.

Even the most famous grass enthusiasts like the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club are open to the idea. The organization behind the Wimbledon championship is trialing hybrid court surfaces—real grass weaved with plastic fibers—to promote lawn tennis in climates worldwide and extend the season in the UK.

Still, all of this fake grass sprouting across the planet has sparked backlash. Some of the biggest protests have been in Australia, where synthetic turf installations became more common in home gardens and playing fields during the Millennium Drought—a roughly 12-year dry spell that ended in 2009. Many cities and regions faced extreme water restrictions that included a total ban on lawn watering in some areas…

The most obvious environmental problem with artificial grass is it’s rooted in the biggest climate nemesis of all: fossil fuel. Synthetic turf is made from a stew of petroleum-based components, making it nearly impossible to recycle. At the end of an artificial lawn’s useful life, which is about 15 years, it will likely go to a landfill or be incinerated…

Yet, even if artificial turf becomes easy to recycle, real grass will still in some ways be greener. Grass naturally absorbs carbon dioxide. Its soil supports wildlife from worms to birds. There are varieties for almost any kind of climate. Unless, of course, that climate doesn’t have enough water.

The legacy of the suburban lawn will be long indeed if the manicured green grass is replaced by green artificial turfs for decades. If it is no longer grass, is the desirable part the color or the nostalgia?

As noted elsewhere in the article, the artificial turf is not the only option. In places like Las Vegas, a rockscape or desert setting is more appropriate. Elsewhere, a yard may be filled with native plants or a garden. If the purpose of the lawn is to provide a connection to nature for the residents, these options can fit the bill in a way that artificial lawns cannot.

The real trick would seem to be creating an artificial turf that better mimics a grass lawn in look and feel without negative environmental impact. A soft and lush lawn that does not need watering, does not rely heavily on fossil fuels, and is similar to the image many Americans have of the proper yard of a single-family home? That may be the lawn worth keeping in yards across the country.

Alphabet’s proposed Toronto “smart city” project vs. a new development more about nature and people

A new Toronto development is in the works where Alphabet once had plans for a “smart city” project:

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In every way, Quayside 2.0 promotes the notion that an urban neighborhood can be a hybrid of the natural and the manmade. The project boldly suggests that we now want our cities to be green, both metaphorically and literally—the renderings are so loaded with trees that they suggest foliage is a new form of architectural ornament. In the promotional video for the project, Adjaye, known for his design of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, cites the “importance of human life, plant life, and the natural world.” The pendulum has swung back toward Howard’s garden city: Quayside 2022 is a conspicuous disavowal not only of the 2017 proposal but of the smart city concept itself.

To some extent, this retreat to nature reflects the changing times, as society has gone from a place of techno-optimism (think: Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone) to a place of skepticism, scarred by data collection scandals, misinformation, online harassment, and outright techno-fraud. Sure, the tech industry has made life more productive over the past two decades, but has it made it better? Sidewalk never had an answer to this…

Indeed, the philosophical shift signaled by the new plan, with its emphasis on wind and rain and birds and bees rather than data and more data, seems like a pragmatic response to the demands of the present moment and the near future. The question is whether this new urban Eden truly offers a scenario that will rein in global warming or whether it’s “green” the way a smart city is “smart.” How many pocket forests and neighborhood farms will it take to cool the planet?

Whatever its practical impact, renderings of the new version of Quayside suggest a more livable place. The development promises something incredibly obvious that the purveyors of the smart city missed: a potential for daily life to be pleasurable. As MaRS Discovery District CEO and tech entrepreneur Yung Wu puts it: “What is the vision that inspires people to want to live here, to work here, to raise their families and children and grandchildren here? What is it that inspires that?”

“It’s not a smart city,” he concludes. “It’s a city that’s smart.”

I wrote about the earlier project here and it is interesting to see this update. I would guess the “smart city” will still come but perhaps through different forms including more incremental changes, smaller and less high-profile projects that test the concepts first, and perhaps through examples in other countries where guidelines and regulations are different.

Additionally, does this mean Alphabet and similar companies will no longer pursue such projects or will they seek more favorable conditions? Or, what happens if tech companies provide a more convincing argument that tech and nature can go together in urban forms?

At this point, it is hard to imagine tech retreating much but how exactly it continues to develop and merge with urban and built spaces remains to be seen. It is one thing to push technology through individuals or private actors but it is another level to build it in into the infrastructure from the beginning.

A shopping mall with protected wetlands

I recently shopped at a mall with protected wetlands:

The first thought I had upon seeing this was of “nature band-aids” that can often be found in suburbia as described by James Howard Kunstler. Shopping malls are known for many things but nature is not one of them.

