Claim: “McMansions Murdered Big Fireworks”

According to the president of a fireworks company, one reason fireworks have gotten smaller in recent years is because people are living closer together:

That’s not just your childhood memory at work. Fireworks shows really were slower and fueled by bigger explosions just a few decades back. Today, shows tend to pack in more, smaller fireworks to make up scale in bulk. There are a variety of intersecting anthropological and financial reasons for that, explains Doug Taylor, the president of Zambelli Fireworks (a company that will put on roughly 600 fireworks shows across the country this holiday weekend). People live closer together, safety regulations have gotten tighter, and if you don’t have size, fireworks are exciting in sheer density.

To understand firework lingo, you have to realize that fireworks are described in inches per shell, and each inch correlates to 100 feet in launch height. That means a 2-inch shell fires 200 feet into the air, and a 4-inch shell reaches 400 feet. The bigger the shell, the bigger the pyrotechnics.

“What’s happened is, the size shell that you can shoot in a particular location has decreased,” Taylor explains. Just as shell width correlates to height, so too does height correlate with regulation. Old regulations dictated that you needed 70 feet of area cleared for every inch of shell fired around a launch area. The new industry standard is 100 feet. So when you play that out, practically, a large 12-inch shell needs 1,200 feet (or nearly a quarter of a mile) cleared in every direction to be considered safe.

Taylor tells me that fireworks sites nationwide have been shrinking with both urbanization and suburban sprawl. And fellow fireworks company Pyrotecnico echoes the sentiment. “What we’re finding is that sites are shrinking,” explains Pyrotecnico Creative Director Rocco Vitale. “Growth is happening. More buildings are going up. And when that happens at a site, a show you could use 6-inch shells two years ago becomes a place for 4-inch shells.”

So the term McMansion is used here as a shortcut for sprawl. More suburban homes makes it more difficult to find open spaces for big fireworks. The use of the term McMansion seems gratuitous to me – sprawl is composed of all sorts of homes and other buildings but the term will grab people’s attention.

So, armed with this knowledge, could anything change? Probably not. Americans like fireworks but they also like their sprawl. However, this might be another piece of ammunition (pun intended) for proponents of open space. At the same time, those who like open space may not like the idea of fireworks shells in natural settings anyhow. Does this then make it a better fireworks experience over large bodies of water?

Seeing American population density one person at a time

A MIT graduate student has put together new maps of American population density by plotting each person on a map:

Brandon Martin-Anderson, a graduate student at MIT’s Changing Places lab, was tired of seeing maps of U.S. population density cluttered by roads, bridges, county borders and other impediments.

Fortunately for us, he has the technological expertise to transform block data from the 2010 Census into points on a map. One point per person, and nothing else. (Martin-Anderson explains the process in more depth here.)

At times, the result is clean and beautiful to the point of abstraction, but when you know what you’re looking at, it’s a remarkably legible map. And while it resembles, broadly, Chris Howard’s political map of density that appeared after the presidential election, Martin-Anderon’s map can be magnified at any point. Users can watch each of the country’s metro areas dissolve from black to white. Even stripped of the features (roads, rivers) that shape human settlement, density has its own logic.

The maps show some different spatial patterns. For example, look at the different between some of the Northeast Corridor and the Midwest:

I don’t know that it is right to see density has its own logic; there are underlying factors behind these patterns. Topography is one factor but we could also look into how cities and suburbs expand (and there are a variety of sociological explanations about this including profit-seeking, competition for land, and global forces) and might also think about this in terms of social networks (the Northeast is denser, the Midwest more spread out).

Additionally, what about the flip side of these maps: there is still a decent amount of less dense space in these maps. We tend to focus on the largest population centers, several of which are represented on these maps, but the really dense areas are still limited. I suppose this is a matter of perspective: just how much less dense space do we need or should we have around and between metropolitan areas? Some of this would be affected by land that cannot be used profitably and well or land that is used for farming.

One caveat I have about how these maps were presented: shouldn’t they be at the same scale to really make comparisons?

Would you rather have a wind farm or McMansions built nearby?

This is a choice I assume many homeowners would not want to make: would you rather have a wind farm or McMansions built nearby? Here is what one Montana resident had to say in response to plans for eight wind turbines on a nearby hill:

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Windmills are not ugly, they are neat. Whoever saw a postcard of a windmill in Holland as a kid and didn’t want to go there? So what’s the deal? Windmills in Holland are picturesque, but a windmill in Anaconda is ugly? It’s got nothing to do with ugly. You’re brainwashed if you believe that.

