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Friday, October 9, 2015

A Trick to Get More Halloween Treats

I started thinking about this post several weeks ago, around the time that all of the drug store chains and supermarkets started stocking their shelves with Halloween candy and decorations.  I was initially thinking ahead to how I can startle trick or treaters walking up to my front door on Halloween night.  Then I realized I probably won't get the opportunity to do that, because I expect I'll be accompanying my daughter as she trick or treats.

My daughter is old enough to trick or treat in our neighborhood, unsupervised, with a friend, and there are ample well-lit sidewalks to get her around the development.  But she prefers to trick or treat with friends in a different neighborhood.  And it's all about efficiency.

She can hit up three times as many houses per hour in her friend's neighborhood of townhouses than she can in her own neighborhood of homes on 0.4-acre lots. At the townhouses, with front-loading garages lining the streets, the average distance between the front doors is about 25 feet. Back home, trick or treaters have to walk anywhere from 90 to 130 feet from front door to front door (side-loading garages require much wider lots). And that's assuming the kids cut through the grass from house to house instead of walking back out the driveways to the street (anywhere from 30 to 70 feet) and then up the next driveway and sidewalk to the next front door.
My neighborhood. Very circuitous trick or treating because of large lots.

Of course this comparison is apples (hopefully candied, without razor blades) to oranges. These two neighborhoods are two different types of homes and two different price ranges. An average of 1,800 square feet of living space to an average of 2,500. And a difference of 0.15-acre lots to 0.41-acre lots.   But my point here is the usefulness of the extra 0.26-acres per lot in my neighborhood. If someone wants to have a swimming pool in their yard, they would need that extra quarter of an acre. But as you can see on the aerial photo above, fewer than 10% of the homes in my neighborhood have pools. And sure, it's extra room for kids to play. And that's important. But for the adults, it seems to me that the more distance between homes, the less likely it is that neighbors will get to know each other. Fewer opportunities to converse. Relegated to waving to the guy two houses away (200 feet away) while at the mailboxes. Bigger homes on bigger lots, with less sense of community.
My daughter's friend's neighborhood.
Much more efficient for trick or treating
in a development of townhouses. 

When I accompany my daughter trick or treating in her friend's neighborhood of townhouses, with front doors just two dozen feet apart, there is a totally different vibe. Many of the neighbors are on their doorsteps or on lawn chairs in their driveways chatting with their neighbors in between groups of ghouls grabbing Mr. Goodbars.

The differences between these two neighborhoods are based on land use decisions that the township made 20-30 years ago when they instituted the current zoning districts with different minimum lot sizes. But regardless of lot sizes, this sort of intense development eats up wildlife habitat. And lawns are a very poor excuse for wildlife habitat. It is crucial to preserve ample green spaces and natural areas in between developments to avoid full-scale sprawl like you see in these two aerial photos. We humans tend to forget that we need trees and natural areas around us to improve our quality of life. My township was primarily agricultural 50 years ago. But as farmers wanted to retire, farms were gradually sold to developers. And some of the best agricultural soil in Pennsylvania has been essentially lost forever. We now have relatively few active farms remaining and have become just another suburb of Allentown, the third largest metropolitan area in Pennsylvania. My township's population is now about 31,000. Our population has increased more than 60% since 2000 thanks to a feeding frenzy of developers fed by a clueless Board of Supervisors.

But at least my neighborhood and my daughter's friend's neighborhood have sidewalks. None of the earliest developments in this township, built from the 1960s up to the early 1990s, were required to have sidewalks. Kids in those neighborhoods have to walk in the street when trick or treating. That's the kind of dumb growth you get when municipal leaders fail to lead and simply cave in to pressure from developers to cut corners.

And back home, I guess my daughter will be trick or treating in the neighborhood where she'll have to do less walking to get more candy. Smart girl.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Unhealthy American Fascination with Trophy Lawns

Over the past few years we've starting hearing more about how the fashion industry and Hollywood have created unhealthy idealized body types for American women. But this unrealistic ideal is not limited to the beauty and fashion industries.

This Spring I must have gotten two or three pieces of junk mail each week from various lawn care companies that wanted to regularly dispense herbicides and fertilizer on my lawn from now through the Fall. No thanks. I'm happy with my imperfect lawn. In fact, if I could talk my wife into it, I would plant my front yard as a meadow with native grasses and wildflowers and convert my backyard to a wood lot too shady for grass to thrive.  I'm just not willing to pay for unhealthy chemical treatments for my lawn the way some people are willing to pay for plastic surgery, liposuction, tanning salons, and breast implants.

For those who really want a fake-tan sort of lawn, there are even companies that will spray paint your lawn green (http://lawnpaintpros.com) or companies that will sell you paint for either your lawn or your mulch if you are a DIY-er (http://www.lawnlift.com).  Why not?  Golf courses sometimes paint their fairways before big tournaments, and outdoor, "natural" turf football stadiums certainly do it for games later in the season.

Photo:  Good Nature Organic Lawn Care (www.whygoodnature.com)
I suspect that the majority of lawn-obsessed homeowners who are not living under drought-imposed water restrictions simply go through the weekly cycle of mowing low and watering without giving it much thought.  In my observation, most homeowners and most professional lawn mowing services mow their lawns entirely too short for the health of their grass.  Most turf grass experts warn that cutting too much off the length of the grass blades at once and consistently cutting the grass shorter than 2.5 to 3 inches unnecessarily stresses the grass. Stressed grass has shorter roots, so its roots are unable to reach moisture deeper in the soil column. So it requires more frequent watering to prevent browning.