Or, perhaps these are real wetlands that make contributions to the local ecosystem? This outlet mall has a location similar to many other malls: in the suburbs along a major roadway. I could imagine a need for land for animals and water amid development in the recent decades.

It would be interesting to know how these areas came about. Was part of the development of the land contingent on setting land aside for wetlands? Was a discovery made later about local nature? Is there some precedent among shopping malls for this?

Have a more expensive house, keep the lawn greener with automatic sprinklers

With a recent heat wave plus the upcoming warmer days of summer, different methods for maintaining a green lawn are on full display across suburban neighborhoods. I live in a suburban location where a ten minute walk or run brings me to neighborhoods with homes in multiple different price points. One recent observation about homes at a higher price point: they are more likely to have automatic sprinklers to keep the grass green.

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On my street and with residences at lower price points, I have not seen any automatic sprinklers. I see people out with hoses or sprinklers attached to hoses. Or, some people might do no watering at all or all lawn care is left to a homeowners association.

Step over to a different nearby street with larger and more expensive homes and a morning visit leads to seeing multiple homes with automatic sprinklers. The little black sprinkler heads can be viewed spreading water or the amount of water on the top of the grass blades suggests they were recently in action.

As I have chronicled the efforts of suburbanites to keep their lawn free of dandelions, weeds, and leaves alongside having a well-manicured green grass lawn, seeing the automatic watering of lawns among those with more resources leads to this thought: is the whole system of green lawns held in place by those with money and higher housing values as a means to signaling their status and pride in homeownership? The well-kept lawn is often tied to middle-class values but it costs money and time to keep the yard in a certain condition. And how much does the green lawn connect to higher financial and social standing?

A significant majority of Americans “believe it is better for the environment if houses are built further apart”

In April, YouGov reported on a survey with a series of questions on how Americans thought about high-density places. Here is how people responded when asked about the relationship between the environment and building homes:

Three in four Americans say it’s better for the environment if houses are built farther apart, while one in four say it’s better for houses to be built closer together. While Americans who live in cities are somewhat more likely than Americans who don’t to say that high density is more environmental, the vast majority of city-dwellers still believe that it’s more eco-friendly to build out rather than up. While Republicans and Independents are aligned on this issue, Democrats are somewhat more likely to say high-density living is environmental, though again, the majority still say it is worse for the environment than building farther apart.  https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/w0YWs/3/

It would be fascinating to follow up on these survey results with interviews or open-ended questions for the respondents: “Please explain why you answered this way.”

Knowing what I know about American preferences for single-family homes and wanting to be closer to nature in the suburbs, here are some factors that could be at work:

-Americans do not know what is best for the environment.

-Proximity to nature matters for how people assess whether the environment is better off. In higher density places, there is less open space or the natural areas have to be planned and protected. If the houses are further apart leaving more room for grass and local creatures, is this better for the environment?

-People really like homes built away from other homes, even if this might not be optimal for the environment.

-It is interesting that the biggest gap in opinions is between political parties and not where people live. Even then, two-thirds of Democrats agree with this. This might suggest anyone promoting density as a solution to environmental issues will run into some opposition.

National Association of Landscape Professionals defends the lawn

Trade associations are common in the United States and one is defending the green lawn as some Americans consider alternatives:

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Andrew Bray, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Landscape Professionals, a trade group, says lawns are still the mainstream choice. People want neat outdoor spaces for relaxing, playing and entertaining.

He says his group supports the goal of making lawn care more environmentally friendly, but believes some recent ordinances, like those against gas-powered blowers and mowers, have created a “fraught political environment.” He says electric alternatives to those tools aren’t feasible yet for the big lawns that professionals handle.

The landscapers’ trade group set up a new public platform this year, Voices for Healthy Green Spaces, to present its side of things. “Whether people want to have a large yard, plant a forest of trees in their backyard, or want a meadow and unstructured plantings,” all are green options, he said.

There is plenty of money in lawns. Many suburbanites see lawns as part of nature.

How green or environmentally friendly is the manicured and green lawn free of dandelions and leaves? It will likely take a varied approach to move many Americans away from these ideas. This could involve: displaying and marketing alternative approaches to yards; financial incentives to avoid a green grass lawn; increasing concern and action regarding climate change and its effects; and selling new kinds of lawn products. Put these together and the preferred lawn might change…over decades.

And keep an eye on how Big Lawn operates.

“Give me a [suburban] home, where the buffalo roam…”

The wildland urban interface often leads to stories about suburbanites encountering animals they might not expect. Recently in the Chicago region: a bison free in the northern suburbs.

