“The conceit of the American suburb is that we’re all in a great park together”

In a recent documentary, Michael Pollan discusses the American lawn:

“The conceit of the American suburb is that we’re all in a great park together,” Pollan says in the film. “The lawn symbolizes that continuity.” And yet, Pollan explains, despite the fact that lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the country, Americans tend to avoid spending time on them.

“Pollan raises this question in the film about what our relationship with our front lawn says about our relationship with our neighbors,” Fabrizio told The Atlantic. “I find that really interesting. We don’t go out on our front lawn; we hunker down in the back where no one can see us. I wonder what that says about us and how we all get along these days.”

The lawn of the single-family American home often serves two purposes:

1. A supposed connection to nature. It is evidence that suburbanites want to be away from the city and all its pollution, concrete, and density and instead want to connect with nature. This has a long history in American suburbs dating back to the mid-1800s ideas that suburban homes should be cottages in the woods. The fact that well-manicured lawns do not occur “naturally” in nature does not matter much here.

2. The lawn is a showpiece that is intended to both enhance the impression and value of the home as well as indicate how much the property owner cars about their investment. Regular care and maintenance, usually aimed at producing a green, lush, and relatively low-cut lawn free of weeds and edged by attractive bushes and flowers, broadcasts a message about the class status of the owner.

As Pollan suggests, the front lawn is then not really for use, either by the community (like a park) or the homeowners (who would prefer to limit their outdoor activities to the more private space in back). Indeed, certain activities in the front would be quite odd, such as grilling in the front of the house or placing a swings set in the front lawn.

Controlling private property, as viewed through Nextdoor

Based on Nextdoor, one writer sums up what bothers Americans about their local surroundings:

Steve Wymer, Nextdoor’s vice president of policy, told me that the same topics arise again and again, modulated by region and neighborhood type. Service requests and recommendations constitute 30 percent of chatter, and discussions of real estate make up another 20 percent. About 10 percent of Nextdoor conversations relate to crime and safety, Wymer said. (Suspicious persons come up a lot, often amounting to sightings of people of color in predominantly white areas. Nextdoor has attempted to discourage posts that use appearance as a proxy for criminality by prompting users to add more detail and blocking some posts that mention race.) Public agencies such as police and emergency-management departments also post updates to their constituencies. Noise complaints are another popular subject, according to Wymer—fireworks seem to raise particular ire—as are classifieds, missing pets, and gardening tips.

Judging by the conversations on Nextdoor, it would seem that Americans are concerned first about the safety and security of their property, family, and pets, and then with their property’s, family’s, and pets’ upkeep and improvement. Though the platform breeds its share of conflict, it is notable—in contrast to other social networks—for the commonality it reveals, even in these times of unprecedented political division. No one, Democrat or Republican, wants a neighborhood strewed with dog poop.

I wonder how much this online behavior is driven by two fundamental factors underlying American neighborhoods:

  1. Residents want to be able to control their own property.
  2. They also want to control some of their immediate surroundings, often in the name of property values or the character of the neighborhood.

These values can often come into conflict when one resident’s actions with their own property clashes with the desires of another property owner. Property rights are very important in the United States but property values often rely on neighbors and the surrounding community.

In the long run, it would be interesting to know whether Nextdoor provides a better platform for resolving neighborhood conflicts compared to face-to-face conversations or mediated conversations through other actors (such as calling the police or contacting local government about a concern). For example, many suburbanites are averse to open conflict and moving the conversation online might diffuse some of the tension. At the same time, an online platform could reinforce issues if things are said there that wouldn’t be said face-to-face or conversations take significantly more time.

 

Living inside and outside Facebook and Google’s new developments

Online and physical realms will collide even more in new developments Facebook and Google are planning:

Willow Village will be wedged between the Menlo Park neighborhood of Belle Haven and the city of East Palo Alto, both heavily Hispanic communities that are among Silicon Valley’s poorest. Facebook is planning 1,500 apartments, and has agreed with Menlo Park to offer 225 of them at below-market rates. The most likely tenants of the full-price units are Facebook employees, who already receive a five-figure bonus if they live near the office.

The community will have eight acres of parks, plazas and bike-pedestrian paths open to the public. Facebook wants to revitalize the railway running alongside the property and will finish next year a pedestrian bridge over the expressway. The bridge will provide access to the trail that rings San Francisco Bay, a boon for birders and bikers…

Facebook is testing the proposition: Do people love tech companies so much they will live inside of them? When the project was announced last summer, critics dubbed it Facebookville or, in tribute to company co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Zucktown

Google will build 5,000 homes on its property under an agreement brokered with Mountain View in December. Call it Alphabet City as a nod to Alphabet, Google’s corporate parent. The company said it was still figuring out its future as a landlord, and declined further comment.

