American land uses in a number of interesting maps

Bloomberg put together a set of graphics to illustrate how Americans use land. Here are a few of the maps interspersed with information. First, the general patterns of land use:

AmericanLandUseGeneral

The U.S. is becoming more urban—at an average rate of about 1 million additional acres a year. That’s the equivalent of adding new urban area the size of Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix combined. U.S. urban areas have more than quadrupled since 1945…

AmericanLandUseComparative

More than one-third of U.S. land is used for pasture—by far the largest land-use type in the contiguous 48 states. And nearly 25 percent of that land is administered by the federal government, with most occurring in the West. That land is open to grazing for a fee.

There is some data here that could be viewed as conflicting: urban areas are the fastest growing land use – watch out for sprawl! – but the biggest land use overall is pasture and range – open land yet given over to creatures that are land and resource intensive!

One nice feature of these maps is that they are helpful for making comparisons between land uses. Given the size of the country plus the limited day-to-day experiences of many in different parts of the country, it can be hard to get a handle on all the land uses.

After looking this all over, I wonder what Americans and policymakers would say an ideal land use mix is for the entire country. This is a difficult question to answer, particularly since many people would not necessarily regularly encounter all the uses. If people want more protected land, what other land uses should be reduced and how would this affect individual lives as well as the American way of life?

 

McMansion owners as against preserving green space

A letter to the editor connects Mcmansion owners with an unwillingness to look toward the public good:

It seems that more often than not folks who live in huge McMansions on private estates, drawing big government pensions and other income streams, are the ones making the biggest noise about keeping things the same in the county (Letter to the Editor, “Snapshot of Rappahannock’s Future,” Demaris Miller, July 19).

Of course they would! They don’t need to worry about finding decent paying jobs or affordable housing without having to move out of the county as so many people here do. They’ve got plenty of fine space to take walks and entertain their grandkids.

The county has many choices for where to go — we could allow factories and warehouses, or suburban sprawl, or tourism with a NASCAR track, an amusement park, skate boarding and all. Or we could stick to a plan for growth that preserves our scenic rural character while encouraging people to visit and share that beauty and spend a little money here. A safe bike and walking path with gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge certainly fits in that category.

The McMansions cited here must have larger properties where owners can enjoy the outdoors. This would contrast with one possible trait of McMansions where they are the result of teardowns.

On the other hand, McMansions are linked here to sprawl. This is a common argument as McMansions are often part of an expanding suburbia where homes, roads, and development gobbles up open land, green space, and public space. Additionally, these are wealthy sprawling suburbanites who can take care of their own financial interests.

More broadly, this letter gets at broader issues involving McMansions and suburbs: just how much growth is desirable? How does a community weigh the construction of housing versus protecting natural space that residents and visitors can enjoy? Growth is generally good in suburban areas and even if certain spaces are protected, the general tenor of development can overwhelmingly change the character of a place from a more rural or open area to a denser one.

 

Fight McMansions to slow down the sixth mass extinction

A letter to the editor in the Eugene Weekly links McMansions and broad environmental concerns:

We’re living through the sixth mass extinction. We see this firsthand in Lane County. Oak savannah is the most endangered habitat in the United States…

In this context, a group of neighbors and I are fighting a multi-million dollar “McMansion” development project in our area. “The Vineyards at Gimpl Hill” describes itself as a selection of “gracious estates” for “secure, sophisticated country living … the premier development in Lane County for discerning people.”

This project will destroy or impact 80 acres of prime wildlife habitat home to deer, elk, bears, cougars, wild turkeys, bobcats and a wide variety of other species.

Destroying large areas of habitat and impacting the area with higher traffic and additional access roads is a course of action I cannot support. These ostentatious houses will cost millions, and the developer (Roy Carver) stands to make millions more.

