Camping in the McMansion of tents

This article sent by a friend is a few years old but still interesting: why settle for a small tent?

MCMANSIONS MAY BE going out of style, but when you’re camping, there’s something to be said for having an abode with outsize square footage. Yes, you can enjoy the great outdoors in a just-big-enough dwelling, but why compromise? Sleeping in the woods is much more comfortable when you have room to spare.

Just like McMansions are often criticized, I imagine some campers would criticize these tents for too much space. Plus, a large tent might be the market of the occasional camper rather than a hardcore camping enthusiast. But, as the article notes, not everyone wants to be packed like a sardine in a tent. And when the square footage of the “McMansion” is just over 100 square feet, half of what you might see in a typical tiny house (and without as much head space), a temporary structure of this size may not be too bad…

More land protected by private owners than the American National Parks system

Here is an interesting fact: private landowners have protected more land than all of the National Parks system.

More than 56 million acres of private land have been voluntarily conserved across the country, according to the latest National Land Trust Census, which is released every five years by the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance (LTA). For context, that’s double the size of all land in national parks across the lower 48 states.

“Land trusts are in a position to address many of society’s ills,” says Andrew Bowman, president of the LTA, in a statement about the census. “How do we stem a national health crisis and provide opportunities for people to exercise and recreate? Land is the answer. How do we secure local, healthy and sustainable food? Land is the answer. And land even has a role to play in mitigating climate change.”

Thanks to the flexibility of private land conservation, those 56 million acres play a wider range of roles than we typically expect from state or national parks. The owner of a small forest may prohibit any construction or public access, for example, while another may allow some hunting and fishing, or may even turn it into a community park with hiking trails. A family that owns a farm, meanwhile, could decide to protect certain parts of their property — like a stream buffer or a flowering meadow — while reserving their right to build structures or clear pastures elsewhere…

And while it’s not always as accessible as a national park — often by design, for the sake of wildlife or for the privacy of people who live there — protected private land is still valuable for public recreation, too. The census counts nearly 15,000 private properties with public access, including more than 1.4 million acres owned by land trusts and another 2.9 million acres under easement. More than 6.2 million people visited U.S. land-trust properties in 2015, according to the LTA, for the kinds of friluftsliv outdoor activities that boost public health without much public investment.

I’m guessing those landowners that do this like that both the National Parks and private owners are conserving this land. On the other hand, does this figure suggest that the National Parks system is not the best to preserve land? It may be the best way to preserve land for public use – and the busiest National Parks are indeed often overrun with visitors – but perhaps is not the best approach in the long run.

“Move to a leafy suburb to cut cancer risk”

A new Harvard study suggests the risk of getting cancer decreases when people live around more greenery – such as in suburbs:

People whose homes are surrounded by the most greenery are 13 per cent less likely to die of cancer. Their risk of dying from respiratory disease also drops by 34 per cent, the biggest ever study into green spaces and health has shown.

Overall mortality was 12 per cent less for people who had the most greenery within 250 metres of their homes during the eight year follow-up period.

It is thought that being surrounded by vegetation improves mental health and lowers depression. It also allows people to get out and about more, giving more opportunities for exercise and social engagement, both of which are known to be protective against disease. The lack of air pollution in green areas also plays an important role…

More than 100,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Survey were followed between 200-2008. Scientists used satellite imagery from different seasons and years to monitor how much greenery surrounded their homes.

The early suburbs of England and the United States were popular in part because of their health benefits compared to the growing dirty industrial cities. The suburbs then featured much more greenery and the idea of having a small house in the midst of nature. I’m not sure today’s suburbs can truly compare, particularly those closer to the central city. I’m reminded of James Howard Kunstler’s commentary in this TED Talk about the “nature band-aid” that is often applied in suburbs today. But, this study suggests that a greener setting – even if it is heavily modified by humans in suburban settings – can help.

Install an artificial plant to hide nearby McMansion

Have an unsightly McMansion next door? Install artificial plantings:

A San Marcos, California based company, Geranium Street Floral, has installed their artificial plants at many hip remodeled homes throughout Southern California. The company recently installed an artificial hedge at a remodeled property in North Hollywood that no doubt greatly improved the view in the backyard of the custom remodeled home. Geranium Street specializes in creating backyard privacy with their artificial plants.

Geranium Street president, Bob Smith explains that with the advent of “McMansions” throughout Southern California, the need for privacy is at an all time high. “Before, you had houses in a neighborhood that were all basically the same height, so privacy wasn’t much of an issue, but now they are tearing the old houses down and building houses that tower over those of their neighbors – suddenly everyone feels like they are living in a fish bowl. We have ways to solve that problem quickly with our artificial plants,” said Smith…

Bob Smith explained that many real estate developers have found the quick solution to their privacy and decorative needs by installing artificial plants. “Whereas it may take months to grow real vines and plant real trees, we can come in and install our artificial plants in a day or two. The new artificial trees and plants look more realistic than they ever did before, and they are very durable,” said Smith.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Given the water issues in California, I’m surprised this press release doesn’t include the rationale of saving money on plantings. Have a hedge and no water is required.
  2. It would be interesting to think about how these installations play with the idea of “nature.” Some would say the real plantings in the suburban sprawl like that found in southern California are already poor imitations of nature. But, what if those same plantings aren’t even real? Is this a more honest admission of the lack of nature? These options are billed as durable but they likely provide a different aesthetic and physical experience.
  3. Theoretically, such hedges could be built to any size of shape. McMansions can come in all sorts of sizes and shapes and a company could get pretty creative in how an artificial hedge hides the ugly house next door.
  4. What do artificial plants do to property values? They may be durable but I imagine they could be viewed as tacky or lower class.

