"When a house is demolished, more than the home is lost": On North America's demolition derby

Smashed up. Image: Getty.

In 2013 alone, more than 500 houses were demolished in Nashville, Tennessee, a sharp increase from previous years. And hundreds of additional teardowns are expected in a city that’s projected to add a million residents over the next two decades.

Nashville is hardly the only North American city to experience a recent wave of teardowns. In Vancouver, a housing and real estate expert reports that the city issued more than 1,000 demolition permits in 2013. She points out that most of the demolitions are of single-family homes, and each sends “more than 50 tonnes of waste to landfills”.

While preservationists have long decried the loss of historic fabric and cultural capital through teardowns, the environmental costs of demolition are increasingly coming to the fore.

The negative environmental consequences of teardowns are manifest. According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), demolition and construction now account for 25 per cent of the solid waste that ends up in US landfills each year. Further, when a building comes down and its materials are hauled off to the dump, all the energy embedded in them is also lost. This consists of all that was expended in the original production and transportation of the materials, as well as the manpower used to assemble the building.

As CMAP explains, “Examining embodied energy helps to get at the true costs of teardowns and links it to issues of air pollution and climate change (from the transport of materials and labor), natural resource depletion (forests, metals, gravel) and the environmental consequences of extracting materials.”

Often, a more environmentally friendly, quaint home is “replaced by a very expensive, much larger house, which is frequently left vacant”. Meanwhile, in the most desirable cities, in their tony suburbs, and in popular resorts, investors park their assets in “McMansions” that are sporadically occupied.

Additionally, bigger houses necessarily encroach upon open space. Not only does expansion entail the uprooting of mature plantings – which benefit air quality – but it also eliminates trees that can provide shade and minimize energy required to cool buildings in warmer months.

In the wake of the US housing crisis, many McMansions remain unoccupied. Image: Michael McCullough/flickr, CC BY-NC.

Urban facelifts erase more than crumbling buildings

In city neighborhoods, opponents of demolition will often cite the loss of historic character.

Advocates for development, on the other hand, frequently argue that demolition rids cities of decrepit, obsolete houses, paving the way for multi-unit developments. In this sense, cities can become more efficient with their limited space, avoiding suburban sprawl while alleviating the long, traffic-snarled commutes of those who travel to the city.

In many cities, however, new construction on the sites of torn-down houses is aimed at attracting relatively affluent young or middle-aged professionals – the demographic that appreciates urban amenities like shops, restaurants and museums.

Time was that a “walking world” – that is, an environment in which services and amenities are available within walking distance of one’s home – was possible for all city-dwellers, regardless of class. Today, in many urban areas, housing in the dense central core is the purview of the rich, and the less affluent are pushed to the outskirts.

As a result, formerly diverse neighborhoods become economically monolithic. Longtime residents scatter as home values – and taxes – are driven up by new construction.


Teardowns also have negative cultural implications.

All houses tell a story: they’re evidence of how earlier generations thought about domestic life and designed spaces to reflect their daily needs. When we demolish them, we lose those crucial traces of the past.

Of course, older houses often cannot satisfy contemporary demands for amenities, and were frequently built on a smaller scale. Modestly scaled houses from the 19th and early 20th centuries – which represent a wide range of architectural styles – are sometimes built out or renovated. But often developers and homeowners opt to (as a “For Sale” sign in my neighbourhood recently put it) “scrape the lot.”

For whatever reason, high square footage has become a prerequisite for new homes in the United States, where the average size of a house built since 2003 is more than double that in England. The United States Census Bureau reports that between 1973 and 2008 the average square footage of new houses soared from 1,660 to 2,519, only dipping after the Great Recession.

Small houses aren’t alone in falling victim to the wrecking ball. The Los Angeles Times recently reported on the demolition of mansions in desirable LA neighborhoods that had sold for as much as $35m.

Actress Jennifer Aniston has taken a stand against her mega mansion-inhabiting peers, arguing that, “The very idea that a building of 90,000 square feet can be called a home seems at the least a significant distortion of building code.”

Even in less supercharged real estate markets, large and well-built homes fall victim to rising land prices that make them more valuable as dirt.

One example is Georgia’s Glenridge Hall, an historic Tudor Revival mansion, which The Georgia Trust, a statewide historic preservation organization, designated a “place in peril” earlier this year.

Featured in films and providing some of the setting for the first season of The Vampire Diaries, Glenridge Hall had been preserved, until recently, by descendants of the original owner. But the architecture and planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company – darlings of the New Urbanism movement, which advocates for the revival of traditional town planning and walkable mixed-use developments – demolished the building to make way for a new mixed residential and commercial “English Village”.

Richmond, Virginia’s Agecroft Hall is built in the Tudor style. Image: Phoebe Reid/flickr, CC BY.

As I pointed out in my recent book, the builders of Tudor mansions like Glenridge Hall in the 1920s and 1930s attached a great deal of significance to the historic feel of their homes: in famous Tudors like the Virginia House and Agecroft Hall, they went so far as to import materials from actual English Tudors.

Unfortunately, for today’s wealthy builders and buyers, the past carries little cachet. For many, older homes are considered an obstacle rather than a badge of distinction. And when these radical presentists are given free rein to tear down the remains of the past, we all lose.The Conversation

Kevin D Murphy is Andrew W Mellon chair in the humanities and professor and chair of history of art at Vanderbilt University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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