On one hand, 80 acres of land is a drop in the bucket of land in urban areas in the United States. On the other hand, this argument involving McMansions is a common one: McMansions represent the senseless sprawl that is gobbling up land, threatening wildlife, and contributing to our destruction of the environment.

I also suspect that because these homes are larger and more expensive (as well as more profitable, as this letter notes), they tend to get more attention in the same way that McDonald’s and Walmart receive attention for their environmental impact in their own sectors (fast food restaurants and retail stores, respectively). Sprawl over the past century or so in the United States involves a broad range of homes and other buildings, not just the big homes for the wealthy.

It also helps in this case to have a pejorative term for these large homes. They are not just “luxury homes” or places where wealthier people live; they are mass-produced, inferior quality homes that do not deserve the space they are taking up.

Finally, I wonder what the more compelling environmental appeal is to other locals: is it better to refer to (1) massive-scale change like the sixth mass extinction, (2) the loss of local nature (land and animals), or (3) the unnecessary use of land and resources for these larger homes? I suspect each of these could appeal to different people.

Three questions for political leaders as suburbs offer key to 2018 elections

The suburbs may continue in 2018 to be the true political battlegrounds in the United States:

The mounting backlash to President Trump that is threatening his party’s control of Congress is no longer confined just to swing districts on either coast. Officials in both parties believe that Republican control of the House is now in grave jeopardy because a group of districts that are historically Republican or had been trending that way before the 2016 election are slipping away…

From Texas to Illinois, Kansas to Kentucky, there are Republican-held seats filled with college-educated, affluent voters who appear to be abandoning their usually conservative leanings and newly invigorated Democrats, some of them nonwhite, who are eager to use the midterms to take out their anger on Mr. Trump.

“If you look at the patterns of where gains are being made and who is creating the foundation for those gains, it’s the same: An energized Democratic base is linking arms with disaffected suburban voters,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, who as a member of Congress in 2006 helped Democrats win back the House. “The president’s conduct has basically given voters this permission slip to go against the Republicans.”…

The suburban revolt, which began in a handful of little-noticed special elections and then exploded last month in governor’s and state House races in Virginia, was on display again on Tuesday in Alabama, where Doug Jones, a Democrat, claimed a stunning Senate win thanks to African-Americans and upscale whites.

This is not a new thing to watch: the suburbs have contained the real swing voters for at least the last few election cycles. These voters in middle suburbs, between inner-ring suburbs and the exurbs, can be swayed by either party depending on the situation.

A few thoughts about the upcoming 2018 elections:

  1. While this almost certainly means a lot of money will be spent in these districts, it will be interesting to watch how many political leaders visit such locations. For example, if you are a Democratic leader trying to woo voters in DuPage County (who voted pretty strongly for Hilary Clinton in what was considered a solidly Republican county), will you actually visit places like Villa Park and Carol Stream or will you stick to Chicago and hope you get enough attention in the big city?
  2. In wooing suburban voters, will sprawl be an issue on the table? Many metropolitan areas have large regional problems including inequality across communities (the residential and class segregation of big cities has been replicated to some degree in suburban areas) and congestion. Will Democrats push for more metropolitan initiatives and reducing the growth further out from the city or is this a losing pitch in a country where many Americans still seem to like the idea of a suburban home?
  3. How will Democrats approach wealthier suburban voters in blue states that have significant state issues? I’m thinking of places like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois that have massive budget issues. What can Democrats offer on a national platform that would suburban voters could find attractive for helping their state? Or how would suburban candidates address affordable housing, another major issue in many regions, and who exactly should help or sacrifice to help such housing be built?

Holding a World Series parade in a sprawling big city

The Houston Astros won the World Series and held a victory parade Friday in downtown Houston. Downtown Houston exists but it seems odd to hold a parade in the central part of a city that has a reputation for sprawl and a lack of zoning. Some quotes about sprawling Houston starting with a list of “The American Cities With the Worst Sprawl.”

