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.
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The Pianist vs. the Leafblower: WAMU Reports

Composer and pianist Haskell Small at his studio in Washington. You can hear him play, and hear what’s going on outside, in Matthew Schwartz’s WAMU report. (Photo Matthew Schwartz)

Last week the local NPR station, WAMU, ran an interesting report by Matthew Schwartz about the ongoing effort to outlaw leafblowers that use (noisy, hyper-polluting, obsolescent) two-stroke gasoline engines. The man you see above is the subject of the report. He is Haskell (Hal) Small, an internationally known composer and pianist who was behind the 1990s campaign to set legal limits on sound emissions from lawn equipment in D.C.  

As described in previous reports collected in this Thread, that previous effort was a legislative success but a practical failure. In theory, it set a legal noise limit of 70 decibels at a distance of 50 feet; in reality, the noise from lawn crews is routinely several orders of magnitude louder. (And, yes, I mean 10 to 100 times more.) It was when my wife Deb and I learned what he and others were doing that we decided to get involved, as mentioned here.

This radio report conveys the piquancy of Haskell Small’s situation. He is a fourth- generation Washingtonian who doesn’t want to move out of the city, as he tells Matthew Schwartz—but some of his best-known compositions are “studies in silence,” built around contrasts between loud and very quiet passages. The report conveys the result when one of his compositions runs into a local leaf blower — as you’ll hear for yourself.

The ongoing theme in this thread involves “hastening the inevitable.” That is, speeding the transition from the very noisy, extremely polluting two-stroke gasoline engines that have been outlawed in most uses except leafblowers and other lawn equipment, to the rapidly improving, much quieter, dramatically less polluting electric models. For past discussion see this (about the new models) and this (about why Jakarta, Manila, Phnom Penh, etc are outlawing, as too dirty, engines still used in the U.S.)

Now the city of Los Angeles has decided to hasten the inevitable, with a trade-in program from the leading Stihl company, of old blowers for new ones. Here’s the announcement from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office:

Stihl trade-in announcement, via LA Mayor’s office.

There are no leaves in sight, but you can never be too careful. (James Fallows)

We’ve had a lot of development on the scientific, public-health, technology, and local-government front since the previous reports in this space. Updates soon.

For the moment, a note about the intriguing, emerging sociology of landscape care in today’s upscale America.

I’ve been lying low in public on this front, while a lot of activity has been going on backstage.

Summary version: a bill to accelerate the transition away from super-polluting, noisy, leaf blowers powered by dirty two-stroke gas engines, and toward much cleaner electric models was introduced by a D.C. City Council member early this year. According to its sponsors, it has enough support to pass if it comes up for a full council vote. But before the whole council can consider it, it must be scheduled for hearings and a vote in a committee chaired by Council member Vincent Orange — who is up for re-election right now. That committee is where the action is for the moment. Stay tuned.

I’ll take the occasion to add two updates. One is a column yesterday by Paul Mulshine on NJ.com, making the libertarian case in favor of controls on dirty, noisy equipment. Sample:

The defenders of the leaf blowers tend to speak of a "right" to use them and argue that any denial of that "right" is evidence of the nanny state in action.

Nonsense. A nanny state is a state that prevents you from doing harm to yourself, not to others. The best way to understand that is by comparing this grass to that other grass, the kind people smoke.

If somebody wants to smoke pot in his own house, then he can do so to his heart's content as far as I'm concerned. He can even listen to the Grateful Dead - though only if he keeps that sound on his own property as well.

But if he wants to project 90 decibels of sound onto my property, then let us imagine my possible response in a land of true liberty, free of all regulation.

I've imagined this many times. What I imagine usually involves my Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. A quick search shows numerous cases in which leaf-blower users have been shot; a classic case of justifiable homicide.

Obviously I’m a nonviolence-is-the-best-path guy, and, also obviously, Mulshine is exaggerating for comic effect. But I think he’s right in his revision of the standard “nanny state” argument.

Robert White and his wife Christy (White campaign)

Yes, there is such a thing. And I don’t just mean that with today’s Washington D.C. primaries, we’ve officially reached the end of the presidential primary season.

For reasons introduced by but not limited to the themes in this section, over the past year my wife Deb and I have been much more actively engaged in local D.C. politics than before. I was wearing an “I voted!” sticker in this afternoon’s Facebook conversation with Yoni Appelbaum and Molly Ball; and the vote I really cared about casting was in the race for an at-large seat on the D.C. City Council.

Vincent Orange—multi-era incumbent, runaway leader in name recognition, presumed winner, and a man known by supporters and critics alike for a “transactional” pay-to-play style of politics (you help me, I help you)—was the person whose name I assumed I would see at the top of the heap tonight.

