First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Chronicles of Civic Engagement
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Below are Atlantic notes by James Fallows and others about local-level civic activism in the center of large-scale political action, Washington D.C.
Show 12 Newer Notes

On the Sociology and Economics of Omnipresent Noise

Two very different accounts of the neighborhood dynamics of modern community living, related to the community campaign being chronicled in this thread.

First, from Mike Lofgren, multi-decade veteran of national-level politics, about the suburbs of Washington D.C.:

Yes, two-stroke engines are very polluting (I can smell them when walking in my neighborhood). But they are also much noisier than 4-stroke engines and (obviously) electrics. That brings up my main point: they are the major, but far from the only, culprit destroying the tranquility in residential neighborhoods during recent decades.

It was not until I retired that I became aware of how noisy supposedly tranquil suburban communities are. Consider the following:

1. The almost universal use of commercial lawn services. All the commercial-grade gear (blowers, weed whackers, riding mowers) is without exception much louder than the consumer equivalent. In Virginia, the racket goes on from early April until the final leaves fall a couple of weeks before Christmas. Does no one ever mow their own lawn anymore, as they did a couple of decades ago? Are people now too rich/busy/lazy/self-important to do it themselves?

And the services are very inefficient: they mow on a rigid schedule, meaning they mow right after a rain (rutting the ground and tearing the grass), or, as during this past August/September when there were 5 weeks straight with no rain: the grass had gone dormant and didn’t need mowing. They still mowed lawns every week, generating noise that would wake the dead for no good reason.

Days of yore (Wikimedia)

To interrupt Mike Lofgren’s account for a moment: this is a transition I’ve often reflected on too. When I was a kid, either I mowed the family lawn, or my brother did. OK, that was a long time ago, and in a small town. But when our two sons were young, in early and mid-1990s, they mowed our lawn — and made money mowing the neighbors’ lawns as well. That was right in Washington D.C., and it was within more-or-less the modern era. We even had a neighbor (who moved out long ago) known as Lawnmower Man, because he would lovingly trim his lawn every few days.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a local teenager or householder mowing lawns or doing yardwork in the vicinity. Again, this is a controlled-by-location, variable-by-time observation: same part of Washington, different eras, within living memory mainly done by householders, now virtually all work done commercial landscaping crews. Just reinforcing Mike Lofgren’s observation.

Back to him:

This is part of the ongoing chronicle of a minor-seeming but conceptually significant effort in local community action. The conceptual significance, as set out mainly in this note, is that the lawn-machinery industry is an outlier in the past generation’s trend toward in tighter environmental standards and more awareness of worker-safety issues.

You can read all about that in the rest of this thread. Today, sharply diverging views on the right way to handle the seasonal bounty of leaves from the trees.


From the National Wildlife Federation: Leave ‘em be!  [Hardee har!] The full argument is here. This screenshot will give you the idea:

USA Today weighed in to the same effect last year.


From a reader in Minnesota: Yeah, just leave ‘em there! The reader writes:

Leaf blowers are an admirable opponent. But I would appreciate it even more if you could point out to folks the glories of leaves laying around fertilizing the lawn (naturally) and encouraging all kinds of wonderful life.

I know it seems like too much to ask—to get people stop polluting the air with noise and dust—and then pressing them into loving a yard covered with beautiful leaves. And it is probably a step too far.

Maybe they could think about gathering up the leaves and composting them?  Imagine that sweet black earth next spring.


Hell no! Blow ‘em away! From a reader who lives in the countryside outside Washington DC, who begs to differ:

This evening the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission for our part of D.C. voted 8-1 to endorse the proposals from our community group, as described in previous items in this thread, to move the District of Columbia away from use of (grossly polluting, very noisy, hazardous to lawn crews) gas-powered leafblowers. They even amended our proposed resolution to make it stronger, in ways I’ll describe when I can check the official text tomorrow.

There are many steps ahead, but this is an important and very welcome one. Sincere thanks for their time, attention, questions, suggestions, and support to Chairman Smith and Commissioners Spencer, Gates, Gold, Gardner, Wells, Lucero, and Ross, and to the members of our community group. Further reports as the process goes on.

In response to the item immediately below, which kicked off this Thread, I’ve gotten reports from different corners of the country. My intention with the thread-organization here is to have a running chronicle, or billboard, of news and developments pro and con.

This item is about two-stroke engines, which North Americans and Europeans now encounter with gas-powered leafblowers (and some other lawn equipment) but otherwise aren’t in widespread use in developed countries any more. If you’ve spent time in Southeast Asia, India, much of Africa, or other parts of the developing world, you know these engines as the put-putting source that powers scooters, some jeepneys, the motorized tricycles known as tuk-tuks, etc.

A motorized rickshaw in Ethiopia. In much of Asia these are known as tuk-tuks. They’re powered by two-stroke engines, as are lawn equipment and leafblowers in the United States. (Wikipedia)

You find two-stroke engines in poorer countries because they’re cheap. You don’t find them in richer countries because they’re so dirty and polluting. An NIH study in 2004 estimated that two-stroke engines were, by themselves, a major source of air pollution and pollution-related health problems, throughout Asia. Without getting into details, the main reason for the difference is that two-stroke engines are much less efficient in combustion than four-stroke engines (which are standard in cars); they burn a mix of oil and gasoline; and they emit a lot of this combustion mixture directly into the atmosphere, unburned.

This was in Germany, but it could have been anywhere. (Reuters)

Over the past two years, my wife Deb and I have been increasingly impressed by the importance, vitality, difficulty, and effectiveness of local-level activism in the cities we’ve visited across the United States. We’ve interviewed and written about the people who are committed to changing the texture of life—and have!—in Sioux Falls, or in Fresno or San Bernardino, or in Greenville, or in Eastport or Duluth or Columbus or Allentown or Burlington or Redlands or Pittsburgh.

They have done it. What about us?

What about the place where our children were born and where they finished high school, where we own a house and have lived for more years than anyplace else: Washington D.C.? Don’t we have an obligation to keep pitching in too? The District is the site of national / international struggles but also of intense local involvement. Over the years, our local involvement has been mainly with our immediate neighborhood and with youth sports leagues and the public schools, when our children were there.

Recently we have become part of a new group involved in a small-seeming but significant aspect of D.C. neighborhood reality: the relatively recent omnipresence of gas-powered leafblowers as the raucous background sound of daily life.

For me, at least, this is an old complaint. What’s new, I have learned, is both a negative and a positive development.