Flooding as a major suburban problem

Suburbs are often derided for their sprawling development that chew up acres of land and significantly alters more rural settings. Within that sprawl, one problem that consistently shows up but receives less attention than it should is flooding. For example, the significant rain received in parts of the Chicago region this past Wednesday (July 12) has impacted a number of suburbs:

While some suburban communities Saturday saw water levels begin to recede in the wake of Wednesday’s downpour, others still are bracing for the worst of the fallout from flood-ravaged rivers experts expect will crest later today into next week.

In Algonquin, the Fox River reached 11.79 feet by noon Saturday, with the National Weather Service predicting it will crest nearly a foot higher, at 12.9 feet, sometime Tuesday.

As of noon Saturday, The National Weather Service reported the Des Plaines River near Gurnee had reached a record-setting 11.96 feet and was expected to crest at about 12 feet sometime in the next 24 hours. In Lincolnshire, the level had dropped to 15.5 feet, but official predictions indicate the river may rise again to crest at 16.3 feet sometime Sunday.

While Wednesday’s rain was unusual (and we could argue about how frequently such big storms do and should occur), the results highlight a common issue across suburban landscapes: what happens to all that water? Suburbs don’t just change rural or farm land into developments; they change how water flows and is absorbed into the soil.

A variety of techniques are available to deal with the water. Common in this area are retention ponds, sunken areas within developments that are often dry but serve as places where water can pool when excessive rainfall occurs. In the Chicago area, the need to deal with flooding led to one of the largest civil engineering projects in the world: Deep Tunnel. Floodplains are fairly visible during heavy rains as homes and other structures near large bodies of water, particularly rivers, are affected. Less easy to see are  formerly swampy or marshy land which have been filled in, the channeling of creeks and rivers (or even covering them up completely), and covering the ground with less permeable surfaces such as roads and driveways (this can be combated by using different kinds of surfaces).

Instead of viewing flooding within major metropolitan regions as the unfortunate result of large storms, we should see it as a regular issue within suburban settings. And if we do so, that might prompt better plans to avoid the flooding that comes when so much land is altered.

McMansions to blame for the decreasing tree cover in Los Angeles

A recent study suggests the rise of McMansions has contributed to a loss of trees in Los Angeles:

Americans’ growing preference for large single-family houses, along with the increase in driveways and swimming pools that come with home expansion, is the largest driver of tree cover loss in the US, according to the study.

Looking at satellite imagery and data from the LA County assessor’s office, the researchers found about one-third of the city’s trees in single-family housing neighborhoods was eliminated from 2000 to 2009. During that period, tree cover may have decreased up to 55%…

Surprisingly, the researchers also found that 1950s suburban development may have been good for trees, at least in LA. Private land owners planted trees on their land during that decade, contributing to a richer urban forest in the city.

“These ecologically beneficial consequences occurred organically — not as the result of conscious environmental policy, but rather as an outgrowth of the cultural aesthetic and economics of the times,” the researchers write.

This leads to several thoughts:

  1. Perhaps it is time to again modify Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” to something like: “They paved paradise to put up a McMansion.”
  2. Cities can often have a lot of trees. This may be counterintuitive: when people imagine cities, they think of skyscrapers and a concrete jungle. While there may not be many forests in the city, there can be plenty of trees.
  3. With the praise given to ranch homes here, couldn’t McMansions reduce the issues by just planting trees? Those 1950s subdivisions didn’t have many trees at the time either – the classic images of Levittown often shows houses and bare land – and it took time for them to become the classic tree-lined suburban streets.

Perfect lawns and suburbanization

A comic on how much water, energy, and land is devoted to lawns in America includes information on when the perfect lawn emerged:

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Woe to the suburbanite who follows the ideas of this comic and lets their perfect lawn disappear. Not even drought such as that experienced in California in recent years (see posts about California lawns here, here, and here) would convince all suburbanites to give up on the perfect lawn.