Photo: www-mda-state-mn-us
Lawns may need supplemental watering if they don't get enough rain each week. That can be accomplished on an as-needed basis with a garden hose and a sprinkler attachment. Or, for people who have invested a lot of money in their lawns, an automatic lawn sprinkler system will certainly help you protect your investment. I think automatic sprinklers can also cause a lot of extra work if it's not used with common sense. I have a neighbor whose sprinkler apparently is set to water twice a day, regardless of precipitation. We live in Pennsylvania, not Arizona. So the result of my neighbor's overwatering, and frequent fertilization, is that he has to mow his lawn with his expensive zero-turn radius mower (with a grass vacuum attachment) twice a week. I don't water my lawn, and I mow with my Craftsman mulching push-mower once a week. And I mow to a 3-inch height. My lawn looks lush more often than it looks scorched.  It is far from perfect. But I'm happy with the appearance of my lawn and the level of effort required for that look. I'm not participating in a lawn competition. If my neighbors chose to do so, that's their business. I just hope they are putting that level of effort and money into their lawns because it's their passion and not because they feel like they need to compete with their neighbors for some unrealistic ideal lawn. I wonder whether some of them wouldn't rather be spending their time and money on their families rather than doing battle with Nature over their lawn's appearance. I hope they realize they have a choice.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Power of Trees to Unite a Community

This is a post about the power of trees. The power of trees to unite a community. The power of trees to provide hope for the future. The hope that trees will unite a community going forward into the future.

This post is actually coming a month late, but I thought it is still worth talking about. Most states celebrate Arbor Day on the last Friday in April every year. Arbor Day was first celebrated in Nebraska in 1872 as a way to encourage communities in the fledgling state to plant trees in the towns that had been treeless prairies only a few decades before. My own community, Lower Macungie Township, PA, was primarily rural through much of the 20th century and focused on agriculture. Since 1971, however, Lower Macungie has gone from 10,521 acres of farmland to less than 3,000 currently. And from 8,814 residents in 1970 to over 31,000 in 2010. That is a 250% increase in 40 years, compared to the U.S. population, which increased just 51% in that same 40-year period. In the first decade of the 21st century, we had the dubious designation of fastest growing municipality in Pennsylvania.

One of the results of the rapid and poorly planned development of Lower Macungie over the past 30 years has been fragmentation. As large farms were gradually sold off to developers, we saw increasing fragmentation of wildlife habitat as well as fragmentation of human habitat. Nearly every large residential development built during the growth years was not connected to the rest of the community by any means other than automobile.  If a development was required to have sidewalks (which did not happen until the late 1990s), the sidewalks tended to dead-end at the limits of the project. No forethought was given to requiring connecting sidewalks to get to adjacent developments or even just to get outside of the development without having to walk the circuitous sidewalks though along the streets that were laid out in patterns reminiscent of a medieval labyrinths.

Photo credit: Sharon Schrantz, East Penn Press
This year the township’s Environmental Advisory Council (EAC), which I chair, initiated our first annual Arbor Day event. I felt that beginning an Arbor Day tradition in the township could be a way to address two concerns I have:  it would add back a small bit of the nature we’ve lost through the past decades of development, and it would be an opportunity for residents from different developments to join together to celebrate planting a new tree in a township-owned open space.

The EAC selected a location for our Arbor Day tree that is near the only elementary school in the township that has sidewalks leading to it and which is safely by foot from at least six different developments.  Had it not been for the school being built five years ago, this area would still not have any sidewalks connecting the surrounding developments.  The location we chose for our Arbor Day tree is an underutilized parcel that the builder of an adjacent development had to donate to the township as ”recreational open space,” primarily because a floodplain separates it from the rest of the development. The parcel is about 6.5 acres if you don’t count a stormwater channel bordering it on one side.  Because the parcel is categorized as recreational open space, the Public Works Department mows it regularly all summer long, whether it needs it or not. In the 10 years I’ve lived here, however, I’ve never seen anyone use the parcel for recreation.

Photo credit: Sharon Schrantz, East Penn Press
Our Arbor Day celebration on April 24 this year opened with a soloist from the local high school chorus (who happens to be my niece) singing the National Anthem, and with local Boy Scout Troop 131 presenting the American flag for the pledge of allegiance. The centerpiece of our celebration was our Arbor Day tree for 2015:  a northern red oak (Quercus rubra) that was placed in a pre-dug hole.  Following a few words from local dignitaries, we asked all in attendance to take a turn with a shovel and toss in some dirt to help backfill the tree. By adding even a handful of soil to the tree’s root ball, everyone present had taken place in planting the tree. And by doing so, they are part of the legacy of hope for future generations of residents who will enjoy the tree’s beauty and shade.

Our plan is to select different locations in coming years to plant the township’s future Arbor Day trees – locations that can be accessed by at least two surrounding neighborhoods so that people from different developments can be drawn to the beauty the trees will offer and enjoy the birds that will also share the trees with the community. H   opefully, the 30 or so residents who attended our first annual celebration this year will seek out future celebrations and will bring their friends and neighbors.
Photo credit: Addison George, Morning Call (www.mcall.com)