Cooking meat in a suburban backyard and resolving suburban conflicts

A recent controversy in an Australian suburb highlights two key issues in suburbia: (1) what exactly can you do in a suburban backyard and (2) how do suburbanites resolve conflict? To the details:

The Perth woman said she couldn’t enjoy her backyard in the suburb of Girrawheen, claiming her neighbours deliberately allow their barbecue meat and fish smells to waft into her yard…

After her claims were rejected by a tribunal earlier this year on lack of evidence, she applied to the Supreme Court of Western Australia for right of appeal. It was also turned down in July…

And it’s not just the smell of meat and fish that has made her furious — it’s the smell of cigarettes and the sound of children playing with basketballs…

Mr Vu said he just wanted to “keep the peace” and had removed the barbecue out of his yard and also banned his children from playing basketball…

Mr Hammond said the first step in any dispute with your neighbours was to try and resolve the matter face-to-face.

Two issues are present:

  1. Suburbanites tend to assume that backyards are for private activities. The front yard is open to the public and can be seen from the street and the sidewalk. The backyard is more hidden, particularly if the yard is fenced or cut out from view in other ways (such as through hedges and trees). But, are there limits to what can be done in backyards? What is considered infringing on others? Overly loud dogs? Trees that cross property lines? Activities found undesirable by neighbors (such as grilling and playing basketball)? Where property rights end and neighborhood disturbances and nuisances begin could be a fine line (and there are surely some local regulations to help figure this out).
  2. Suburbanites are often not great at resolving conflict. Baumgarner argued suburban community is built around avoiding open conflict and using third party actors if necessary. It is not clear from the article above how much face-to-face interaction happened between neighbors but appealing to the courts seems likely to end badly for neighborly relations: no matter who wins, the fact that this led to media coverage and court cases likely makes it more difficult to have positive relationships.

On one hand, this is a small-scale conflict. On the other hand, multiply such conflicts by just a few and the suburbs look like a place where neighbors want to be protected from each other – wait, privacy and exclusion was indeed behind the creation of suburbs

The role of disasters – such as the Great Chicago Fire – in pushing people to leave cities for suburbs

A thought experiment considering what would happen if the Chicago Fire of 1871 never happened includes this tidbit about suburban growth:

But then, after that second big fire in 1874, Chicago officials extended the restriction on wooden buildings to cover the whole city.

Elaine Lewinnek, author of the new book The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl, says the aldermen contributed to suburban sprawl by making it cheaper to build outside the city. After they changed the law, a real estate booster reported “a brisk demand for building just outside the city limits.” (Some of those areas outside the city limits in the 1870s later became part of the city through annexations.)…

“Things were already changing, as railroad lines and industry were crowding out housing,” Keating says. “The fire made this happen more quickly but it would have happened anyways. People moved more quickly south to Prairie Avenue or out to new suburban towns like Riverside.”

“The fire pushed 27,000 humble homes out of the central city and the North Side, leading to fewer residences downtown,” Lewinnek says. “Yet suburbanization was already happening before the fire, in elite suburbs like Riverside and more humble suburbs too.”

I have not heard this argument before. At the time of the fire of 1871, suburban populations were very modest. Railroad lines had only been in present in the region for a few decades. For example, the suburb of Naperville, which had just lost out on being the county seat to Wheaton, had just over 1,700 residents in 1870 while Wheaton had 998 residents and Aurora had over 11,000 residents.

As noted by numerous scholars, by the late 1800s fewer areas surrounding Chicago were willing to be annexed into the city (unlike communities like Hyde Park). This is usually attributed to the declining status of city life compared to suburban life alongside the declining price of public infrastructure that made it possible for suburbs to have electricity and their own water supplies. But, the scholars above hint at another factor that would become a long-running feature of suburban life: cheaper housing. If Chicago required less flammable materials for homes, people would move to suburbs that did not have such regulations.

More broadly, it would be worth examining whether major disasters in urban areas push people to move to surrounding areas or even other regions. Do earthquakes in the LA area influence population patterns? How about hurricanes in the southeast? Do people leave population centers after terrorist attacks? It would take some work to separate out the effects of disasters on movement compared to other factors.

Closer to blanketing suburban neighborhoods with cameras (via Ring doorbells)

Police in hundreds of cities will now have access to Ring doorbell camera footage:

The doorbell-camera company Ring has quietly forged video-sharing partnerships with more than 400 police forces across the United States, granting them access to homeowners’ camera footage and a powerful role in what the company calls America’s “new neighborhood watch.”

