Reactions to suburban yards filled with dandelions

Is a mark of a suburbanite who cares about their property values and yard a lawn free of dandelions? In a recent walk, I saw this yard:

On a corner lot, this yard was filled with dandelions all around. And to compound the issue, two of the next three yards adjacent to this home looked similar.

What does this all mean? Is this a set of households devoted to eco-friendly lawn care? Or, is it a sign that the owners do not care about their property and/or their neighbors?

Remarkably, many of the nearby lots have no dandelions whatsoever. Even as these three lots have helped spread thousands of dandelion seeds, the weed killers used nearby have done their job. The whole neighborhood is not overrun with dandelions. The damage – mostly visual? – is contained to three lots.

At the same time, I could imagine some of the neighbors might not be happy about the situation. The optics of yards given over to dandelions might not play well in a middle-class neighborhood where green manicured lawns are an expectation. What kind of neighbors are these to subject others to this blight? What if someone was trying to sell their home nearby?

Soon enough, the most visible signs of these dandelions will be gone. The seeds will have scattered, contributing to windy days where the air is visibly full of plant matter. Will the neighbors forget the dandelions? Will they be back next year? Is all of this a matter of overwrought suburbanites policing their artificial nature known as a lawn? The grass and the weeds may be more than just that; they are markers of social class and social norms in suburbia.

Pushing to ban grass in Las Vegas

Americans like grass lawns. Las Vegas is not an environment where it is easy to grow grass. What has to give? The city of Las Vegas wants to ban ornamental grass:

Photo by Kromatos on Pexels.com

Las Vegas-area water officials have spent two decades trying to get people to replace thirsty greenery with desert plants, and now they’re asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw roughly 40% of the turf that’s left…

They say this ornamental grass requires four times as much water as drought-tolerant landscaping like cactus and other succulents. By ripping it out, they estimate the region can reduce annual water consumption by roughly 15% and save about 14 gallons (53 liters) per person per day…

The proposal is part of a turf war waged since at least 2003, when the water authority banned developers from planting green front yards in new subdivisions. It also offers owners of older properties the region’s most generous rebate policies to tear out sod — up to $3 per square foot…

Last year was among the driest in the region’s history, when Las Vegas went a record 240 days without measurable rainfall. And the future flow of the Colorado River, which accounts for 90% of southern Nevada’s water, is in question.

There are multiple interesting components to this. Here are at least a few:

  1. I remember flying into Las Vegas a few years ago. The difference between the desert and the city and suburbs was remarkable. I do not remember too much grass outside of the very green golf courses that stood out. Even without much grass, the city in the desert is a different sight.
  2. As the article notes elsewhere, this sounds like efforts in California during their big drought. At the same time, the article also mentions how other locations like Phoenix and Salt Lake City are not interested in curbing the grass.
  3. More Americans than just people in Las Vegas might be rethinking the lawn. In addition to the need for watering, there is fertilizing, mowing, keeping out weeds and leaves, designing features, and more. Who has time and money for all of that?
  4. Las Vegas is a sprawling metro area and the single-family homes of American suburbs are often surrounded by green lawns. It is part of the package tied to kids playing and a green nature buffer around the private dwelling. Are the suburbs the same without these patches of grass?

Perhaps this becomes a model for communities, in the desert or not, across the United States.

The beauty of and danger to California’s Highway One

Over a decade ago, we planned a vacation that involved driving Highway One from San Francisco down the California coast. I had visited California several times before but had never driven this famous road. While our drive was relatively quick as we spent more time in urban centers, we enjoyed the scenery and the contrast of the roadway to typical straight Midwest roads.

With the recent washout in Big Sur, the need for constant reconstruction – and why – is interesting:

Highway 1 is a California spectacle, a Depression-era monument to the state’s quixotic ambitions and stunning beauty. It runs from the Orange County surf haven of Dana Point in the south into cannabis-cultivating Mendocino County, carrying heavy traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge and under the bluffs of Santa Monica, where it is better known as the Pacific Coast Highway, on its 650-mile route…

The engineering folly of a road built on sheer cliffs has meant that closures are annual events — the “whens,” not “ifs” — for the people and the economy it supports.