I’ll tell you what’s ugly. What’s ugly is a McMansion on the skyline in Montana. That’s ugly! McMansions, with those “grand entrances.” They ought to be outlawed. Revoke the insurance policies on them I say.

What would you rather see on the skyline, a windmill or a McMansion? How would you like to look up and see some fool’s mansion everyday looking down on you? Just rubbing it in? Huh? I’d move. I wouldn’t put up with it for a week.

— Oldie

This is a clear denouncement of McMansions, particularly in the context of considering another kind of development that many homeowners would not want. Apparently, McMansions have entrances that are too large, they should not be built in the first place, the ones that are built shouldn’t be allowed to have insurance, and they are even worse when built on hills to lord it over everyone else. Perhaps McMansions should primarily be built in valleys where other people can look down on them?

Note: the windmills in Holland do look a little different than modern wind turbines…

DuPage County Forest Preserve continues aggressive land acquisition

The Daily Herald reports that the DuPage County Forest Preserve continues to purchase more land:

Five years after voters approved a $68 million tax increase so the DuPage County Forest Preserve could buy more land, officials report they have acquired 43 properties and more than 473 acres so far.

The biggest purchase came three years ago of 94 acres for $12.3 million to protect a unique wetland near Bartlett, Kevin Stough, director of land preservation, said in a recent report to forest preserve commissioners…

“The timing has worked for us, since land prices started dropping in 2007 and have gone down more steeply in recent years,” he said. “So that’s something where we have been very fortunate.”

In total, the district has purchased 143 acres of floodplains, 124 acres of wetland and the remaining 206 acres are primarily forested areas, all accessible to the public. And Stough said the forest preserve still has money left to purchase more land.

I’ve noted before that the DuPage County Forest Preserve has been quite aggressive over the decades. This is how much land the Forest Preserve controls:

The District owns or manages over 25,000 acres of land at over 60 forest preserves, about 12 percent of the total land in DuPage County. As a result, every home and business in DuPage County is no more than ten minutes from a forest preserve.

Within these 25,000 acres are 60 forest preserves, 600 acres of lakes, 47 miles of rivers and streams, and over 145 miles of trails. Some forest preserves are jointly owned, and some are the site of nature centers or amenities operated by other agencies.

That is a lot of preserved land within a county that experienced a lot of population pressure after World War II and today has little open land for development.

I would love to see figures about what DuPage County residents think of the Forest Preserve. The Forest Preserve suggests its land is quite popular:

Each year, 3.4 million visitors enjoy the county’s 60 forest preserves. Additionally, over 100,000 visitors participate annually in educational and cultural programs at the Forest Preserve District’s five education centers.

How do County residents see the trade-off between paying higher taxes versus having the Forest Preserve land to enjoy? Is there anyone who thinks that putting this much land off-limits to development raises housing prices? How important is open space to County residents versus other concerns?


In trying to preserve open space in New Jersey, the land falls into the hands of the wealthy

Here is an interesting argument from a northern New Jersey columnist: the state’s effort to conserve open space by offering a tax break for farmland has left most of the open farmland in the hands of the wealthy.

It’s in the New Jersey Constitution, has been since 1963. Farmland is assessed for property taxes at its agricultural value, not its development value. To qualify, the property has to be at least five acres. Subsequent laws require that it generate at least $500 a year in agricultural revenue.

The goal was and is to preserve some of New Jersey’s diminishing stock of open land before it is all turned into condos and McMansions.

The program is working. But open land costs so much that the people who can afford to buy it tend to be well-to-do. This is unfair, critics say, because it enables rich people to surround themselves with open space and views while real, dirt-under-the-fingernails farmers are forced out of state…

Unsurprisingly, some owners of such New Jersey properties are megabucks celebrities. The rock star Jon Bon Jovi owns seven farm acres in historic Middletown, near the shore in Monmouth County, on which he paid $104 in taxes in 2010. Steve Forbes, magazine publisher, paid $2,005 in taxes in 2009 on 450 acres in Bedminster, in the Somerset Hills.

And here are former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and her husband, John, who own 167 acres in Tewksbury, in Hunterdon County, on which they paid $1,521 in taxes in 2010, and 65 acres in Bedminster, on which they paid $173.

This sounds like a situation of unintended consequences: the law was intended to keep farmland open in the midst of suburban development but because of rising land prices plus tax breaks, the wealthy benefit.