Instead, Robert White pulled it out! White, who grew up in the District and based his campaign on bridging the Gilded Age divides that affect this city as they do so many others, ran a flat-out good-government campaign.  I won’t bother you with the details, which you can read about on his site. But here is a bit from an interview with Greater Greater Washington this spring:

As I mentioned yesterday in another note on Erie, Pennsylvania, I’ll try to send out some reports on still-functional local-level activities around the country. This one is an update on the D.C.-area campaign to hasten the (inevitable) shift from grossly polluting, and nuisance-generating, old-tech leafblowers and other lawn equipment, to the dramatically cleaner and quieter electric alternatives coming onto the market. We’ve been doing a lot, with a minimum of public notice, in the past few months. These updates:

  • In the innocent days just before the national election, Councilmember Mary Cheh, who has been leading these efforts in D.C., held a committee hearing on accelerating the shift. Courtesy of the D.C. government, here is the video, which begins with an intro by me.

  • In our Atlantic-family publication CityLab, David Dudley has a very good piece on the damage done by ambient noise, and why various aspects of “convenient” technology have gotten out of control and what could be done about it.
                             
  • Adrian Higgins of The Washington Post also has a very good piece about the underappreciated effects of omnipresent urban noise. Eg: “There is a weird human phenomenon at work here: Sound is far less irritating to its creator than to its recipient. Erica Walker, a doctoral student at Harvard University’s Chan School of Public Health, seems to have hit on one reason for this: “Recipients of nuisance noise have no power over it.”
                                       
  • More on noise and the city, from NoiseAndTheCity.org

We’ll have a real web site up soon on this theme. Onward, city by city.

Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Back in the fall of 2015, in the midst of travels around the country in which my wife, Deb, and I saw countless examples of citizens taking responsibility for changing their own communities, I mentioned a specific way Deb and I intended to apply the lessons of what we’d seen. As the first item in this series explained:

Over the past two years, 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.

One way in which we got involved was to join a group of neighbors trying to bring the nation’s capital up to speed with a growing number of other cities, in phasing out use of the (obviously) noisy, but also surprisingly dangerous, polluting, environmentally destructive, and technologically outdated piece of machinery known as the gas-powered leaf blower. Dozens of cities have already done this, and the pace is increasing. A recent example is Key Biscayne, Florida, which mandated a shift to cleaner, quieter battery-powered equipment—and gave lawn-maintenance companies a whole 180 days to comply.

So over the past two years, or the parts of it when we’ve been in D.C., we have met with our neighbors and friends for the unglamorous but weirdly satisfying slog of trying to change minds and organize support for local legislative action. Specifically, we’ve been urging the District Council to consider and pass a bill proposed by Council Member Mary Cheh, which would phase out gas-powered leaf blowers over the next few years. (You can read its text here.)

The enjoyable part has been regular meetings of our little group of allies, over muffins and coffee at one or another of our houses. It has also meant talking with experts on air pollution, noise pollution, lawn maintenance, engine-design, regulation-enforcement, and other issues, from all around the country. Plus preparing testimony for City Council appearances. Calling council members one by one, and going downtown to for discussions with them (or first, usually, their staffers). Arranging and attending demos of new clean-tech lawn equipment. Raising money to support a website and informational videos. Going to local citizen forums to explain the issue. Learning about the regulatory thickets that apply in most U.S. states but are different in California (which has more leeway, under federal clean-air regulations, to set its own standards) and Washington D.C. (which has less leeway on almost everything than “real” states do, as attested by our “Taxation Without Representation” D.C. license plates.)

The most important work of all, done mainly by one of our colleagues and described more fully below, has been going from one Advisory Neighborhood Commission to the next, explaining the arguments, and getting commissioners to vote in favor of changing the District’s policy.

This item, which will be the last in the series in this space, is an account of what has happened since then, what comes next, and where further online updates can be found.


Constructive use of a battery-powered leaf blower, to remove feathers after a big pillow fight, in New York.
Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

Back in the fall of 2015, in the first installment in this series, I mentioned that a group of community activists in our hometown of Washington, D.C., had begun an effort to get noisy, hyper-polluting, gas-powered leaf blowers banned in the capital, as has already happened in more than 100 cities across the country.

The reasons for the ban are: the obsolescence of the technology, which is orders of magnitude more polluting than other machines and engines now in common use; the public-health danger, above all to hired work crews, of both the emissions and the damagingly loud noise from the gas blowers; and the rapid advent of battery-powered alternatives, which are quieter and dramatically less polluting.

The purpose of this post is to record how the story turned out:

  • From 2015 to early 2018, more than one-third of all the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in the District, elected bodies covering seven of the eight wards in the District, voted to endorse this mandatory shift.
  • In July 2018, the council had hearings on a phaseout measure, sponsored by the council member Mary Cheh.
  • Late in the year, the 13-member council passed Mary Cheh’s bill, unanimously.
  • D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser then signed the bill, and it will take effect as of January 1, 2022.

By Kati Lacker, from the April 2019 issue of The Atlantic

The print issue of The Atlantic for April 2019 has an article by me about why this move was in the interest of householders, workers, and the community as a whole. It’s called “Get Off My Lawn.” Here are several additional references:

  • To see the testimony that 22 witnesses presented to the D.C. council, go here.
  • To see other news dispatches from the group Quiet Clean DC, which was a central part of the move for the D.C. law, go here.
  • For reports from a long-established group working on these issues, check out the Quiet Communities site.

You don’t often hear this sentiment, but: Let Washington, D.C., be an example to the nation!