Adaptations in nature to urban life

More research shows animals can and do adapt to urban environments:

Whitehead’s work on killifish is one of the signature triumphs of urban evolution, an emergent discipline devoted to figuring out why certain animals, plants, and microbes survive or even flourish no matter how much we transform their habitats. Humans rarely give much thought to the creatures that flit or crawl or skitter about our apartment blocks and strip malls, in part because we tend to dismiss them as either ordinary or less than fully wild. But we should instead marvel at how these organisms have managed to keep pace with our relentless drive to build and cluster in cities. Rather than wilt away as Homo sapiens have spread forth bearing concrete, bitumen, and steel, a select number of species have developed elegant adaptations to cope with the peculiarities of urban life: more rigid cellular membranes that may ward off heat, digestive systems that can absorb sugary garbage, altered limbs and torsos that enhance agility atop asphalt or in runoff-fattened streams.

Whitehead and his colleagues, many of whom are at the dawn of their careers, are now beginning to pinpoint the subtle genetic changes that underlie these novel traits. Their sleuthing promises to solve a conundrum that has vexed biologists for 160 years, and in the process reveal how we might be able to manipulate evolution to make the world’s cities—projected to be home to two-thirds of humanity by 2050—resilient enough to endure the catastrophes that are coming their way…

Like so many of their scientific peers, urban evolution researchers are grappling with the question of how their work can help us make this new environmental reality a bit less grim. On the surface, at least, their inquiries can seem largely aimed at addressing theoretical matters—notably the issue of whether the evolution of complex organisms is a replicable phenomenon, like any ordinary chemical reaction. Cities provide an accidental global network of ad hoc laboratories to test this question: Office towers the world over are fabricated from the same glass panels and steel beams, night skies are illuminated by the same artificial lights, auditory landscapes thrum with the noise of the same cars, food waste comes from the same KFCs and Subways.

This urban sameness is allowing researchers to determine whether isolated populations of the same species develop similar adaptations when placed in parallel environments. “What cities offer us is this amazingly large-scale, worldwide experiment in evolution, where you’ve got thousands of life-forms that are experiencing the same factors,” says Marc Johnson, who heads an evolutionary ecology lab at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Perhaps sociologist Robert Park was more correct than he knew by suggesting the city was a laboratory. Furthermore, Park and other sociologists like Herbert Spencer borrowed concepts from biology and applied them to social processes and communities.

This research could also help address two other issues (in addition to climate change as discussed in the article):

  1. What really is “nature” in cities? Adding parks and trees is not really grappling with what nature is nor with how cities and their residents see nature around them. And what is the ideal end goal of people-nature interaction in big cities?
  2. Urbanization is not just about harm to the environment but it is also about long-term changes. Humans have been interacting with and affecting nature for a long time but the specific process of urbanization in roughly the last 150 years has been different.

“Trophy ranches” may disappear with Baby Boomers

One segment of the luxury property market does not appeal to younger buyers or those who do not understand the appeal of a “trophy ranch”:

Decades ago, a generation of America’s wealthiest, raised on television shows like “Howdy Doody” and “The Lone Ranger,” headed west with dreams of owning some of the country’s most prestigious ranches. Now, as those John Wayne- loving baby boomers age out of the lifestyle or die, they or their children are looking to sell those trophy properties…

Jeff Buerger, a local ranch broker with Hall & Hall in Colorado, said there are more large trophy ranches on the market right now than he can recall in his nearly three decades in the business. There are about 20 ranches priced at over $20 million on the market in the state, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of listings…

Unlike other sectors of the U.S. high-end real-estate market, ranches can’t fall back on international purchasers. Broker Tim Murphy said there is virtually no demand for ranches from international buyers, many of whom “don’t get it.”…

“The last wave of buyers was the baby boomers who fell in love with John Wayne and wanted that experience for themselves,” Mr. Buerger said. “Today, it’s more about conservation. You’re starting to hear more landowners talking about wildlife habitat enhancement and ecological work.” Other targeted groups include wealthy families from the East Coast or Silicon Valley.

I would guess this is not just about baby boomers: it is about broader conceptions of what is the ideal property if someone came into significant money. The implication in the story above is that media, particularly John Wayne films, created a desire for these locations. Presumably, other media depictions would fuel desires for other properties. Depending on the tastes and background of buyers, this could range from:

1. Pricey downtown condos or penthouses in the middle of urban action (whether in well-established wealthy neighborhoods or in up-and-coming places).

2. Suburban McMansions that offer a lot of space and unique architecture.

3. Traditional mansions with sprawling homes whose size and design imply old money (in contrast to the flashy yet flawed McMansions).

4. Impressive vacation homes right on desirable beaches.

Perhaps the trick of any of these is to try to ensure that there are future buyers for your property. If demand drops, your hot high-status property may not hold up as a desirable location for the long-term.

Implicating suburban sprawl in the spread of ticks and pathogens

As new tick-borne illnesses spread, sprawl is part of the problem:

But as climate change, suburban sprawl, and increased international travel are putting more ticks and the pathogens they carry in the paths of humans, what’s becoming more urgently apparent is how the US’s tick monitoring systems are not keeping pace.

“It’s really a patchwork in terms of the effort that different areas are putting into surveillance,” says Becky Eisen, a tick biologist with CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne diseases. The federal public health agency maintains national maps of the ranges of different tick species, but they’re extrapolated from scattered data collected in large part by academic researchers. Only a few states, mostly in the Northeast, have dedicated tick surveillance and control programs. That leaves large parts of the country in a data blackout.

To help address that problem the CDC is funding an effort to identify the most urgent gaps in surveillance. It has also begun publishing guidance documents for public health departments on how to collect ticks and test them for diseases, to encourage more consistent data collection across different states and counties.

In an ideal world, says Eisen, every county in the US would send a few well-protected people out into fields and forests every spring and summer, setting traps or dragging a white flannel sheet between them to collect all the ticks making their homes in the grasses and underbrush. Their precise numbers, locations, and species would be recorded so that later on when they get ground up and tested, that DNA would paint a national picture of risk for exposure to every tick-borne pathogen in America. But she recognizes that would be incredibly labor-intensive, and with only so many public funding dollars to go around each year, there are always competing priorities.“But from a research perspective, that’s the kind of repeatable, consistent data we’d really want,” says Eisen. “That would be the dream.”

While there is little direct discussion of sprawl, I wonder if there are two problems at play.

First, sprawl puts more people in interaction with more natural settings. As metropolitan areas expand, more residents end up in higher densities in areas that previously had experienced limited human residence. More people at the wildland urban interface could potentially lead to more problems in both directions: humans can pick up diseases while nature can be negatively impacted by more people.

Second, increasing sprawl means more data needs to be collected as more people are at possible threat. Metropolitan areas (metropolitan statistical areas according to the Census Bureau) typically expand county by county as outer counties increase in population and have more ties to the rest of the region. Since many metropolitan regions expand in circles, adding more counties at the edges could significantly increase the number of counties that need monitoring. And as the article ends with, finding money to do all that data collection and analysis is difficult.

Making a horror film about illnesses carried by ticks would take some work to make interesting but these sorts of hidden and minimally problematic in terms of number of suburbanites at this point issues could cause a lot of anxiety.

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.