Throw Apple in the mix – as this article does – and these tech companies are doing something unique in Silicon Valley: looking to develop campuses that are around-the-clock and provide housing for employees. Few companies would even think of such a plan and I could imagine many workers would have serious reservations regarding living in facilities provided by their company.

But, there is one distinguishing feature of these new developments that complicate this already-unique story: the particular geographic context in which these physical developments are located. This is an area that already has a tremendous level of inequality with limited affordable housing and some of the poorest and richest living near each other. Tech companies like these three have brought tremendous wealth and notoriety to the area and have also exacerbated issues. What responsibility do these large companies have to the local area? The article mentions Steve Jobs’ claim in front of a local government that a good company is only required to pay taxes.

I suspect physical developments from these companies would be treated differently elsewhere, particularly in places that are desperate for jobs or economic energy. The case of a Google development in Toronto will offer an interesting contrast in how local residents and officials respond. Or, we see what cities are willing to offer to Amazon for a large facility.

Additionally, the idea that corporate campuses or facilities should be open to or available to the public is an interesting one to consider. There are already numerous areas that are actually private spaces that function more like public spaces (think of shopping malls or some of the urban parks that Occupy Wall Street found out were actually private land). But, it is different to ask that an office building or housing for employees also be available to the public. I wonder if there is a company that will lead the way in this and tout the benefits of having employees and the public interact as well as share their corporate benefits with others.

Tastefully painting the large interior of a McMansion

Decorating the cavernous interior of a McMansion could require some special advice:

Q: I’d like to do some interior painting and I’m not sure about colors. I live in what would be described as a “McMansion” about 20 years old, and the rooms are all very large with cathedral or high ceilings. All of the rooms, including the kitchen, have some form of white/beige/tan coloring, but I would like to paint the living and dining rooms an actual color. But is this appropriate for a contemporary home? Both rooms sit on either side of a cathedral foyer, which we would like to keep in the beige family. Will this look strange to have color, and should it only be lighter shades? Should the inner archways be beige like the foyer or the color of the room you are entering?

A: Homes like yours offer a lot of challenges but some fun creative opportunities as well. Balancing the flow between rooms is important, along with finding ways to make each space interesting, distinct and comfortable. As you noticed, it can be hard to figure out where to start and stop a color on the walls when all the rooms flow together!

One idea is to keep the foyer, its ceilings and the archways light in color to emphasize the big, airy and dramatic entryway. I like your idea of neutral, consider a warm white or light sand color. Painting the adjacent rooms in slightly darker, warmer versions of the foyer color will help make them feel inviting. Since the basic color is the same, you’ll achieve continuity.

Throughout the foyer and other rooms, accent with more colors at eye level and below. The furniture upholstery can be darker versions of the wall colors or coordinating neutrals. Throw pillows, art and accessories can be bolder, so you can change them out more often. And tie the draperies and window treatments in with the wall color of that room.

It is unusual for a homeowner to publicly admit to owning a McMansion but it does help convey information about this home. It sounds like the common two-story, large foyer. Additionally, the colors sound like they could be straight out of a standard set of builder colors intended to provide a neutral palette to attract potential buyers.

Typically, the critique of garish McMansions emphasizes the outside as this is what is easily viewed by the public. Less attention is devoted to the interior. (This is aside from McMansion Hell which also dissects McMansion interiors.) Can a well-done interior offset bad exterior architecture? Can tasteful paint and furnishings provide a stylish and comfortable interior that is hidden from the outside world? For the typical McMansion owner, they must not see the interior as a waste of resources or unnecessary space but rather something desirable and maybe even exciting. McMansions are certainly big – meaning they can hold lots of things – but they also have to be homes on the interior for people to live there for years.

Gov’t report on declining civic life

A new government report summarizes a number of findings regarding the declining sociability of Americans:

What Lee is concerned about documenting is that this middle layer is thinning. Fewer Americans are getting married or living in families. We are going to religious services less often, and are less likely to consider ourselves members of a religious organization. We’re spending less time socializing with neighbors and co-workers, too. Voting rates have declined, and we’ve grown less likely to pay attention to news about government. We trust one another less: The percentage of Americans who thought most people could be trusted fell to 31 percent in 2016 from 46 percent in 1972, the report says, citing the General Social Survey.

There are some exceptions to the pattern. Rates of volunteering have increased. Some kinds of political engagement have also risen: The percentage of the population that reports having tried to influence someone else’s vote has gone up over the last few decades. The overall story, though, is one of fewer and weaker interpersonal connections among Americans. We are building less “social capital.”

Conservatives have historically been especially concerned about associational life, although they used different terms in prior eras, such as “civil society” and “mediating institutions.” These organizations both ensured the survival of worthwhile traditions and protected the individual from the state. It was no accident, conservatives thought, that totalitarian states ruthlessly suppressed all independent groups, even apolitical ones. And conservatives worried that even benign welfare states tended to displace social groups by taking over their functions.