But the wild card now is the increasing frequency of wildfire along a roughly 100-mile stretch from William Randolph Hearst’s hilltop castle at San Simeon to Carmel, which is stripping fragile hillsides of stabilizing vegetation and causing more slides and more serious washouts across a region known broadly as Big Sur…

An even larger stretch of Highway 1 reopened in 2018 after a 14-month closure at Mud Creek about 20 miles south of here. The road was buried — not washed away, as in Rat Creek’s case — when the rocky ground above it gave way in hard rains.

This is one of the few times in my life where the road itself was a destination – and it was worth it. Keeping this corridor open is important even as it is a difficult stretch to maintain.

The suburban lawn and patio as protection against COVID-19

If people gather for Thanksgiving, experts are advising they meet and eat outside. Here is one example:

How much safer is an outdoor meal than an indoor meal?

Much, much safer. Almost all transmission of this virus happens indoors.

Even if people are close together?

Eating outdoors doesn’t mean you’re invincible. Still try to stay six feet apart. If you huddle together around a cramped table and have close, face-to-face conversations with the people next to you, you could absolutely infect them.

This is time for the patio or lawn, found in millions of single-family homes and in many suburbs, to shine. The lawn does not just have to be a status symbol; it can confer health benefits by allowing people to spread out.

This is not the first time that the suburban lawn was said to boost health. In the gathering urbanization of the nineteenth century, suburban lawns provided space away from polluted and noisy cities. Listening to the radio the other day, I again heard mentioned how River Forest, Illinois was intentionally built with features meant to highlight nature.

Before COVID-19, the suburban lawn was also said to aid good health. It helps people get outside to work and move around (canceled out by the use of gas-powered equipment?). It encourages kids to play in a safe space. Depending on the season and/or weather, the patio and yard can act as an outdoor extension of private living space.

Now, the lawn and patio can be a private spot away from COVID-19. Outsiders are not welcome. The fresh air, breeze, and distance can limit transmission. Nature, or “nature” in many suburban settings, can serve as an oasis. All that lawn and patio maintenance can be put to use. And, hopefully, people can stay COVID free.

It’s the time of year of suburban pressure to clear leaves

Cleaning up the leaves in a suburban lawn is rarely enforced or legislated. It is just an expected task for the suburban homeowner: thou shall not have many (or any) leaves in your lawn by the end of the fall season. Why is this the case? Here are a few possible reasons:

  1. A well-kept lawn, from green grass neatly kept to an absence of weeds to being cleared of leaves, is a marker of social class. It is part of keeping up the neighborhood and supporting property values. Lack of attention paid to the lawn signals less-invested homeowners, less valuable properties.
  2. Clearing leaves is an unquestioned social norm that simply continues on because people did it before. That leaves could be beneficial for lawns and garden beds may not matter; the inertia is already there for clearing leaves and it could take time for new patterns to emerge.
  3. There are commercial and industrial forces invested in making sure lawns are seeded, treated, and cleared. There are rakes and leaf blowers to sell. It is big business helping Americans remove leaves.
  4. Suburbanites pass along this social norm to each other through conversation and exhibited behavior. Neighbors share words while outside about their lawns. One suburbanite rakes their leaves because they see their neighbors doing it.

Perhaps this practice will pass into history at some point. But, as long as we have a suburban emphasis on single-family homes and their lawns, there will be more years of raking, bagging, mulching, and clearing leaves.

Home all day, hear the noise of daily work around your residence

With more people at home during the day, they can hear more of what goes on during a typical day. And they may not like it:

Cities, towns and villages in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere in the country have created bans or sought voluntary cuts in the use of leaf blowers in suburban neighborhoods. Town leaders noted that with everyone sheltering in home, the constant din was an added nuisance…

The municipal actions are a departure in the ongoing saga of leaf blowers, one marked, in many towns, by equal parts irritation and inaction. Everyone hates hearing them down the block, but no one complains about the swift and eye-pleasing work they accomplish on their own lawns. And so a silent majority has carried on, under the whine of the motor.

