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.

Photo by Q. Hu01b0ng Phu1ea1m on Pexels.com

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:

Photo by JJ Jordan on Pexels.com

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:

Photo by thiago japyassu on Pexels.com

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”:

Photo by Armin Rimoldi on Pexels.com

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.

Who should be able to live on or near the coast?

A new federal government flood insurance plan highlights an ongoing question: should living near the ocean coast be available to many?

Photo by Daniel Jurin on Pexels.com

At the center of the fight are the questions of who gets to live by the water, and who should shoulder the burden of costs that rise with the sea level. The estimated 13 million people who reside in the officially designated floodplain are divided between those who can buy pricey waterfront homes and those consigned to live in less desirable, low-lying areas because that’s all they can afford. Some of the people hardest-hit by major recent storms have been vulnerable communities in New Orleans; Port Arthur, Texas, outside Houston; and poor neighborhoods in the farthest reaches of New York City. The updated flood-insurance system is designed to help those populations, but in coastal communities across the country, uncertainty about the new prices is spreading fear that however well intentioned, the administration’s policy will exacerbate the inequality of beachfront living, pushing out homeowners most sensitive to climbing insurance rates.

Real estate is famously about location, location, location with recent examples – COVID-19 migration and opportunities in the metaverse – illustrating this maxim. The coast may be one of the most desirable locations as there is only so much of it and people like the views and access to the water and beaches. Even though not all coastal properties are really expensive, such land near big cities and destinations can be very pricey with high demand.

Even as the insurance program is updated, perhaps the real long term question is just how many people should be able to live on the coast at all given climate change, environmental concerns including erosion and habitat degradation, and an interest in keeping shoreline available for public use. Is there any chance more coastline in popular areas is protected fifty or one hundred years from now or are the market pressures just too strong?

Suburban lawns and religious alternatives

With religious motivation, the suburban lawn can be transformed into an area of biodiversity:

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Mr. Jacobs is an ecologist and a Catholic who believes that humans can fight climate change and help repair the world right where they live. While a number of urban dwellers and suburbanites also sow native plants to that end, Mr. Jacobs says people need something more: To Reconnect with nature and experience the sort of spiritual transcendence he feels in a forest, or on a mountain, or amid the bounty of his own yard. It’s a feeling that, for him, is akin to feeling close to God…

Mr. Jacobs, for his part, looks around at all the pristine lawns (“the lawn is an obsession, like a cult,” he says) and sees ecological deserts that feed neither wildlife nor the human soul. “This is a poverty that most of us are not even aware of,” he said.

And he has started a movement to promote better ecology:

About 20 years ago, he began compiling quotes from the Bible, saints and popes that expound on the sanctity of Earth and its creatures, and posting them online. He considered naming the project after St. Francis of Assisi, the go-to saint for animals and the environment. But, not wanting to impose another European saint on American land, he instead named it after Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th Century Algonquin-Mohawk woman who converted to Catholicism as a teenager and, in 2012, became the first Native American to be canonized…

Three years ago, Mr. Jacobs took a step further, teaming up with a fellow Catholic ecologist, Kathleen Hoenke, to launch the St. Kateri Habitats initiative, which encourages the creation of wildlife-friendly gardens that feature native plants and offer a place to reflect and meditate (they also teamed up to write a book, “Our Homes on Earth: A Catholic Faith and Ecology Field Guide for Children,” due out in 2023). They enlisted other ecology-minded Catholics, and have since added an Indigenous peoples program and two Indigenous women to their board.

What exactly is the connection between religious faith in America and the suburban lawn? Two hints above:

  1. First, Jacobs suggests the lawn is “like a cult.” Americans put a lot of effort into keeping the lawn looking good. The lawn signals status and is part of necessary upkeep for the sacred single-family suburban home. The lawn may provide insight into someone’s soul. The devotion to the lawn has its own practices, beliefs, and organizations.
  2. Religious traditions have something about how to approach the earth and land. Jacobs draws on Catholic theology, tradition, and practice to develop both his personal personal practices and an organization that now has members around the world. In a country where a majority of residents are Christians of one tradition or another, how many suburbanites draw on religion to help them interact with their yard and nearby nature?

As more people reconsider whether to have a lawn or consider modifying their lawn, bringing religion into the conversation could help clarify what the lawn is all about. Is the lawn itself worthy of religious devotion or does it help point to larger and transcendent realities?

The newest skyscraper attraction/commodification: climbing the outside with just a safety harness

It may not quite be climbing the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible but a new attraction in New York City offers the opportunity to climb at 1,300 feet up with just a safety harness:

Photo by Lukas Kloeppel on Pexels.com

This was City Climb, an attraction opening Tuesday at 30 Hudson Yards, one of the city’s tallest buildings. It gives thrill-seekers a unique perspective on New York that no observation deck could hope to match: No walls, no glass windows, no railings. Just skyline…

Climbers are equipped with specially designed safety harnesses that let them ascend an outdoor staircase, from the first lookout known as the Cliff, to the top platform called the Apex, located 1,271 feet (387 meters) above 10th Avenue.

There, they can lean out over the edge and look down at the Empire State Building. City Climb will operate rain, snow or shine, but will close if the temperature drops below 23 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 5 degrees Celsius) or if there is dangerous weather in the area…

Then, she leaned back, arms stretched out, hanging over the city as a cable tether kept her from falling to the streets below.

I find two features of this striking:

  1. The quest for humans to conquer obstacles and/or natural forces in two ways. First, the goal of building tall structures that stretch far beyond the size of people and many natural features. Second, the willingness of many to test their limits, conquer their fears, to try something new. And do it all on one of the tallest buildings in a city and country known for stretching these limits. What comes after this?
  2. The ongoing commodification of the skyscraper experience. Skyscrapers emerged because of a land for space where land was limited and expensive. With the rise of skyscrapers came sky decks and seeing from such a great height. Then came new experiences, ranging from glass floors to tilting parts to now being outside. People are used to seeing the world from the air – airplanes offer even better views – and also desire new experiences. All of this for $185 a person.