Scott Winship, research director for Lee’s project, emphasizes a less ideological explanation for the trends the report describes: “We used to need our neighbors and our fellow church congregants more, for instance, for various forms of assistance, such as child care or financial help. Today we are better able to purchase child care on the market and to access credit and insurance. Freed from these materialist needs, we have narrowed our social circles to family and friends, with whom social interaction is easier — especially thanks to the Internet — and more natural. But the wider social connections filled other, non-materialist needs too, and those have been casualties of rising affluence.” The collateral damage, for many people, has been a loss of meaning, purpose and fulfillment.

This is not news to sociologists and others who have viewed the trends for a few decades now. For example, see Bowling Alone. But, perhaps it is more interesting now to consider what kind of society we will have if more Americans are not involved with social groups, tend to retreat to private spaces, and don’t trust institutions. I’m sure some would say we are already at this point with the Trump era at hand but it could both get worse as well as possibly settle into some sort of agreement to leave each other alone.

Self-driving cars will only enhance the private nature of driving

One reason Americans like driving is the private experience of being away from others. New autonomous vehicles may only enhance that:

Your autonomous car could become an extension of your home. A place to eat breakfast, play video games, or have sex. And figuring out which of these activities you want to do most in an autonomous car is already on the minds of automotive designers…

With autonomous cars, he’s found that privacy, the length of trips, and an ability to leave the car when you want to are what people want…

Which means that creating cars with private spaces are a big part of fully autonomous car designs. “I think people may start to consider these in-car spaces as an extension of their home or office,” he says. This could totally change how we imagine transportation…

What people want to do in their cars is likely to change what kind of cars they purchase, Kobayashi said. He imagines that we will have things like sleeper cars, or meeting cars, or kid-friendly cars. This kind of division of car-function also showed up in the workshop section itself as well. Tech 2025 is a media-strategy company that works to educate the public on emerging technologies, so it invited a bunch of non-experts to workshop design ideas with Kobayashi.

For those who don’t like the effects of the car, this may only make things worse as the daily commute could be come a more enjoyable or even fun. This could encourage suburban growth while discouraging the use of mass transit.

At the same time, it would still be worth thinking about how many resources it will take to fully switch over to all self-driving cars – from development to getting them all on the road and instituting the appropriate infrastructure – versus mass transit. This is not a cheap process and could be viewed as doing everything we can to provide Americans with a luxury good (while the money might have been better used elsewhere).

Why would we want to promote more HOAs with a tax break?

A new proposal in Congress would allow members of a HOA to deduct their association fees from their federal taxes:

Upward of 67 million people live in these communities — ranging from sprawling master-planned subdivisions down to individual condominium or cooperative developments. As of 2014, they contained nearly 27 million housing units. Their homeowners associations often provide the functional equivalents of municipal and county services, and residents nationwide pay roughly $70 billion a year in regular assessments to fund road paving and maintenance, snow removal, trash collection, storm water management, maintenance of recreational and park facilities, and much more.

The same residents also pay local property taxes to municipal, county or state governments. But unlike other homeowners, only their local property tax levies are deductible on federal tax filings. Their community association assessments that pay for government-type services are not.

Now a bipartisan group of congressional representatives thinks that’s inequitable and needs to be corrected. Under a new bill known as the HOME Act (H.R. 4696), millions of people who live in communities run by associations would get the right to deduct up to $5,000 a year of assessments on federal tax filings, with some important limitations…

The bill’s primary author is Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif. Co-sponsors include Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Barbara Comstock, R-Va.. Though the bill has little chance of moving through the House or Senate during this election year, it sends a message to the legislative committees now working on possible tax code changes for next year: Congress needs to acknowledge the role the country’s community associations play in providing municipal-type services. The way to do it is to allow deductions on a capped amount of the money residents are required to pay to support community services.

It will be fascinating to see what sort of formula is used to calculate these deductions as the fees paid to associations do not cover all sorts of municipal services used outside of the association.

At the same time, won’t this promote more HOAs, or at least make them more attractive? And do we really want more? They certainly are popular but they continue a trend that is not necessarily good for society: privatizing municipal goods and helping neighbors guarantee their property values. For the first, instead of paying a municipal government, a new layer of private government is enabled to take care of certain services. Americans tend not to like more and more layers of fees and government. However, this might be outweighed by the second factor: the HOAs help keep the neighbors in line without owners directly having to interact with other neighbors. Instead of possibly having to live next to the neighbor who paints their house purple and starts a garden in the front yard, the HOA polices this. In other words, this tax break might help more and more Americans work out civic life through private associations that they see as a necessary evil.

Given all of the HOAs, is there any analysis that shows they pay off financially in the long run either for the property owners or the municipalities?