Texas and bigness again. Houston takes up 627 square miles, making it more than twice as large as Singapore with about 40% as many residents. Houston is sprawl defined, and that lack of density is the reason it makes our list. Dubbed “The Blob That Ate East Texas,” Houston is one of those quintessentially American cities not limited by any natural geographic barriers like mountains or bodies of water. Sprawl was a business decision for developers, as there’s a lot less risk building horizontally than vertically.

But Houston is discovering that sprawl isn’t a permanent blight, and the city has seen significant private and public investment in its urban core. Over the past eight years, Houston has completely reimagined its transit network by opening two new light rail lines and expanding another. Two additional lines are in the works with one slated to be completed by 2019. Houston also grew its bike sharing network from just 18 bikes in 2012 to more than 300 now. (Administrators are aiming for 1,000 by the end of 2017.)

The economy of Houston according to The Economist in March 2015:

FOR a view of Houston’s economy, get in a car. At the intersection of the Loop and Freeway 225, two motorways in the south-east of the city, you drive over a high, tangled overpass. To the east, where the port of Houston sits on Buffalo Bayou, the skyline is an endless mass of refineries, warehouses and factories: Houston is an oil town. To the west, glistening skyscrapers and cranes puncture greenery. In between, the landscape is a sprawl of signs advertising motels and car dealerships.

Houston is not pretty, but it thrives.

From a April 2000 guide to Houston in the New York Times.

Famous as a city without zoning, Houston is a sprawling metropolis, laced with highways as serpentine as ant tunnels, a place so vast that popular myth holds that a motorist can drive for an hour at 55 miles an hour and never get from one end of the city to the other.

Is it true? Probably not. But the city’s sprawl tends to obscure just how much is actually going on there.

Did all that sprawl contribute to a different kind of victory parade compared to one in a city with a more traditional urban core? Did the sprawl change how many people attended? (A reminder: Houston is the fourth largest city in the country and may someday soon pass Chicago for third place.)

Linking great trick-or-treat neighborhoods to traditional neighborhood design

Maybe a good trick-or-treat location should be defined less by the available candy and more regarding its design:

Great neighbourhoods for trick-or-treating also tend to be great neighborhoods for families everyday:

  • Tree-lined streets designed for walkers more than speeding cars.
  • Enough density and community completeness, to activate what I call “the power of nearness” – everything you need, nearby.
  • Good visual surveillance through doors and stoops, windows (and I don’t mean windows in garages), porches and “eyes on the street.”
  • Connected, legible streets that let you “read” the neighbourhood easily -grids tend to be good for this, but other patterns work too…

If kids ARE being driven in, that can mean it’s a great neighbourhood from a design perspective (or perhaps just that it’s a more affluent community, with “better candy”) — but having too few local kids can show that there isn’t enough housing diversity, new infill, and family-friendly “infrastructure” to keep kids in the neighbourhood. In fact, in many beautiful, tree-lined neighbourhoods popular on Halloween, the number of local kids may be actually dropping, with resulting pressures on local schools to close. This as household sizes decrease, and new density and “gentle infill” that could stabilize the population and keep kids in the neighbourhood, is often locally resisted.

From this point of view, good neighborhoods promote walkability and ultimately sociability. There are few times of years where this matters as much as Halloween as many Americans do not regularly walk down their streets to visit a number of neighbors at once.

More broadly, the practice of trick-or-treating is closely tied to social trust. Even with no documented cases of poisoned candy, parents want to know that their kids are safe. And with declining social trust in the United States, again, there are limited numbers of opportunities where Americans ritually interact with physical neighbors as opposed to seeking out people they whom they share an identity or interests.

It sounds like there is an empirical question to be answered here: do neighborhoods with (1) more traditional design and (2) higher levels of social trust (which may or more not be related to the neighborhood design experience more satisfying trick-or-treat experiences (measured by numbers of children trick-or-treating, percent of households providing candy, and perceptions of whether the neighborhood is a good place for this)?

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).