Some residents have apparently questioned whether the machines could be spreading the coronavirus. The village of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. raised the same worry on Twitter this week…

In Westfield, N.J., Mayor Shelley Brindle, in a statement, asked homeowners and landscapers to keep the blowers locked away until at least noon ever day.

This comes amid broader discussions about banning gas leaf blowers and other gas-powered outdoor equipment. Compared to electric or battery-powered equipment, they produce more noise and exhaust. This could be an interesting time to nudge people toward different equipment – in the name of noise, environmental concerns – though asking them to do so in the midst of a crisis will make it more difficult.

I wonder how much the perception of the noise problem is also due to the time of year. I wrote two years ago about common summer noises that can interrupt tranquility: air conditioners, lawnmowers, construction, etc. Once the weather starts warming up, more people are outside and more people are doing work outside. The person in one house who wants to sit on their deck and enjoy some peace and quiet competes with the person next door who enjoys keeping their yard neat and green. And both of them may dislike the municipal road project that reconstructs the next street over and produces noise for weeks. If the COVID-19 induced lockdown started in November, would people have the same noises to complain about?

At the same time, dealing with noise is tricky among neighbors and within a community. People generally know that certain locations are noisier than others and adjust accordingly. Some people even live right under runway paths. Businesses also have a stake in this; as is noted at the end of the article cited above, not using certain yard equipment is possible but raking and pruning by hand will take more time and cost more money. Keeping everyone happy regarding noise is likely to be difficult.

McMansions intrude on supersized ski resort

A look at a busy ski resort in Vermont references the supersized houses along the slopes:

Stratton’s 11 lifts move 33,928 skiers upward per hour, up from 21,078 in 1995—far more efficient than the child-eating, circa-’70s rope tow at Snow Valley. Quicker than expected, I was aloft, cozily wedged into the six-person chair, thrust into exhilaration. Evoking the rare weeks my family had skied in the Rocky Mountains, it all seemed blissfully familiar until our chair zipped past McMansions scattered up the hill—jarring, very 2020, real estate intrusions.

Add ski resort to the collection of consumer goods and experiences that have become supersized. While I do not think linking McMansions and skiing will have the same resonance or reach as McMansions and SUVs, the general idea is the same: Americans want to consume and bigger is better.

At the same time, does the view of a McMansion disturb a ski lift ride or a trip down a hill? In general, skiing aims to put people back into nature. The soundscape should be peaceful. The slopes can be challenging but enjoyable. The atmosphere should be relaxed. The focus of the article is on the larger crowds – but this also hints at the increased level of development. If skiing is so popular, what developer would pass up the opportunity to plant McMansions nearby?

A famous author mowing the lawn, giving purpose to caring for the suburban yard

As I raked most of the remaining leaves this weekend, I pondered again the task of taking care of the lawn. Should I continue to help uphold the class status of the neighborhood or let the leaves break down naturally and nourish the grass?

But, if a famous author also took the time to care for his lawn, perhaps so could I. From a recent Facebook post:

ChurchillTolkienMowingthelawn

Caring for a lawn (or garden or field or yard) may just be part of the human tendency to want to cultivate the land around us. Maybe the motivation matters here: if I am more interested in raking because of the property values, this is worse than wanting to get some fresh air and participate in the changing of seasons. Maybe the quotidian tasks give the brain and body a chance to to relax and recharge. Maybe the truly inspired parts of life often follow everyday tasks. Maybe only people who keep fairly regular journals can figure this stuff out (and notice how much Tolkien did not comment on).

All that said, I would guess the average American suburban homeowner would feel better about mowing the lawn or raking leaves or caring for their landscaping if they could connect it to a purpose larger than just wanting the lawn to keep up appearances.

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.