Fighting for water in Southwest subdivisions

Suburbanites in the Southwest are looking to secure water:

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As the Southwest enters its second decade of megadrought, and the Colorado River sinks to alarminly low levels, Rio Verde, a largely upscale community that real-estate agents bill as North Scottsdale, though it is a thirty-mile drive from Scottsdale proper, is finding itself on the front lines of the water wars. Some homeowners’ wells are drying up, while others who get water delivered have recently been told that their source will be cut off on January 1st. “It’s going to turn into the Hunger Games,” Harris said grimly. “Like, a scrambling-for-your-toilet-water-every-month kind of thin.” The fight over how best to address the issue is pitting neighbors against one another. “Water politics are bad politics,” Thomas Loquvam, the general counsel and vice-president of EPCOR, the largest private water utility in the Southwest, told me. “You know that saying, ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting’? That’s very true in Arizona…

Most Foothills residents draw their water from wells, but several hundred homes sit on land without reliable access to water, so the inhabitants rely on cisterns, which they fill with a delivery from a water truck every month or so. When Cindy Goetz moved to Arizona from Illinois, in 2012, she had never heard of hauled water. “But I did some research on it – you know, is a well better, or is hauled water better? And my decision was, hauled water is better,” she told me. “A well can get contaminated, it can run dry. How about just pay a little extra to have someone bring it in from the city? It’s already drinkable. I asked [my real-estate agent] and he said that it’s done a lot in Arizona. And it wasn’t like a homestead out in the middle of nowhere. There were streets and power and phone lines and all that. I assumed it would be O.K. It’s wasn’t presented as, ‘By the way, it could stop.'”…

Homeowners who didn’t have wells were suddenly uncertain that they’d be able to wash their dishes or flush their toilets. Some water haulers reassured their customers that they could find water for them, at least for now. Hornewer, who runs a water-hauling company, told me that not all haulers were scrupulous about the legality of their sources. “To them, it’s just kind of like the Old West,” he said. “If the water’s there, grab it. If you want to get it from Phoenix illegally, sure, you can do that. But that’s a short-term fix.”

Some residents came to believe that the best long-term solution for the hauled-water homes was to form a Domestic Water Improvement District, or DWID. The DWID, as a political subdivision, would be able to buy land to extract water from one of the few aquifers in Arizona that still had excess capacity for sale. A DWID could also get funding, or apply for grants, to eventually build water-treatment infrastructure for the area.

But not everyone in the Foothills wanted their neighbors to form a new government entity. Rumors spread on Facebook, claiming that the DWID was a power grab. People who had once acted as if worries about water scarcity were overblown began imagining their own elaborate worst-case scenarios: What if the DWID imposed taxes, or used the power of eminent domain to seize non-members’ wells, or put liens on people’s houses? What was next, an H.O.A.? “They have the power to condemn, whether they claim they’re going to use it or not,” Christy Jackman, the DWID’s most vocal opponent, told me. “They do have the power to put in streetlights, to pave areas. So here’s this little group, and they’ll have those powers.” The pro-DWID faction grew frustrated that their neighbors, many of whom had wells, were blocking their ability to secure water for themselves. “It’s the haves and the have-nots,” Nabity said. “Literally, some neighbors were like, ‘Screw you guys. You bought a property that doesn’t have water. That’s not my issue.’”

The suburban sprawl of the American Dream assumes there is cheap, accessible water for the new homes. Few residents would even think about water not being available unless there are some unusual circumstances.

So what then happens to sprawling subdivisions when water is hard to obtain? The article above discussed multiple solutions that either do not work well when a whole region has limited water or when they run up against the preferences of suburbanites.

Since having water is essential for life, including in the suburbs, it will be interesting to see what solutions are reached. One solution – not building sprawling communities – does not seem like a viable option since there are many people who want to live in such settings and Americans have constructed such developments for decades.

54% of my block flew an American flag today and what this means

On a quick walk on this July 4th morning, I counted the number of residences on our block with an American flag on display. In roughly a quarter-mile of houses, 22 of 41 residences had a flag. What might this all mean? Several ideas:

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  1. The July 4th holiday tends to bring out the flags to symbolize the United States of America. Yet, is the number of homes with a flag displayed different than displays for other holidays? I would guess the numbers are not that different on this block regarding those who put something up for Christmas or for Halloween, the two primary holidays for decorations. I do not know if some people are celebrating all of the holidays or if different people are celebrating different holidays but this number of flags does not seem out of the ordinary.
  2. I have read online in multiple places that Americans are enthusiastic in displaying their flag compared to residents of other countries. Connected to #1 above, perhaps the real test of this is to see how many residents display flags when there is not a patriotic holiday? (At the same time, they might be frequenting other places that have a flag including schools, civic buildings, and churches.)
  3. YouGov recently released data on how Americans regard flags. Even with declining patriotism and less regard for the flag from younger Americans, 77% had a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” view of the American flag. This is quite a bit higher than any other flag asked about. The more popular a flag is, the more likely it is for homeowners to display it?