The partnerships let police automatically request the video recorded by homeowners’ cameras within a specific time and area, helping officers see footage from the company’s millions of Internet-connected cameras installed nationwide, the company said. Officers don’t receive ongoing or live-video access, and homeowners can decline the requests, which are sent via emails that thank them for “making your neighborhood a safer place.”…

To seek out Ring video that has not yet been publicly shared, officers can use a special “Neighbors Portal” map interface to designate a time range and local area, up to half a square mile wide, and get Ring to send an automated email to all users within that range, alongside a case number and message from police.

The user can click to share their Ring videos, review them before sharing or, at the bottom of the email, unsubscribe from future footage-sharing requests. “If you would like to take direct action to make your neighborhood safer, this is a great opportunity,” an email supplied by Ring states.

See earlier posts about suburban police access to individual cameras and my own thinking about covering suburban neighborhoods with private cameras. Quoting from the latter post:

[I]f every square inch of suburban street and sidewalk (plus a lot of yards) are covered by cameras, is something lost? Is there more trust that can disappear between neighbors? Is it truly all suburbanites for themselves even as at least some of them are fairly financially, socially, and educationally secure?

At the same time, I suspect numerous suburbs would welcome this extra surveillance. Think of wealthier suburban neighborhoods or communities: wouldn’t they typically welcome more information on who is around their homes? This might not even be about crime but really about possible crimes or activity from ne’er-do-wells or even who should be around on streets and sidewalks (often delimited by race and class). Privacy concerns might be mitigated by the suggestion in the article that users still get to choose whether they share footage with police.

Maybe it will all quickly come to this: what about the resident in these communities who refuses to get a Ring doorbell or install security cameras? A small hole in the surveillance network could bring about pressure from neighbors to conform and protect the neighborhood.

Suburban opposition to drug treatment centers

The case of opposition to a proposed drug treatment center in Itasca, Illinois sounds similar to opposition last year to a center in Wheaton. On the Itasca proposal:

But opponents said the project would hurt Itasca’s economy. The hotel currently generates around $250,000 in annual tax revenue that would be lost.

Village officials also are trying to determine how the proposal would affect police, fire and emergency medical services.

While they agree DuPage needs treatment options, the residents said they would prefer the facility be more centrally located in the county.

“When direct questions were asked regarding the impact on Itasca, they were all pushed back toward the needs of DuPage,” the residents’ statement reads.

“They (Haymarket) found a facility that fit their needs in Itasca, but we believe overlooked the impact of putting it in such a small town with limited resources.”

Residents say they understand the need for the facility but do not want it in their town. The concerns are similar to those that any suburban residents might lodge against a new development: a loss of tax revenue and concerns about the size of the facility (which could be related to traffic, noise, use of municipal services).

Residents say such a facility should be more in the center of the populous county…like in Wheaton? The problem facing less desirable but necessary land uses is this: what might be good for a region on the whole is often undesirable for individual communities who suggest it should be located elsewhere. Since zoning and development decisions are left to municipalities, whole regions could suffer.

This does not just affect facilities that might be less desirable. In Wheaton, the conversation about a drug treatment center included the people who would be treated as well as crime rates around the facility. But, imagine the case of a hospital or medical clinic. People need medical care and these do not usually have negative connotations. Yet, any medical facility may not generate tax revenues like commercial uses. The size or design of the facility might clash with the character of the community.

There is no easy answer. In an ideal world, the process might look like this: a metropolitan planning board would consider the needs of the population and then find locations throughout the region that would best serve residents. There is just one big problem: Americans, particularly suburbanites, like local control over land use decisions. Few metropolitan regions in the United States can do this and place important infrastructure or facilities where they are needed because Americans place local control as a higher priority.

It will be fascinating to see how Haymarket will respond with this particular facility. If Itasca says no, what is the next suburb to approach? Additionally, how many people will go untreated as the wheels of zoning approval turn?

Nostalgia for shopping malls amid decades of critique

Many shopping malls are in dire straits. The potential end of shopping malls can also induce nostalgia and good memories. Add to the decades-long critique of how shopping malls have harmed communities and societies and we have an odd moment: should we celebrate or lament the end of shopping malls?

