Reporter's Notebook

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 9 Newer Notes

D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh Introduces Leafblower Bill

As a reminder, the updates in this thread are part of an unfolding real-time chronicle of community efforts in D.C. to deal with an environmental, public-health, and civic-life anomaly. That anomaly is the use of two-stroke gasoline-powered engines, which are so polluting that they have been banned in most other applications, for leaf-blowing equipment and other lawn machinery. You can read more of the background in this note and this one, plus this one about the good news of cleaner-tech, much quieter alternatives.

Mary Cheh, from her DC Council site

Our goal locally is to hasten along the inevitable: the shift to equipment that is much less dangerous to its operators (who in D.C. as in most big cities are mainly hired members of lawn crews, mainly low wage, largely non-English speaking) and imposes much less of a public-health and noise-print burden on the community.

The latest news on this front comes from D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who has been active on these issues before. Yesterday she introduced legislation proposing that D.C. phase out these hyper-polluting gas engines over the next six years. (Useful fact #1: Running a leafblower with a two-stroke engine for just 30 minutes creates as much air pollution as driving a Ford pickup truck nearly 4,000 miles. Useful fact #2: Cities in Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines have been banning two-stroke engines as being too dirty and polluting. Yet via lawn equipment these engines are still in use in the U.S.)

You can read the background to Mary Cheh’s move, plus see the draft legislation itself, in this piece by Rachel Kurzius in DCist. There is also coverage in The Daily Caller and in The Hatchet from George Washington University, where Cheh teaches law.

The surprisingly quiet and gasoline-emissions-free battery-powered Stihl BGA 100, which I wrote about last week, being unveiled by the company’s executive chairman, Dr. Bertram Kandziora, in Germany. Devices like this are changing what had been a stalemated discussion.

I’ll begin my emergence from a long bout of print-magazine writing by mentioning an article by Lawrence Richards, in The Guardian, on the changing nature of the leafblower debate around the world. Very much worth reading.

Brief update on what has gone before: after writing about citizens across the country who had invested time, inconvenience, effort, and disregard of “not my problem” inertia to bring changes large or small to their communities, my wife Deb and I decided to join one such effort in our own community of Washington D.C.

The point of this effort is to hasten an inevitable change: the shift away from gas-powered leafblowers (mainly the cheaper, super-polluting, uniquely noisy models that use primitive “two-stroke” engines) to newer-tech alternatives. While the most easily noticeable problem with these machines is the noise they create, the most serious objection is the public-health menace (mainly to crews using them) from two-stroke engines so hyper-polluting that they have been regulated out of existence in most other uses in the developed world, and for transport in countries like Thailand and Indonesia. You can read the details in the other posts collected on this page. Handy fact to bear in mind: one of these two-stroke leafblowers emits as many pollutants in 30 minutes as a Ford F-150 truck does driving coast to coast and halfway back again.

If I had been able to copy-edit my own comments, in real time, while talking by phone with the Guardian writer, I would have made them more coherent-sounding. But I think the story explains very well why this stage of the effort differs from some other very fractious civic showdowns. Also worth reading: the accompanying “Ask the Gardener” piece by Alys Fowler.

The Stihl BGA 100 cordless blower quietly but effectively deployed in Washington yesterday (Deborah Fallows)

In this space I’ve been reporting developments in local D.C. citizen-action efforts to phase out the super-polluting, uniquely noisy leaf blowers that use old-tech two-stroke gasoline engines. These are the same kinds of engines that once powered smoky tuk-tuks through streets of Bangkok or Jakarta but have mainly been outlawed there. They’ve also largely disappeared from boating and motorcycle or scooter use in the United States, and survive here mainly in lawn equipment.

For news on the D.C. front since the previous update, please check out this front-page story by Brady Holt two weeks ago in the local Northwest Current (link goes to a PDF), and a followup Current editorial last week (page 8 of this PDF). Both stress the new pollution-related and public-health findings about problems caused by two-stroke engines, mainly for the lawn-crew workers who use them.

There’s one other new aspect of this debate, which should make its discussion different from fractious neighbor-vs-neighbor disputes through the years. It’s a change I knew about, but couldn’t quite believe, until I saw it in person yesterday. This is the emergence of battery-powered leaf blowers like the one you see in action in the photo at the top of this page, which take us much closer toward the Holy Grail of equipment that is both (1) powerful and (2) quiet.

No one will ever accuse me of being a shill for the lawn-equipment industry (and if someone does, pieces like this or this will be my defense). So I’ll come right out and say, I hope every lawn-owner in America will get a Stihl BGA 100 battery-powered blower for Christmas. Better yet, I hope you’ll buy one this weekend. Here is what the company says about its new product:

Electric battery pack for leafblower, as used in our yard in D.C. last week by the A.I.R. lawn company (Deborah Fallows)

On Wednesday night, as reported here, our local Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Washington voted 8-1 to support a shift from (noisy and dirty) gas-powered leafblowers to the rapidly improving electric models, like the one shown here. This weekend several members of our community group met with our D.C. City Council representative to talk about the next steps.

One of them is collecting as much nationwide data as possible about how other communities have addressed this issue, and with what results. Some of the experiences are well-documented: for instance this, from Santa Monica, California, about the legislation they have applied since the early 1990s and ways they have updated and adjusted it.

In an effort to be as comprehensive as possible, we would be grateful for reports from communities on:

  • Legislation your community has considered, or enacted, dealing with leafblowers.
  • What lessons you have drawn from the enforcement experience — effective and ineffective steps, changes your community has considered or made.
  • What the observed economic effect has been, if any — changes in the number of landscaping crews or in the rates they charge.

Please Send us any reports by clicking this link or by email to We will report here on what we learn, and use it in our local efforts. Please specify if you would prefer to have your name kept confidential.

Also I should note that these messages will go to a non-Atlantic site, and responses will come from there, since this community-engagement effort is not an official Atlantic project.

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.