The use of flags in suburban settings and among single-family homes with their connection to the American Dream could make for a fascinating study, if it has not been done already.

Primary suburban voter turnout in Illinois under 20%

Experts suggest the turnout for Illinois’ primary earlier this week will be under 20% in the Chicago suburbs:

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When the votes are certified by the Illinois State Board of Elections late next month, officials believe fewer than 20% of the state’s registered voters will have cast ballots…

In the suburbs, only DuPage County reported more than 20% voter turnout, according to unofficial results on the county clerk’s website.

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough is still reporting one uncounted precinct late Wednesday, but just 19.1% of suburban Cook County voters cast ballots, according to her website.

Unofficial results show voter turnout in McHenry County at 19.4%, 18.2% in Kane County and 18.7% in Will County.

The suburbs are where the political action in the United States is today, yet Chicago suburbanites did not vote in large numbers for the primaries ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Given the congressional redistricting in Illinois and an impending gubernatorial race, where the stakes not high enough for suburban voters?

The article goes on to discuss reasons why voters may not have felt very motivated to vote in this primary. How many of these reasons – summer voting, lack of interesting races, limited midterm turnout – explicitly affect suburbanites? Summer vacations are a marker of middle-class and above suburban lives but how many of them overlap with the late June 28 voting day? Do suburbanites need more contested races than other voters? Do suburbanites not feel the pressure of midterms or only pay attention in the presidential cycles when there is more at stake amid their busy day-to-day suburban life?

Those candidates and actors that can inspire suburbanites to get to the polls and vote may just get the winning edge.

A shopping mall with protected wetlands

I recently shopped at a mall with protected wetlands:

The first thought I had upon seeing this was of “nature band-aids” that can often be found in suburbia as described by James Howard Kunstler. Shopping malls are known for many things but nature is not one of them.

Or, perhaps these are real wetlands that make contributions to the local ecosystem? This outlet mall has a location similar to many other malls: in the suburbs along a major roadway. I could imagine a need for land for animals and water amid development in the recent decades.

It would be interesting to know how these areas came about. Was part of the development of the land contingent on setting land aside for wetlands? Was a discovery made later about local nature? Is there some precedent among shopping malls for this?

Higher housing prices mean suburbs are less affordable, Houston edition

New data suggests residents in the Houston region have fewer cheaper housing options in the suburbs:

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The Kinder Institute and Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released Tuesday morning their annual reports on the state of housing in the Houston area and the nation. Together, they painted a picture of a deepening divide between the prospects of current homeowners, whose equity has been buoyed by record-breaking home price appreciation, and renters, who have seen the monthly costs of buying a home rise far more quickly than wages.

The median-priced home in the suburbs of Clear Lake and Jersey Village, for example, were priced between $162,000 and $175,000 in 2011, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. They now go for $300,000 to $317,000.

“You have to go farther and farther out until you find a home that’s affordable,” explained Stephen Sherman, a researcher at the Kinder Institute. “The whole saying is drive until you qualify. We’re finding that people will have to drive even more” — a development which will have rippling implications on traffic and the way floodwaters drain…

“Suburban Houston — and new homes in suburban Houston — used to be extremely affordable,” said Lawrence Dean, the Houston regional director for Zonda, which does market research related to new home construction. Since then, the costs of land, materials and labor have all shot up. These days, it’s near impossible to build a home for less than $200,000, he explained.

This gets at three long-standing questions about suburban life:

  1. How far will people be willing to drive from the big city or other population centers in order to get a cheaper, bigger home? In some metro areas, this extends past 40 miles and multiple ring highways. If more people can work from home, more suburbanites might be willing to be further out.
  2. Even as suburbanites protect and celebrate rising housing prices, this also limits what others can purchase. Suburbanites have a long history of moving in and pulling up the gates behind them. But, even as suburban homeowners watch their personal wealth grow, others will not necessarily get the same opportunities.
  3. Is the primary plan for affordable housing in American metro regions to just keep the sprawl going? At some point, this may not be possible due to conditions – see the price jumps in construction cited above – or changing ideologies about where to live.