Of course, there are other ways to conserve open space in the face of development. Contrast the approach in New Jersey versus the actions of the DuPage County Forest Preserve. After World War II, the Forest Preserve was very aggressive in grabbing open land, particularly land around waterways. If I am remembering correctly, by the late 1960s the Forest Preserve had over 15,000 acres in a rapidly expanding county that grew from almost 155,000 people in 1950 to nearly 492,000 in 1970 to over 904,000 in 2000. This didn’t come without a cost: the Forest Preserve had to find money to fund these purchases and there were complaints about rising local taxes plus the debt taken on in bonds. Additionally, the Forest Preserve ended up in several tussles over land with municipalities as both the County and suburbs wanted to control land before it disappeared. Today, there are still complaints about the Forest Preserve as the over 25,000 acres are maintained with taxpayer dollars. At the same time, there are a number of very nice sites and the land, unlike farmland, is open for everyone to use.

So if it came down to providing tax breaks  for the farms of wealthy landowners or having facilities that are taxpayer supported but also available to all, which would you choose? Presumably there are other options to choose from as well?

Ten ways to bring about more open/park space to Chicago

After a report last week that Chicago was lacking in open space compared to other major American cities, architecture critic Blair Kamin proposes ten ways that Chicago could help rectify the problem:

The open space shortage is pervasive, with 32 of 77 community areas, home to half of Chicago’s 2.7 million people, failing to meet the city’s own modest requirement of two acres of open space for every 1,000 residents. And the stakes associated with relieving it are huge. Parks can help the city’s neighborhoods attract and retain residents, promote public health, boost real estate values and draw together people from different walks of life…

Although Emanuel has thrown his support behind a grab bag of open space initiatives, such as boathouses on the Chicago River and a new park in an unused area of Rosehill Cemetery, he has yet to produce the visionary plan he promised in his transition report.

In the absence of such a vision, here are 10 ideas that show what architects and the architects of public policy can do to relieve Chicago’s chronic open space shortage.

There are some interesting ideas here and many sounds relatively simply to institute.

When I saw the earlier story, I had a thought: should people have a right to public space? In the suburbs, perhaps this doesn’t matter as much as the common American goal is to purchase your own land. But in the city, where the population density increases and residents expect to be outside of their dwelling, should people have a guaranteed amount of public space? Do people have a human right to parks, to open land?

This question also is pertinent in light of the Occupy Wall Street protestors in Zuccotti Park in New York City. This is a weird sort of public space: it is privately owned but the owners have an agreement with the city to operate it as public space. This sort of arrangement is spreading to other cities: San Francisco has a number “privately owned public spaces” (POPOS) that few residents or tourists would ever know are actually privately owned. This might be helpful in that cities don’t have to do all the maintenance for these spaces but what happens when the private owners don’t like what is taking place on supposedly public property?

County forest preserves benefit from economic downturn as they purchase cheaper land

The reduction in land values has not been bad for everyone: the Chicago Tribune reports that Chicago area forest preserves have bought up more land than anticipated in the past few years. Among the findings:

Flush with $185 million from a 2008 bond sale, the [Lake County] district went on a buying spree, gobbling up some 3,400 acres of land. The second-largest forest preserve system in the state at 29,300 acres, the 53-year old district has grown by nearly 12 percent since the onset of the recession.

“We spent down the money quicker than we had anticipated, mainly because there were so many good buying opportunities for us in 2009 and 2010, especially,” Hahn said…

Founded in 1971, the McHenry County Conservation District has essentially doubled over the last decade to just less than 25,000 acres…

Though the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s biggest growth spurt was in the 1970s, the 25,000-acre district managed to add some 2,400 acres over the last decade…

Racing the clock against development in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, the Forest Preserve District of Will County has added about 8,300 acres since 1999, increasing its holdings by about two-thirds to nearly 21,000 acres…

The timing has been more fortuitous in Kane County, where the Forest Preserve District has added nearly 12,000 acres since 1999, increasing its holdings by 170 percent.

The only county forest preserve that didn’t add a significant amount of land was Cook County which likely has little available land. There hasn’t been too much news about these acquisitions in the Chicago area, even as these land purchases have been funded by bond sales approved by the public.

Overall, this has presented these districts with an opportunity to purchase land they might not have been able to purchase in better times. Particularly in some of the booming counties, such as Will or McHenry, this opportunity may have been the last one before suburban growth took up too much land.

This does lead to another question: how much land should Forest Preserves aim to have? I know there are recommendations about how much parkland or open space there should be for a set amount of people. Is most of this newly acquired land going to be open space/natural settings or more developed parks and recreation areas? Would there be a point where the Forest Preserves will stop purchasing or will they keep acquiring land forever?