A few reasons why there is nostalgia:

  1. The shopping mall was a prime social space, let alone a business space, for at least a generation or two. Hanging out at the mall as a teenager was a sign of independence for many and it is glorified by media narratives and images.
  2. The shopping mall is a marker of the past and those growing older can often lament the disappearance of what they knew. Perhaps they did not even like shopping malls or visit them very much but they are a marker for a particular era.
  3. The shopping mall was a significant shift in the shopping experience by providing a collection of chain stores in a single place surrounded by plentiful parking. While we have since moved to big box stores and now to online shopping, the shopping mall transformed retail.

But balance the nostalgia with the critiques:

  1. Shopping malls killed downtowns, from big cities to suburbs to small towns, across the country.
  2. Shopping malls are part of suburban sprawl that wastes resources and land (and contributes to more driving)
  3. They contributed to mass consumption and commercialization. As one quick example: would the commercial celebration of Christmas today be the same without the development of the mall?

How shopping malls end up in the collective memory down the road still remains to be seen. Once the generations that spent so much time in shopping malls is gone, what will their legacy be?

 

Finding an incomplete (circular) basketball court in the suburban wild

Years ago, I wrote a piece about how communities build small, unusually-shaped, or incomplete basketball courts in an effort to limit basketball players from congregating. I recently drove by one such court in Naperville – see the unique shape of this basketball surface.

BasketballCourtCircle

The park has a circular court with three hoops. Each 120 degree segment barely has enough room before its three-point lines coincide with the lines of the other segments.

The setting of the park: surrounded on all four sides by nice houses; multiple baseball fields; a soccer field in the middle.

Why set it up this way when the park appears to have plenty of room for a larger court (I would guess there is room for at least one full-size court roughly parallel to the east-west road)? Such a court limits play largely to shooting around as any game with more than two people per side is likely going to infringe on other parts of the court. It is very difficult to use two hoops for a game.

There could be multiple answers to this. The park district wanted to make sure multiple sports were available in the park and a larger basketball court would infringe on this. Other parks provide larger basketball courts. One request for public comment from the Naperville Park DistrictOne request for public comment from the Naperville Park District suggests 13 neighborhood parks have basketball facilities (including the one depicted above). Perhaps more basketball players prefer indoor facilities (understandable given the Chicago region’s climate).

It still is an unusual court. Could a community build an irregular shaped baseball field or tennis court and get away with it?

 

 

A fight over potential Hasidic residents in a proposed new suburban subdivision outside New York City

Residents and local officials in the New York City suburb of Chester have concerns about who might move into a proposed development:

In a peaceful corner of the Hudson Valley, a broad expanse of land sits at the ready for hundreds of homes ranging between 2,500 and 3,400 square feet, with views of the surrounding hills. There will be a recreation center and tennis courts, and nearly half of the development’s 117 acres will be kept as open space.

But if it were up to town officials, the houses would never be built. They openly fret about the size and density of the 431-unit development, the Greens at Chester, and even confess wariness about the likely intended home buyers: Hasidic Jews…

Angry residents at the meeting talked of how school taxes could rise, and public resources could be stretched in the town, about 60 miles north of New York City. They spoke of fears that the development would one day resemble Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic village about nine miles away that is overcrowded and has ranked among the poorest communities in the nation.

The developers, Greens at Chester, L.L.C., cite these statements and others in a federal lawsuit that accuses the town, Orange County and individual local officials of discrimination, contending that they assume that the home buyers will be Hasidic because some of the developers are.

The concerns expressed by residents and public officials are common ones levied at sizable new subdivisions: more strain on public services (though developed property could bring in more money through property taxes and money could be spent in the community) and a change in the community’s character. Even though growth is generally good in American communities, many places want to restrict what kind of growth is possible (and who new residents are).

What makes this more unique is the expressed concern about who exactly might move into these new suburban homes. Concern about suburban residents about the movement of Hasidic Jews in the New York City region is an ongoing one. Because they tend to move in sizable numbers together to particular locations, suburban residents feel they can be overwhelmed by a local change in population and lifestyle. This is not a new issue in suburbs in the New York City region. As Hasidic Jews have looked for housing and communities in which they can live, they have encountered opposition from at least a few suburbs concerning where they wish to worship.

Because local officials and residents have been so open about their opposition to a particular group moving in, I imagine this will not end well for the community. If the lawsuit does not side in favor of the plantiffs, this suburb will join others in having a reputation of not wanting certain kinds of residents. Many suburbs do this through a variety of methods but do so without explicitly naming who they are referring to (think of efforts to limit the number of poorer residents or minority residents). The residents and leaders of Chester may want to preserve some type of character of the community but doing so at the cost of naming and excluding specific residents is a dubious strategy.