It would be interesting to compare this to other metropolitan areas across regions and price points.

“The late-twentieth-century United States doesn’t make sense without the mall”

A new book looks more positively on the future of the American shopping mall:

Meet Me by the Fountain challenges the dominant narrative. Lange wants us to consider how in prematurely writing off the mall as dead, or in thinking of it as “a little bit embarrassing as the object of serious study, ” we neglect the important role these buildings have played in our lives. At their best, malls have always been more than just sites of conspicuous consumption and leisure, but places for communities to gather, to see and be seen, fulfilling a “basic human need.” Lange’s book reminds us that the mall has helped shape American society, and has evolved with our country since the 1950s. And she posits that there’s still a place for malls in our society, as long as they adapt to better serve their communities.

Malls grew alongside—and because of—the federally subsidized postwar expansion of the suburbs. “The late-twentieth-century United States doesn’t make sense without the mall,” Lange writes. If the American dream was owning a detached house for your nuclear family, the mall was where you bought the goods to fill your home and clothe your kids. Malls became the suburban equivalent of downtown shopping districts. But while malls, like their city counterparts, serve as public spaces, they are privately owned and policed, and any sense of community that one gets from spending time at them is always secondary to the primary pursuit of consumption…

And yet, despite these problems, Lange reminds us what the mall gave us in the past and explains why she sees in its form hope for a future of adaptive reuse, in which these spaces will “embrace their public role” rather than try to privately control who can use them and how. Lange argues that malls should be repurposed for walkable mixed-use developments that combine the residential, commercial, and public. The behemoth shells of anchor stores—the department stores that sat at the ends of corridors—could enclose food halls, entertainment-centered businesses like trampoline parks, or public libraries; parking lots could be repurposed for senior-housing units. These places would still be malls, but ones that are more experience-driven and less shopping-centric…

This kind of ambivalence is all over Meet Me by the Fountain. Lange’s ultimate vision for reusing the space of malls might be one that largely repudiates a singular focus on commercialism, but she doesn’t discount shopping and what it can do for us. She argues that we “find freedom in shopping” for our “true selves,” and that malls have given us more than just self-expression. They are what Ray Bradbury, in a 1970 essay in West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, called “Somewhere To Go”: a place that draws people together, that creates a de facto community.

Two features of this summary stand out:

  1. The shopping mall as it is known in the United States is part of suburbia. Even though malls can be found in major cities, they started in suburbs and are primarily found there.
  2. Related to #1, shopping malls emerged as places for community within a suburbia that prioritizes private single-family homes and has relatively few public spaces.

If this was a “chicken and the egg” question, the answer seems clear: suburbs came first and then shopping malls developed in that context. The shopping mall even co-opted the department store, the urban shopping emporium that emerged decades earlier in rapidly growing cities.

The enduring tension, described in this review, seems to be this: can malls ever truly become places for the whole community or are they primarily profit-centers where some enjoy shopping together and gathering around other shoppers? Or, to put it in other terms, can shopping malls ultimately serve people and not just markets?

Roots versus mobility: living a whole life in one suburban house

Offered money for her suburban home for a new industrial project, an 86-year-old woman responded this way:

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“She said, ‘Where will I go?’ How do you start your life again when you’ve lived your whole life in one house?” Kristie Purner said.

What I found interesting in this comment is comparing it to the more regular mobility of Americans in the suburban era. The US government has tracked this since 1947. For several decades after World War Two, the percent of Americans who moved each year hovered around 20%. During mass suburbanization and relatively prosperity, more people moved regularly. Many metropolitan regions, including the Chicago area, boomed during this time. Some of this suburbanization and prosperity was present before the Great Depression as well.

Given all of this, how many Americans can say they lived same place for decades? How many suburbanites stayed in one home? My guess is that it is a relatively small number of people.

Perhaps this might change in the coming decades with decreased levels of mobility among Americans. At the same time, it is hard to imagine a suburbia that is marked by permanence rather than continued growth and change.

Have a more expensive house, keep the lawn greener with automatic sprinklers

With a recent heat wave plus the upcoming warmer days of summer, different methods for maintaining a green lawn are on full display across suburban neighborhoods. I live in a suburban location where a ten minute walk or run brings me to neighborhoods with homes in multiple different price points. One recent observation about homes at a higher price point: they are more likely to have automatic sprinklers to keep the grass green.

