Forests, McMansions, and using land

The construction of new McMansions can threaten forests and the logging industry:

But the terrain for logging is fast disappearing, and with it the jobs. The number of loggers has shrunk dramatically over the past 20 years, making Gale one of fewer than a dozen working in the area of the Rensselaer Plateau now, he said. The milling companies that once owned huge swaths of forest across the Northeast are gone, leaving the wooded tracts largely in the hands of investor groups and private-equity funds. The local economy embraced tourism, and well-heeled visitors from the city ― attracted to the bucolic charm ― wanted what Gale called “their own little slice of heaven.” Eager to turn a profit, the investors have been divvying up the land and selling it to developers building massive summer homes in the middle of what was once dense forest.

The transformation may seem invisible from the farm-lined state roads that slither out from Albany. But you can see it from above. Clearings pockmark the lush, green canopy, making way for McMansions. On a helicopter flight last month, HuffPost counted nearly a dozen new houses under construction.

One nonprofit is trying to halt the process by preserving forests that form the backbone of rural economies and play a critical role in combatting climate change. On Tuesday, the Conservation Fund, a national environmental and economic development advocate based in northern Virginia, closed a roughly $25 million deal to buy 23,053 acres of forest straddling the borders of New York, Massachusetts and Vermont…

In rural, wooded areas, the gentrification process can be economically devastating. That’s why privately owned forests like the ones the Conservation Fund buys welcome sustainable forestry, which helps clear out dead wood and make the forests less dense. Forestry-related industries currently provide 2.7 million American jobs and contribute $112 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the Land Trust Alliance, a conservation group.

Sprawl, often marked by the construction of suburban type housing (which can include McMansions), changes the use of land. Common concerns about this include the loss of farmland and habitats as well as changed water systems. Development also affects trees and forests as house builders often just clear sites completely. Trees can be replaced but it is much more difficult to recreate forests.

One aspect of this story that is different from some analyses of sprawl’s effect on nature is that it emphasizes the loss of rural economic opportunities. The idea here is that sprawling McMansions don’t just chew up land; they threaten long-standing local industries. Yet, the choice is sometimes presented this way: either suburban sprawl or untamed, untouched natural land. Is any land truly untouched by human activity? A lot of even protected spaces have been altered over the years for human purposes. This article takes a more realistic approach: the consequences of sprawl aren’t just lost land but the shifting of the land from one economic use (sustainable forestry) to another (the buying and selling of real estate).

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 with big lots in a crossword puzzle

McMansions are often criticized for being big houses on small lots but they can also be located on larger lots. For example, this crossword puzzle clue provides a large lot size for such homes:

Let me guess, you have been playing a crossword game and got stuck on the clue “McMansion’s lot, maybe”. Well, you have come to the right place to find the answer to this clue…

ACRE

On an acre lot, the scale of a McMansion may be quite different. As a home roughly between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet, it will not dominate the lot in the same way as a small lot within a city or denser area. Indeed, with certain landscaping or topography or architecture, the McMansion may not look large at all.

This does not necessarily let the McMansion off the hook for critics. While the size of the home may not dwarf neighbors, the larger lot size itself could be a problem. If many homes were built on acre lots, sprawl would eat up a lot of space. Additionally, acre lots are often located in wealthier communities and might even be used as a means to keep cheaper housing out.

Still, I’m not sure I would have been able to solve this crossword clue without some help. Perhaps it is just the stories I see but I believe I see more complaints about McMansions in denser settings than I do on acre or more lots (though there is a good amount of concern about McMansions in sprawling suburbia).

Sprawl McMansions okay, teardown McMansions not

One writer in Princeton suggests not much can be done about the big McMansions of the suburbs but the trend of new teardown McMansions in older neighborhoods should be slowed and regulated:

We don’t really have quantity-over-quality McMansions in uniform subdivisions in Princeton. We were largely developed by the 1980s when the term and the phenomenon originated. If individual ersatz estates infest outlying parts of Princeton, they’re no problem — except for their owners and the environment — because the lots are large. No one has to see such a house up close — not even the owners, who are typically inside it.

So suppose those owners are content with their veneer Versailles and its Styrofoam crown molding, faux-stucco skim-coated wallboard, and travertine made from epoxy and marble dust. Suppose they can afford to heat and cool their particle-board palazzo. Suppose they trust Merry Maids to clean their tyranno-kitchen. Suppose they plan to sell their schlock Schloss and move on before it curdles. Fine. We’ve already paid for the extra roads and utility lines their large house and lot required.