Perceptions of extreme weather affected by social context

A new study in Environmental Sociology finds that people view extreme weather differently depending on their context:

“Odds were higher among younger, female, more educated, and Democratic respondents to perceive effects from extreme weather than older, male, less educated, and Republican respondents,” said the study’s author, Matthew Cutler of the University of New Hampshire.

There were other correlations, too. For example, people with lower incomes had higher perceptions of extreme weather than people who earned more. Those who live in more vulnerable areas, as might be expected, interpret the effects of weather differently when the costs to their homes and communities are highest.

Causes of extreme weather and the frequency of extreme weather events is an under-explored area from a sociological perspective. Better understanding is important to building more resilient and adaptive communities. After all, why prepare or take safety precautions if you believe the weather isn’t going to be all that bad or occur all that often?…

“The patterns found in this research provide evidence that individuals experience extreme weather in the context of their social circumstances and thus perceive the impacts of extreme weather through the lens of cultural and social influences. In other words, it is not simply a matter of seeing to believe, but rather an emergent process of both seeing and believing — individuals experiencing extreme weather and interpreting the impacts against the backdrop of social and economic circumstances central to and surrounding their lives,” Cutler concludes.

Context matters! (Many sociology studies could be summed up this way.) Weather may have some objective features – it can be measured, quantified, examined, and predicted (to a small degree). Yet we all experience slightly differently based on what shapes us. While it sounds like this study focuses more on demographic factors, I wonder if there would also be big differences based on general attitudes about nature: is it something that is bigger than humans/has a life of its own vs. it is something that humans can control or not be affected by because of our increasing knowledge? Plus, humans are often not the best at detecting patterns; we perceive things to be related when they are not or vice versa.

Perhaps this helps explain why so many people can make small talk about the weather. It isn’t just that it affects us; rather, we all view it in slightly different ways. One person’s big storm that requires changing their behavior might be just an inconvenience to someone else.

Another downside: McMansions threaten trees

McMansion critics may have another argument at their disposal: constructing McMansions may often require removing trees.

About 2,000 street trees, or trees near Los Angeles roadways, are removed annually, according to Los Angeles City Hall leaders.

The trees are removed in some cases because of disease or death, but in other instances, they’re taken down because of the construction of so-called McMansions.

Concerned about the loss of trees at the hands of developers, a City Council committee called for a report back on new policies for the removal of street trees…

With some tear-downs, a “double driveway is needed where one used to be sufficient,” she said, resulting in the loss of a tree.

This doesn’t seem like that many trees, particularly since there could be multiple reasons behind the removal of street trees. Yet, losing trees could be another blow dealt by teardown McMansions to neighbors: not only will the new home fill up the lot and look out of place with nearby homes, it will require losing some of the greenery that residents tend to like. This is probably less about nature and more about appearances and quality of life where mature trees on residential properties lend gravitas and pleasant barriers between the street and sidewalks, lawns, and homes.

If the problem is the larger driveways for the new large homes, it would be interesting to see how Los Angeles regulates their width. Is there a ratio or size that could be invoked to fit all kinds of situations?

How about this crazy idea: builders of McMansions, teardowns or otherwise, should spend a little bit more money and cover their properties with decent-sized trees. Neighbors and others may still not like the house but who can argue with a number of new trees?

Maybe the American lawn is dead

Get through the history of the lawn and recent reactions to drought in California (see here, here, and here) and read one conclusion about the fate of the American lawn:

Maybe we really are in a new era. Maybe it will signal the end of our love affair with lawns. Maybe the new national landscape—a shared vision that inspires and enforces collective responsibility for a shared world—will take on a new kind of wildness. Maybe, as the billboards dotting California’s highways cheerily insist, “Brown Is the New Green.” Maybe the yard of the future will feature wildflowers and native grasses and succulent greenery, all jumbled together in assuring asymmetry. Maybe we will come to find all that chaos beautiful. Maybe we will come to shape our little slices of land, if we’re lucky enough to have them, in a way that pays tribute to the America that once was, rather than the one we once willed.

Here are four reasons why I think this will take some time – if indeed a majority of Americans do get rid of their lawns in the next few decades:

  1. What California has experienced hasn’t hit many other states. For much of the country, this drought is still an abstraction.
  2. Americans associate their green lawn with their single-family home with kids and all the success that the lawn and home symbolize. This is a simplification with some validity: the green lawn = the American Dream. This is why so many neighborhoods and communities fuss about and fine lawns that don’t look good.
  3. The lawn industry will fight back. Yes, the lawn industry has a lot invested in this and could develop varieties of lawn that need less water as well as champion alternatives that they can sell.
  4. A return to “nature” in our yards isn’t exactly real nature. It is another human modified version. Some replacements for lawn could take less work than the perfect grass lawn – but others will still require a good amount of maintenance. And I’m not sure how many homeowners really want truly untended yards.