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On my street and with residences at lower price points, I have not seen any automatic sprinklers. I see people out with hoses or sprinklers attached to hoses. Or, some people might do no watering at all or all lawn care is left to a homeowners association.

Step over to a different nearby street with larger and more expensive homes and a morning visit leads to seeing multiple homes with automatic sprinklers. The little black sprinkler heads can be viewed spreading water or the amount of water on the top of the grass blades suggests they were recently in action.

As I have chronicled the efforts of suburbanites to keep their lawn free of dandelions, weeds, and leaves alongside having a well-manicured green grass lawn, seeing the automatic watering of lawns among those with more resources leads to this thought: is the whole system of green lawns held in place by those with money and higher housing values as a means to signaling their status and pride in homeownership? The well-kept lawn is often tied to middle-class values but it costs money and time to keep the yard in a certain condition. And how much does the green lawn connect to higher financial and social standing?

New “Unvarnished” exhibit on Naperville’s exclusionary past

A new project from Naper Settlement shows how Naperville – and several other communities – excluded people for decades:

https://www.unvarnishedhistory.org/local-spotlights/naperville-illinois/

For more than 80 years, Naperville was a sundown town. After working in a household, farm or factory during the day, people of color had to be gone from Naperville by sundown…

A historical look at how diversity in the city and five other U.S. towns grew despite decades historic discriminatory practices and segregation is featured in a free online exhibit spearheaded by Naper Settlement and the Historical Society of Naperville.

“Unvarnished: Housing Discrimination in the Northern and Western United States,” found at UnvarnishedHistory.org, was developed through a $750,000 Institute of Museum and Library Services Museum Leadership grant. The Naperville historical museum and five other museums and cultural organizations collaborated from 2017 to 2022 to research and present their community’s history of exclusion…

“It is our hope that this project will act as a model and inspire other communities to research, share and reflect upon their own history. It is through this process that we are able to engage with the totality of history to better understand today and guide our decision-making for the future,” she said.

In doing research on Naperville and two other nearby suburbs, I had uncovered some of what is detailed in this exhibit. However, the local histories of the community rarely addressed any of this. Instead, they focused on the positive moments for white residents, typically connected to growth, progress, and notable members of the community.

Such an exhibit suggests a willingness for Naperville and other communities to better grapple with pasts built on privileging some and keeping others out. The history of many American suburbs include exclusion by race, ethnicity, and social class. This could happen through explicit regulations and ordinances, through regular practices, or through policies and actions not explicitly about race, ethnicity, or class but with clear outcomes for different groups.

As noted in the last paragraph above, hopefully these efforts do not end with past history but also help communities consider current and future patterns. For example, decisions about development – like what kind of housing is approved – influence who can live in a community.

The suburbia where those who work from home have money to spend nearby

If more suburbanites are working from home and spending more time in the suburbs, suburban communities and businesses want their money:

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Suburban developers and retailers are working to provide ways to escape home, be around others, and, most importantly, spend newfound time and money…

Neighborhood retailers are eyeing the money she and others are saving on the commute, in addition to the thousands of dollars that office workers typically spend annually in restaurants, bars, clothing stores, entertainment venues and other businesses. In many cases, coffee breaks, haircuts and happy hours that used to happen near downtown offices have moved to the suburbs…

In the Washington region and nationally, the trend is most striking in higher-income inner suburbs, where more residents have computer-centric jobs suited to remote work and money to spare…

The new weekday demand, developers say, has helped suburban shopping centers and entertainment districts reach and, in some cases, surpass 2019 sales. The pandemic also accelerated long-standing pre-pandemic trends toward walkable suburban developments and the “third place” — public gathering spots like coffee shops and bookstores, where people can connect beyond home and work.

I want to expand on one of the ideas suggested above: this may already be happening in wealthier and denser inner-ring suburbs. These communities already have residents with more money to spend and already have a denser streetscape from a founding before postwar automobile suburbia.

But, could this go further? Suburbanites with more money to spend live in certain places. The shopping malls that will survive and even thrive are likely located near wealthier communities. Having more resources could enable certain suburbs to redevelop and add to their offerings compared to others that could languish in a competition for spenders and visitors.

Imagine then an even more bifurcated suburbia where wealthier suburbs have vibrant entertainment and shopping options while other suburbs do not. The suburban work from home crowd is not evenly distributed and neither are the communities and amenities they might prefer.