The McMansion Isn't Dead

So, last year I wrote a piece bemoaning the destruction of a forest across the street from my then-apartment building. I had a front row seat to the entire ugly, and somewhat fascinating process of residential development. In that case, 4 1/2 acres of mostly tulip poplar trees were toppled to build an apartment complex.

Oh how quaint my sorrow when compared to the monstrousness I recently stumbled upon two miles from my new neighborhood in Reston. I ended up there by accident - a family had emailed me about tutoring their son and I unsuspectingly followed the directions to their home. When I turned off the main road to their neighborhood, this is what I was met with:




I didn't know McMansions were being built in Fairfax County (we have plenty of mansions, however, particularly in Great Falls and Vienna). I liked to brag to my family in Michigan that people in the DC Metro region were comfortable with their townhomes, that there was no great cultural need (or land available) for large emerald lawns and tasteless starter castles. Loudoun County is another matter - they're throwing up cul-de-sacs like crazy out there - but Fairfax seemed to have reached capacity.

Apparently not. This development in Vienna - "Hunting Crest" - is new. You can smell the lumber when you step out of the car and have to swerve around construction debris left in the road. The houses, some of which are still being built, aren't even visible from Google Maps yet:

Compare the scale to adjacent neighborhoods
You'll notice the "neighborhood" was plopped down in a luscious bed of green space. Most of that green space happens to be Lake Fairfax Park. The developer, NV Homes, says on their website that "the community backs to scenic Lake Fairfax Park". Legally, that may be true (the development doesn't extend to park property as far as I can tell) but from the perspective of the land, the forest has been gouged out. It also begs the question - if NV Homes finds the park "scenic", why did they raze the trees on their own property? If you zoom out a bit more, the development is still the most visible landmark for miles around.


Some context on Lake Fairfax Park. I've been volunteering at the National Wildlife Federation which also "backs to" the park and have had the chance to explore some of the hiking trails there. I wrote this in my journal back in mid-October:
I walked back in the quiet woods listening to the acorns fwapping on the ground and the paper leaves leaping at every blush of wind. The treetops were golden in the sunshine and I could see deep in, thinking of Fowler's book and the mystery of the wood. Several trees had crashed dramatically in the last storm(?) and were splintered over the path. The ones standing seemed impossibly lanky, and they swayed. 
I found a pebbly creek bank covered in shimmering little rocks that broke if you pressed them hard enough. I laid back on my coat and watched the trees move above me and the intermittent leaves falling. One landed in my open hand as I reached out for it. The leaves floating on the creek reminded me of the Poohsticks game played in A. A. Milne's book. There was even a little waterfall, moss and ferns. I stayed there, so peaceful, the smell of decomposing leaves. I figured if I stayed long enough, I would decompose too.
Back in 2007, even before the housing bubble burst, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer claimed that McMansions were on their way out. Old habits die hard.

Environmental News Roundup: The Philippines

Astronaut photograph of coal mine on Semirara Island, the Philippines
"Japan has allocated 9.24 billion yen in official development assistance (ODA) to the Philippine government’s forest management programs in Luzon and the Visayas, the Japanese Embassy announced." - Japan extends P5B aid to Philippines for forest management

"In 2002, 250 hectares were selected as the site for the development of Manila's first transit-oriented mixed-use central business district (QC-CBD). At the same time long-established informal settlements — some more than three decades old and home to more than 25,000 people — occupy much of the land earmarked for development." - An inside view of community organising in Quezon City's slums

"Philippine President Benigno Aquino III ordered security for mining companies beefed up Tuesday after raids by communist rebels shut down operations of the country's largest nickel producer and sent its stock plummeting... The rebels accuse mining operators of destroying the environment and exploiting workers." - Philippines beefs security after rebels raid mines

"Most people will have seen at some time, a depiction of one of the Philippines most famous sights, the 2,000 year old Rice Terraces in the Philippine Cordilleras. These too, have been severely damaged in major mudslides, when Typhoon Nesat blew across the Ifugao Province." - Flooding in S.E. Asia: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam Philippines

"Chad Oppenheim unveiled the first certified “Green Project” in the Philippines, under the county’s own new green building rating system, BERDE (Building for Ecologically Responsive Design Excellence). As the first design under the BERDE rating system, the Net Lima, is one of three towers under construction at Net Metropolis." - Chad Oppenheim Selected to Design the Philippines' First Certified Green Project

"While rigid rules are imposed on environmental and social practices of large-scale mines, small-scale mines do not go through such stringent scrutiny. This has induced destructive environmental practices among some small mines, which impute a bad reputation on the entire industry, the chamber said." - DENR asked to regulate small mines

"Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam lose about $9bn a year, 2% of their combined GDP, due to problems caused by poor sanitation. According to the study, households in these countries see up to seven times their initial investment in basic sanitation improvements, such as building a pit latrine." - Facing up to the global water crisis

""If you put garbage in Salambao, Obando River, it will be like putting garbage in our plates, because this is where our food comes from," said Mercy Dolorito, former barangay chairman of Salambao where the 44 hectare landfill is proposed to be set-up." - Obando folk oppose landfill plan

"A lawmaker Saturday filed a bill seeking to promote agricultural and farming activities in highly urbanized areas, particularly Metro Manila. In House Bill 4750 to be known as the “Urban Agriculture Act of 2011,” ALE Party-list Rep. Catalina Bagasina said Metro Manila has a huge area where food production through agriculture can be pursued." - Urban farming in Metro Manila, Philippines sought

