"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.

 
 
 
 

Infrastructure populism: on the politics of building big, or failing to

When it comes to infrastructure, they’re all all talk. Image: Getty.

It is famously said of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that at least while he was dragging his country into a war in which over half a million of his citizens died, he was also making sure the trains ran on time. The murdering fascist wasn’t all bad: he did sort out Italy’s railways.

Now, shockingly, it turns out this is all complete claptrap and Mussolini actually did very little to improve the rail system. Popular beliefs to the contrary are all just part of the fascist myth that he built up around himself to validate his governance.

It’s fake news, but the widely believed claim strikes to the core of a bigger issue: politicians hijacking transport as an easy way to connect with voters. Because, despite Chris Grayling’s best efforts, getting from A to B is an aspect of modern life that can hardly be ignored; effective roads are required to keep the population fed and public transport needed to get people to work.

Like Mussolini before him, this is something Donald Trump has recognised. Among the cries of “lock her up” and “bad hombres”, a key part of his presidential election campaign was a promise to ramp up infrastructure investment. Trump was fed up that other countries “look at our infrastructure as being sad”. As someone who has tried to use Amtrak, the US domestic rail service, I’ve got to say I agree with him.

But it’s easy to complain; it’s following through with a solution that’s the real problem. Only 13 per cent of the $1.5trn Trump hopes to raise is going to come from federal purse, with the rest funded by… erm… something else. It’s in this delivery that this went from being a realistic promise of change to just saying what people want to hear.


On this side of the pond, we have a similar problem: Boris Johnson. A politician who regardless of the issue in question will suggest the answer is an absurd, massive infrastructure project in thinly veiled efforts to grab headlines and deflect from any helpful debate.

His stint as London mayor was dominated by such ill-thought out infrastructure projects. The new Routemaster buses and the Emirates Cable Car were a big waste of money. Aborted suggestions include the Garden Bridge Project, which managed to waste another £46m in public money without even being built, and the Thames Estuary Airport.

More recently, on the prospect of a hard Brexit and lorries queuing up the M20, Johnson proposed a road bridge between England and France. To solve the issue of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, he called for another sea-crossing bridge. You get the idea.

So for Johnson, big projects are a cure-all for difficult problems, which can catch the headlines and allow any reasoned criticism to be easily be framed as not “believing in Britain”. 

Unlike Johnson and Trump, the Hungarian President, Victor Orban, has managed to follow through with his big projects. Unfortunately, they have nothing to do with infrastructure. He has instead spent hundreds of millions of Euros on building football stadiums around the country all to the delight of football-mad Hungarians. This, in a country with one of the worst poverty rates in Europe.

In his 2006 study on the future of high-speed rail in the UK, the director of News Corporation and former CEO of British Airways, Sir Rod Eddington, warned against being “seduced by ‘grands projets’ with speculative returns.” His message was intended for politicians but, in a world of Trumps, Johnsons and Orbans, is surely a lesson that should be learnt by everyone.