Greener Gooder

Harry Drabik

Inside as much of an urban situation as I can handle I’ve been looking at things with an altered view. Today there are many who take a dim-damn view of the traditional suburban style US. Some see it as what was wrong with America and its greedy ways. One of the things pointed to as a sign America’s ills is the lawn using resources of water, fertilizer plus the waste of time, fuel, oil, and a mower all for the sake of mere middle-class appearances. That’s an easy view to swallow. I was inclined to see it so myself, but while I accept the value of critically reviewing cultural habits I don’t see a plausible criticism as guaranteed valid.

One element critics often highlight is the waste involved in this lavish lifestyle. They see a house surrounded by green lawn as wasteful excess. In some ways it is, but take the same scene, let grass and shrubbery run wildly green, and see what happens on a windy day when a flame gets started in long dry grass. A short green belt around a home is a firestop. Houses spaced suburban style also help prevent fire jumping house to house it was once the case in urban America when (as in the Great Chicago Fire) whole neighborhoods were wiped out. For reasons like that brick and other flame resistant building materials were preferred in dense urban areas. But as it costs more to build that way a practical way for an ordinary worker to afford a home was to build in wood on a lot large enough to give some firestop.

Lots of times we don’t give much thought to why a neighborhood looks the way it does, but when we examine we may find interesting explanations for rows of close set city apartments of brick or strings of tiny wood mining houses built small for easy relocation in a mine expansion. Workers saw a safe neighborhood, secure family home, a yard, and their own transportation as the improvements they were. My rural born grandfather developed new skills and worked hard as a machinist to earn his brick triplex. My grandmother turned a small backyard into a thriving garden for food and flowers. They wanted their little kids to be in the backyard because it was cleaner and safer than parks that were the unofficial dog toilets for the surrounding area. If you ever saw a fresh dog turd swarming with parasite worms you’ll know the concern of visiting parks with a two year old. Of course if you live in a high-rise, are childless, and talk a lot with Buddy your hamster you might not be as aware of ground level issues.

Funny (also meaning sad) how an outlook can be useful and damaging. I have a friend greatly committed to defending neighborhood integrity from assault by outside forces. Among his causes is calling to account the damage done to neighborhoods by highways and light rail; both of which he suspected were deliberately routed through poor neighborhoods as a means to break them up. I’d have thought planning roads and rail was more involved than targeting an area to ruin, but sometimes it’s better not to argue against a conviction. So to maintain peace and not distress the easily upset I agreed and entered my own contention. I suggested placing all new roads and rail alongside existing roads and rails in North Dakota as the best way to spare local communities and neighborhoods the burdens of transportation. I wonder if someday he’ll forgive my sarcasm. Though I have to say he took the bait hook, line, and stinker.

The point of the above is simple. Relatively few would be “harmed” running light rail between Cloquet and Grand Rapids, but I doubt doing so would be much use or value. And actually, the problem as I see it is not impractical or silly proposals. The problem is unwillingness to discuss, face criticism, or consider contrary ideas. I’ll use diversity as a handy foil because I was idly chatting to a diversity proponent who is vividly insistent certain leaders (I don’t need say who, do I) are anathema and evil. Am I wrong suggesting to a proponent that diversity is inclusive? When advertised diversity takes the form of setting bounds around what it includes it takes a turn from diversity to conformity. Sorry, but if I have to bend to one form of diversity I don’t find that very broadminded at all. But then, neither or logic seem to have much sway over entrenched conviction. What does your experience say? How do you negotiate understanding with the person you know who thinks putting their hand in boiling water one more time will be the charm and they’ll be unscathed? How many needless sorry things happen that way?

Having grown up feeling enslaved by a suburban lawn I appreciate the freedom of emancipation. But I also appreciate that if I do away with grass cutting and live surrounded by trees I better well have a plan to deal with forest fire. I could assume the DNR or USFS will protect me. I recall the aftermath of recent fires where citizens faulted government for not doing more to help them and demanding subsidies for outdoor sprinkler systems for their lakes homes. Fair enough, I suppose, but I’d think that if you build surrounded by trees you should already know the things will burn and are essentially longer, taller versions of the stove wood you burn in your romantic fireplace. As a practical matter who is to blame if I build on a flood plain or in a forest? Unless I sit back waiting for others, my own self-interest (which can turn nasty or greedy) should at the very least tell me I need to do a few things on my own to reduce the consequences. In the long run it is easier and safer for me to take effective steps. So, I don’t have a lush suburban showcase lawn, but I do have firestop grass. I call it a happy enough compromise