One resident in Hawthorn Woods recently captured footage of a buffalo out and about, just walking around. Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time one has been spotted roaming the region.

Vince Clemens noticed the giant animal outside his home Friday, and his daughter, Michelle, captured video of the buffalo just minding its own business.

“I looked outside and saw the buffalo walking down the street,” Vince Clemens told NBC 5. “[She] broke free from a farm months ago, and is no stranger to people in the Northwest Suburbs…”

The wayward animal’s identity hasn’t been confirmed, but some wonder if its “Tyson the Bison.” Tyson escaped last September while being unloaded at her new home at a farm in unincorporated Wauconda.

More Americans may be much more familiar with seeing bison in captivity, such as in the zoo as in the picture above. They do not expect them to wander through suburban yards.

However, bison were regulars in the Chicago region prior to settlement by white Europeans. See these maps from Wikipedia (and the zoo has a similar map):

While bison will not be roaming the suburbs in large numbers anytime soon, suburbanites seem consistently surprised by coyotes and other animals that do not fit their suburban experiences or images. Yet, as the suburbs continue to mature – the Chicago area suburbs are over 150 years old – and nature continues to adapt, the suburban flora and fauna will change.

The importance of the globe’s five biggest forests

A new book outlines the outsized role of the five remaining big forests in the world:

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All forests can help, but large forests are of supreme importance for the climate. The five largest ones left—the megaforests—include boreal forests in Russia and North America, and the tropical forests in the Amazon, Congo, and New Guinea. Intact forests are 20 percent of the tropical total and store 40 percent of the aboveground forest carbon in the low latitudes. New research led by Sean Maxwell, of the University of Queensland, and 11 collaborators suggests that the carbon benefit of intact tropical forests is six times greater than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others have estimated to date. That’s because in the years after a big forest is broken up by roads or farms, its edges dry out and winds whistle through, blowing over big trees. Fires invade it more readily, and overhunting eliminates animals that disperse seeds. And on top of all the carbon vaporized from the space actually deforested, over the next several decades the climate will be stuck with 14 metric tons of extra carbon per acre that the lost tropical forests would have absorbed had they remained standing…

This experiment began in 1979. It ended up with five plots measuring two and a half acres, four at 25 acres, and two covering 250 acres. Matching control plots in continuous forest were also established. By 2002, the project had produced a simple answer about fragmentation: Large intact areas are very important, the larger the better. Even the 250-acre reserves were too small for forest-interior bird species, half of which vacated these patches in less than 15 years. The edges were hotter and drier, with great mats of desiccated leaves from trees either dying or losing foliage to wind. There were more vines, thicker undergrowth, and fewer mushrooms.

Species that need continuous tree cover decamped. Black spider monkeys, for example, who move fast through large areas of forest eating fruit from widely spaced trees, abandoned all the forest fragments immediately. They stayed in nearby continuous forest. Howler monkeys, by contrast, are leaf eaters and not particularly choosy. They remained in all the fragments. The white-plumed antbird, so named for the spiky crest between its eyes, could not persist in the fragments. Antbirds follow raiding ant armies and eat the bugs flushed out by the lethal column. Though 250 acres is sufficient territory for one ant colony, each colony marches only about a week per month. So, to avoid going hungry for weeks at a time, the white-plumed antbirds need to follow several colonies on a rotating basis. The 250-acre fragments were at least three times too small for the birds. No antbirds means no antbird droppings, which deprives shimmering blue-and-black skipper butterflies their sustenance. They left too…

Big forests are a linchpin in a planetary system. They are vivid stages for stories about energy and matter that we describe severally with our physical, biological, and chemical sciences, but are really a single story whose intricacies and meaning we don’t fully understand. Orchid bees make Brazil nuts, feed agoutis, take carbon from the air, breathe water back into it, make clouds that make rain a hundred miles away that feeds a stream, where a catfish, having migrated from the mouth of the Amazon, is caught by an otter or by a person, surrendering its protein to enliven the woods. The bee makes all these things, and these things make the bee.

One takeaway from this research: the way trees and nature are often treated in urban and suburban settings does not fully grapple with the larger impact of trees and forests. Isolated pockets of green are not necessarily bad but there is a difference in scale between those possibilities in more densely settled locations and large unbroken forests.

Another interesting aspect to consider is the human interaction with these large forests. Coming off reading the The Dawn of Everything, the shift to agriculture and living in larger cities in metropolitan areas did really create a divide between certain natural settings where humans could thrive and what became the settings for much of human activity.

This book also reminded me of this January 2022 piece on a man who has explored the old growth forests of New England and how much this differs from many contemporary experiences with trees and forests.

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.