No, Princeton’s current McMansion problem is when counterfeit castles replace modest tear-downs — an odd problem in a town with many actual mansions. From a 1905 description of Princeton’s Western section: “The residents build on the same street according to their means, but the hand of taste is visible in almost every house. Here is a stately Colonial mansion and beside it is a roughcast cottage overgrown with climbing roses. There is a costly stone house of the Elizabethan style, and beyond, an artistic combination of stucco and timber. … [But] as each house has a sufficient garden space about it to overcome incongruities of juxtaposition, the village becomes more and more attractive as the rivalry progresses.”

Unfortunately, McMansions in Princeton’s denser neighborhoods lack space to overcome “incongruities of juxtaposition.” And, if you live beside a McMansion, your bedroom, which once got morning sun, may now face your neighbors’ Jacuzzi, while the terrace, where you once read today’s paper in pajamas, now abuts their breakfast room. You deplore your neighbors’ sham chateau because it diminishes your privacy and privileges — and maybe raises your property value and taxes.

Based on this reasoning, you could fit McMansion opposition into two camps:

  1. All McMansions are bad.
  2. Already-built McMansions in sprawling suburbs are not so bad; ones that threaten the character of older neighborhoods should be fought.

Perhaps the first camp is the purist one: McMansions represent bad architecture, standardization, and overconsumption, wherever they are located. Even if the sprawling McMansions have already constructed roads and infrastructure, they are still costly to provide services to and a poor use of land.

The second camp is the realist group: those suburban McMansions were built a long time ago and some people might even like them (despite all the negative traits we can name in a few paragraphs). However, we don’t want those McMansions to break the containment zone in the suburbs.

Both battles are fought, depending on the location (whether there is still sizable plots of undeveloped land) and the reactions of neighbors (suburban residents can also dislike a new development of big homes going in next door). The first can veer toward the repudiation of all American suburbs while the second can involve heated interactions with neighbors on a micro scale.

The methodology of quantifying the cost of sprawl

A new analysis says sprawl costs over $107 billion each year – and here is how they arrived at that figure:

To get to those rather staggering numbers, Hertz developed a unique methodology: He took the average commute length, in miles, for America’s 50 largest metros (as determined by the Brookings Institution), and looked at how much shorter those commutes would be if each metro were more compact. He did this by setting different commute benchmarks for clusters of comparably populated metros: six miles for areas with populations of 2.5 million or below, and 7.5 miles for those with more than 2.5 million people. These benchmarks were just below the commute length of the metro with the shortest average commute length in each category, but still 0.5 miles within the real average of the overall category.

He multiplied the difference between the benchmark and each metro’s average commute length by an estimated cost-per-mile for a mid-sized sedan, then doubled that number to represent a daily roundtrip “sprawl tax” per worker, and then multiplied that by the number of workers within a metro region to get the area’s daily “sprawl tax.” After multiplying that by the annual number of workdays, and adding up each metro, he had a rough estimate of how much sprawl costs American commuters every year.

Then Hertz calculated the time lost by all this excessive commuting, “applying average travel speed for each metropolitan area to its benchmark commute distance, as opposed to its actual commute distance,” he explains in a blog post…

Hertz’s methodology may not be perfect. It might have served his analysis to have grouped these metros into narrower buckets, or by average commute distance rather than population. While it’s true that large cities tend to have longer commutes, there are exceptions. New Orleans and Louisville are non-dense, fairly sprawling cities, but their highways are built up enough that commute distances are fairly short. To really accurately assess the “sprawl tax” in cities like those, you’d have to include the other costs of spread-out development mentioned previously—the health impacts, the pollution, the car crashes, and so on. Hertz only addresses commute lengths and time.

In other words, a number of important conceptual decisions had to be made in order to arrive at this final figure. What might be more important in this situation is to know how different the final figure would be if certain calculations along the way were changed. Is it a relatively small shift or does this new methodology lead to figures much different than other studies? If they are really different, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong but it might suggest more scrutiny for the methodology.

Another thought: it is difficult to put the $107 trillion into context. It is hard to understand really big numbers. Also, how does it compare to other activities? How much do Americans lose by watching TV? Or by using their smartphones? Or by eating meals? The number sounds impressive and is likely geared toward reducing sprawl but the figure doesn’t interpret itself.

American exurbs continue to grow

Joel Kotkin points out that despite claims to the contrary, the exurbs are growing:

We first noticed a takeoff in suburban growth in 2013, following a stall-out in the Great Recession. This year research from Brookings confirms that peripheral communities — the newly minted suburbs of the 1990s and early 2000s — are growing more rapidly than denser, inner ring areas.

