"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.

 
 
 
 

Living with neighbourhood violence may literally shape teenagers’ brains

Protesters against gang violence in South Central Los Angeles, 2011. Image: Getty.

Flinching as a gunshot whizzes past your window. Covering your ears when a police car races down your street, sirens blaring. Walking past a drug deal on your block or a beating at your school.

For kids living in picket-fence suburbia, these experiences might be rare. But for their peers in urban poverty, they are all too commonplace. More than half of children and adolescents living in American cities have experienced some form of community violence – acts of disturbance or crime, such as drug use, beatings, shootings, stabbings and break-ins, within their neighbourhoods or schools.

Researchers know from decades of work that exposure to community violence can lead to emotional, social and cognitive problems. Kids might have difficulty regulating emotions, paying attention or concentrating at school. Over time, kids living with the stress of community violence may become less engaged in school, withdraw from friends or show symptoms of post-traumatic stress, like irritability and intrusive thoughts. In short, living in an unsafe community can have a corrosive effect on child development.

Few studies, though, have specifically looked at the toll community violence may take on the growing brain. Recently, I studied this question in collaboration with a team of researchers here at the University of Southern California. Our goal: to see whether individuals exposed to more community violence in their early teen years would show differences in the structure and function of their brains in late adolescence.

Witnessing crime has lots of downstream effects. Image: ATOMIC Hot Links/creative commons.

Connecting community violence to the brain

My colleague Gayla Margolin, an expert on youth exposure to violence, has been following a sample of Los Angeles-area youth for over a decade. When these teens were about 13 years old, she asked them to fill out a checklist of community violence experiences: hearing gun shots, witnessing a beating, seeing someone do drugs, watching someone get arrested or chased by the police, seeing someone get chased by a gang, or seeing someone get threatened with a beating or stabbing. For our current study, we added these items together to get an overall sense of how much violence each teen had witnessed in his or her neighbourhood.

About four years after they took the community violence survey, when the youth were around 17 years old, we asked 22 of them to lie down in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine while we scanned their brains. When we examined the images we’d collected, we zeroed in on two small but critically important structures near the base of the brain: the hippocampus and the amygdala.

The hippocampus, a curved structure shaped like the seahorse it is named after, plays a role in learning and memory. Stress hormones seem to shrink this structure, and adverse childhood experiences like abuse and neglect have been linked with smaller hippocampal volumes later in life. One recent review of research on child maltreatment found that early abuse and neglect predicted smaller hippocampal size in 30 out of 37 studies that looked at the connection.


In our current study, we also measured the size of the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure located close to the hippocampus that is known for its involvement in emotion and threat-related processing. Childhood adversity has also been tied to the size of the amygdala, although this research has been mixed: Some studies have found that people exposed to early stress show smaller amygdala volumes, some show larger amygdalae and some show no relationship at all.

In addition to looking at the size of the hippocampus and amygdala, we also looked at patterns of interconnection between these structures and other regions of the brain. Which parts of the brain “talked” more to each other, as reflected by more tightly correlated levels of activation?

A neural signature of community violence?

In our data, we found that witnessing violence in early adolescence predicted smaller volumes of both the hippocampus and amygdala in this group of teens.

We didn’t measure the absolute size of these structures – instead we tested the relationship between community violence and brain volume. In other words, if our participants told us at around age 13 that their neighbourhood were higher in crime and violence, the size of these critical brain structures looked smaller about four years later, compared to teens who reported less community violence. Interestingly, this link held up even after we controlled for the youth’s socioeconomic status (family income and education) and their present-day exposure to community violence.

These brain regions showed stronger connectivity with the hippocampus among youth exposed to greater community violence. Image: Darby Saxbe/creative commons.

We also found that, among youth exposed to more community violence, the right hippocampus showed stronger connections with other brain regions linked to emotion processing and stress, perhaps suggesting that these youth were more vigilant to potential threat. If you’re used to encountering dangerous situations, maybe you and your brain learn to stay alert to avoid the next potential threat that lurks around the corner.

Our study dovetails with other research on early stress and the brain but is the first to specifically look at the link between community violence and the size and connectivity of the hippocampus and amygdala. Our sample was quite small and limited by the fact that we scanned the youth only once, in late adolescence. Therefore, although our measure of community violence was collected about four years before the scan, we have no way of knowing for sure whether community violence actually led to changes in the hippocampus and amygdala. It’s possible these brain differences preceded the youths’ exposure to community violence. For these reasons, this study should be considered preliminary and needs to be corroborated by much more research.

Despite its limitations, this work takes a first step in showing that community violence is linked with detectable differences in the teen brain in ways that are consistent with other forms of early adversity like abuse and neglect. These effects might be due to stress hormones that flood the developing brain and affect the growth of neural structures like the hippocampus and amygdala.


Youth with smaller hippocampal volumes may show learning and cognitive difficulties, whereas smaller amygdala volumes have been linked with depression risk and behavior problems. In other words, if, as we suspect, community violence has a toxic effect on the brain, downstream effects may emerge both at school and at home. And those effects converge with the deficits in attention, cognition and emotion regulation that other researchers have already noted in youth exposed to community violence. They may even endure into adulthood and contribute to a cascade of risk for further problems in employment and education.

Although community violence may be widespread, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. Developing kids and teens deserve to feel safe at home, in their schools and in their neighbourhoods. As our results and those of many other studies show, growing up in a violent or chaotic environment seems to leave traces on the brain, and may put youth at risk for other problems down the line. Although we don’t usually think of street lights, after-school programs and revitalised park spaces as brain-building improvements, public investment in urban neighbourhood safety and quality may have wide-ranging benefits for teens at risk.

Darby Saxbe, Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

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