""We haven’t seen any progress as to the DENR’s effort to combat climate change, especially in reducing carbon emissions. Also, as long as we allow mining entities (which are dependent on HCFCs) to flourish in this country then this phase out plan will just go to waste," ICSC executive director Red Constantino said." - Philippines to cut imports of ozone-depleting substances by 2013

Wistman's Wood

"It is the silence, the waitingness of the place, that is so haunting; a quality all woods will have on occasion, but which is overwhelming here — a drama, but of a time span humanity cannot conceive. A pastness, a presentness, a skill with tenses the writer in me knows he will never know; partly out of his own inadequacies, partly because there are tenses human language has yet to invent." - John Fowles describing Wistman's Wood in The Tree (photo by Snaps11)

Turnpike-Eye View of Environmental Impacts

Drove from my family's place in Michigan back to Virginia today - about 550 miles. A trip like this gives me a quick snapshot of a variety of human impacts on the environment (and the irony of making the trip in my own little carbon polluter isn't lost on me):

Coal Plant in Monroe, MI on the shores of Lake Erie run by DTE Energy. DTE recently got in trouble with the EPA for not doing a better job to curb emissions at this plant. "Monroe Unit 2 released 27,230 tons of sulfur dioxide and 8,205 tons of nitrogen oxide in 2009 — tops in Michigan, according to the EPA." DTE claims it's too costly to make the upgrades EPA has asked them to make and calls the concerns of public health officials "alarmist".

Somewhere along the Ohio Turnpike near Toledo?

Continental divide point along the Ohio Turnpike near Mantua, OH (I believe).

Roof of the Lordstown GM Assembly Plant in Ohio which is currently producing the Chevy Cruze.

There are lots of creepy, skeletal "ghost trees" along the Pennsylvania Turnpike east of Pittsburgh, for miles and miles. It's a chilling sight. Foresters quoted in various articles attribute the damage to the de-icing salt that's applied to the road in winter and the resulting runoff. Even trees far from the road, on mountaintops, seem to be affected.

The nine-megawatt (MW) Somerset Wind Farm in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Here's a factsheet from the operator. By June 2011, the U.S. wind industry had 42,432 MW of cumulative wind capacity.

Book Review: The Global Forest

Trained in biochemistry but also a vocal advocate of aboriginal plant use, Diana Beresford-Kroeger is that rare person who bridges the divide between science and myth. Her new book catalogs the chemical lives of trees, describes their indirect and direct medicinal properties and serves as a call-to-arms to protect our rapidly dwindling forests. Each of the brief chapters (or “essays”) covers a different theme, from how animals have instinctually used plants as medicine to the ways that weather and disease can change the chemistry of a tree.

While Beresford-Kroeger clearly posses a wide-ranging knowledge of the hidden lives of plants, the book is hampered by a perplexing writing style that fails to do the subject justice. The book is full of intriguing concepts left unexplored or unsubstantiated, strings of abrupt sentences and awkward cloying sayings (“Our broken forest is in our hearts and in our children’s tears.”). This is disappointing because her general message: that trees support our fragile existence in complex ways we can’t begin to fathom, needs so desperately to be heard.

Environmental News Roundup: Mexico


“Mexico has faced illegal logging for years, but now security experts say that Mexican cartels appear to be entering into the illicit trade, either by orchestrating the logging or serving as armed muscle and then taking their cut.” - In Mexico, forests fall prey to crime mafias

Deforestation in the wintering grounds of the Monarch butterfly in central Mexico has dropped to just over one acre's worth of trees, compared to the hundreds of acres lost annually in the past, experts said.” - Logging drops further in Mexico butterfly reserve

“Portuguese architecture firm Blaanc Borderless and Mexican studio CaeiroCapurso have recently launched a non profit organization that aims to "help build a more sustainable and humanitarian future by recovering and teaching earth construction techniques," and its first project is the construction of twenty sustainable houses in the indigenous village of San Juan Mixtepec.” - Smart Adobe Houses To Help Women In Difficult Conditions In Mexico

Businesses in the United States have more than doubled their exports of spent lead acid batteries in the last year, because recycling fees in Mexico are cheaper. However, because of a lack of proper environmental regulation and technology, the people who work in the Mexican recycling centers and the surrounding environment are at great risk.” - US Exports of Used Car Batteries to Mexico Reach New and Dangerous Heights

“The sculpture installation—strategically located near the popular resort city of Cancún, Mexico—has already been colonized by corals and more than 1000 different types of fish plus lobsters and other creatures. As an added benefit, tourists who opt to go see deCaire Taylor's growing reef take some of the ecological burden off of the older, more delicate reefs nearby.” - Art + Corals + Conservation = Awesome

“Researchers say global warming has already harmed the world's food production and has driven up food prices by as much as 20% over recent decades… Specific countries fared worse than the average, with Russia losing 15% of its potential wheat crop, and Brazil, Mexico and Italy suffering above average losses.” - What's pushing up food prices?

“A drought in Mexico, which supplies close to half of the United States’ imported sugar, is expected to clip output for the 2011-12 sugarcane harvest… A scarcity of sugar could contribute to rising food prices, as the sweetener is commonly found in many of the foods Americans eat.” – Farmpolicy.com

“In 2009, Mexico revised its biosafety legislation, lifting a decade-old ban on genetically-modified corn, sparking an outcry from environmentalists, human rights activists, and small-scale farmers who said the move favored the big agribusiness and put their native varieties that have fed the population for thousands of years, at risk.” - The UN special rapporteur on the right to food urges Mexico to continue ban on GMO corn

“While lower wages in China lured away many clothing, toy and TV outfits, today a manufacturing revival is evident in Mexico. Factories are humming at full tilt; some are expanding operations.” - Mexico’s Manufacturing Revival