Peripheral, recent suburbs accounted for roughly 43% of all U.S. residences in 2010. Between July 2013 and July 2014, core urban communities lost a net 363,000 people overall, Brookings demographer Bill Frey reports, as migration increased to suburban and exurban counties. The biggest growth was in exurban areas, or the “suburbiest” places on the periphery…

Far from being doomed, exurbia is turning into something very different from the homogeneous and boring places portrayed in media accounts. For one thing exurbs are becoming increasingly ethnically diverse. In the decade that ended in 2010 the percentage of suburbanites living in “traditional” largely white suburbs fell from 51% to 39%.  According to a 2014 University of Minnesota report, in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, 44% of residents live in racially and ethnically diverse suburbs, defined as between 20% and 60% non-white.

And how about the seniors, a group that pundits consistently claim to be heading back to the city? In reality, according to an analysis of Census data, as seniors age they’re increasingly unlikely to move, but if they do, they tend to move out of urban cores as they reach their 60s, and to less congested, often more affordable areas out in the periphery. Seniors are seven times more likely to buy a suburban house than move to a more urban location. A National Association of Realtors survey found that the vast majority of buyers over 65 looked in suburban areas, followed by rural locales.

This article throws out a lot of reasons why they might want to do this: wanting to own a single-family home, wanting more space (both in the home and in the community), feeling part of a smaller community, sending their kids to good schools, having communities with low crime, and accessing plenty of available jobs. Put another way, the exurbs have downsides but enough Americans consistently seem to want to live on the metropolitan fringe.

At the end, Kotkin suggests that planners and others need to own up to this reality: cities cannot provide these desirable traits. I wonder if that is the case; is the answer that it is either dense inner cities or sprawling exurbs? I think many cities and closer suburbs would want to be able to claim the positives cited above. And there are likely many pockets where this is possible even if not all residents of major cities have these advantages. But, instead of trying to suggest that all people should get used to dense city life or exurban life, why not look for more ways to enhance opportunities throughout an entire region? Perhaps it is a problem of government layers as every community looks out for their own interests first. Or perhaps this is still impossible in a country where race and social class matter tremendously for the kinds of places where people live. Rather than suggest Americans want to live in a certain kind of setting, we need solutions to issues in a variety of communities throughout metropolitan regions (and beyond).

Drivers pay less than what the roads cost

One report suggests the gap between what drivers pay and what roads cost continues to grow:

A report published earlier this year confirms, in tremendous detail, a very basic fact of transportation that’s widely disbelieved: Drivers don’t come close to paying for the costs of the roads they use. Published jointly by the Frontier Group and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, “Who Pays for Roads?” exposes the myth that drivers are covering what they’re using.

The report documents that the amount that road users pay through gas taxes now accounts for less than half of what’s spent to maintain and expand the road system. The resulting shortfall is made up from other sources of tax revenue at the state and local levels, generated by drivers and non-drivers alike. This subsidizing of car ownership costs the typical household about $1,100 per year—over and above the costs of gas taxes, tolls, and other user fees…

There are good reasons to believe that the methodology of “Who Pays for Roads?” if anything considerably understates the subsidies to private vehicle operation. It doesn’t examine the hidden subsidies associated with the free public provision of on-street parking, or the costs imposed by nearly universal off-street parking requirements, which drive up the price of commercial and residential development. It also ignores the indirect costs that come to auto and non-auto users alike from the increased travel times and travel distances that result from subsidized auto-oriented sprawl. And it also doesn’t look at how the subsidies for new capacity in some places undermine the viability of older communities…

The problem with the subsidies currently propping up driving is that they’re often hidden: If they were made more explicit, policymakers would likely rearrange their priorities. The problem of pricing roads correctly is one that will grow in importance in the years ahead. It’s now widely understood that improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency and the advent of electric vehicles is eroding the already inadequate contribution of the gas tax to covering road costs. The business model of companies such as Uber and Lyft likewise hinges on paying much less for the use of the road system than it costs to operate. The problem is likely to be even larger if autonomous self-driving vehicles ever become widespread—in larger cities it may be much more economical for them to simply cruise “free” public streets than to stop and have to pay for parking. The root of many existing transportation problems—and the problems to come—is that the prices are all wrong.

Americans like their cars and policies have reflected that for decades. But, owning the “average” car is not cheap – there are a number of expenses that many drivers would say consume a decent amount of their budget. The real issue may not be increasing the gas tax – and with gas as cheap as it is right now, this would be as good a time as any to fix that – or limiting subsidies. The real goal may need to involve having less need for cars and roads. Having electric cars might help society in some ways but it doesn’t solve the problem of paying for roads (see the pilot programs for a per-mile driven tax). Electric cars may enable sprawl to go on for decades.

In the end, perhaps we need to figure out to build and maintain roads more cheaply…or we are left with two options I imagine a lot of people (not necessarily the same ones) will dislike: getting cars off the road or upping the cost of driving by quite a bit.