How might the quest for the perfect lawn end? Here are a few scenarios:

  1. Younger generations and retirees have less and less interest in maintaining a yard. Once you have handed off those duties to your HOA or a business, why not just cut out this cost all together?
  2. A restriction on lawnmower emissions or noise. I live in a fairly quiet neighborhood yet one of the major pollutants – both in noise and burned gasoline – must be lawnmowers.
  3. New construction includes other kinds of lawns that are greener and more cost-efficient in the long run. It may be difficult to let a lawn go once you have it but imagine future homebuyers starting with no lawn.

260,000 trees a year for mortgage documents

Mortgages are important documents given how much money they involve yet they also consume a lot of trees according to one estimate:

According to the report, those seeking a mortgage encounter scores of paperwork — in some cases, more than 50 loan documents — including everything from an appraisal report to the loan application, topping out at an estimated 252 pages. Add in another 28 pages, approximately, for documents borrowers must provide such as pay stubs and bank statements…

Multiply 280 pages per mortgage by an average of 7.8 million mortgages a year — a figure from a recent Federal Reserve Bulletin — and what have you got?

That’s right: almost 2.2 billion sheets of paper annually from mortgages alone. That equals more than 41,000 tons of wood and over 260,000 trees…

A FreeandClear survey conducted in February polled homeowners ages 22 to 49 who have a mortgage. In one question, on the most taxing part of the mortgage process, 56 percent of respondents pointed to excessive paperwork.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. Remember all those predictions that we would move away from the world of paper? Even with the disadvantages it may have, it is pretty useful to have paper documents in a number of situations.
  2. I assume “excessive paperwork” is relative to “typical” amounts of paperwork people have to fill out. Is it a bit unrealistic to expect that a mortgage – a significant contract for the average borrower – shouldn’t have little paperwork?
  3. The 260,000 trees figure is supposed to be shocking and help us think more about the social problem of tree removal. All those trees just for mortgages?!? But, how many trees are cut down each year for paper? One source from a few years suggests it is over 4 billion trees each year. Time says 15 billion trees – for all uses – are cut down each year but this is out of a base of roughly 4 trillion trees overall. How about a look at how many trees are used for newspapers each year in the United States? Is this a more acceptable use of paper?

Nature, driving, and states closing “old-fashioned” rest stops

When money is tight at the state level, one way to save money is to close highway rest areas:

Cash-strapped transportation agencies are shuttering the old ones to save money, or because they don’t attract enough traffic or are in such bad shape that renovating them is too costly. Or, the stops have been overtaken by tourist information centers, service plazas that take in revenue from gasoline and food sales, or commercial strips off interstate exits.

Florida, Michigan, Ohio and South Dakota are among the states that have closed traditional rest stops in the past two years. And a battle is brewing in Connecticut over a proposal to shut down all seven stops on its interstate highways to save money.

But advocates of maintaining traditional rest areas say even if motorists are offered flashier options for pit stops, the ones that sprung up as highways did are still needed for driver safety and convenience. Some view them as a tranquil, environmentally friendly alternative to crowded service plazas and commercial strips…

But unlike service plazas, rest areas on federal interstate highways are prohibited from selling gasoline or food other than from vending machines, the proceeds of which traditionally go to people who are visually impaired. State transportation departments run the rest areas and are responsible for cleaning and maintaining them. That can take a chunk of their budget, depending on staffing and amenities, officials say.

It almost seems quaint that highway driving should be broken up to stops at state rest areas where drivers can experience nature and rest. Can highways and nature go together, especially on a small patch of green land within earshot of the interstate? Highways can of course be used for pleasurable trips but the majority of highway traffic is likely for practical purposes such as going to work or conducting some kind of personal business. In contrast, given our reliance on the trucking industry, the issue of spaces for truck drivers to stop seems like a bigger deal.

Ultimately, this seems to be about whether Americans deserve to have some spaces in life where commercial interests are severely limited or not allowed. Given the encroachment of economic life into many life domains, this change isn’t too surprising.

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.