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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Action at the Local Level, D.C. Edition

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

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

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:

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, 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.

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.

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.

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.

You can never start them too young! Little Tikes Bubblin’ Leaf Blower, waiting for you at Target.

Two updates on local coverage of the initiative I’ve been describing in the past few months: the D.C. effort to speed the transition from gas-powered leafblowers using dirty, noisy two-stroke engines to a range of alternatives, including the emerging generation of much quieter, dramatically less-polluting electric models.

In case you’re wondering, why does this deserve notice as a problem?, here’s a recap. The obvious issue is the noise, but the real reasons for attention, in my view, are pollution, environmental justice, and public health:

  • Two-stroke gas-powered engines are so exceptionally polluting that they have been banned in almost all applications except lawn equipment. Simplest benchmark: running a leafblower for 30 minutes creates more emissions than driving a F-150 pickup truck 3800 miles. About one-third of the gasoline that goes into this sort of engine is spewed out, unburned, in an aerosol mixed with oil in the exhaust. Cities like Jakarta, Bangkok, and Manila are eliminating two-stroke engines as part of their environmental push.
  • Emissions from the engines, combined with the dust, mold, and other fine particulates created by the high-velocity (up to 200 mph) wind from the blowers, create public-health problems for a community. In a famous letter in 2010, the pediatric medical staff of Mt. Sinai hospital supported leafblower restrictions because of the damage done to children’s lungs. The American Lung Association has spoken up to similar effect.

    But the greatest risks, of course, are to the workers who use these machines for many hours per day — and who, in big cities like D.C., are typically low-wage, non-English-speaking immigrants. That’s why I think people who say, “Oh, this is a fancy-pants first-world problem” have it exactly wrong. In effect they’re saying: Don’t bother me with details about what I’m asking these workers to do to themselves, and what lung or hearing problems they might have several years from now, when they’ve gone somewhere else and I don’t have to think about them any more. Right now my lawn looks nice! (See also: don’t bother me with details of what’s happening in those garment factories in Bangladesh. I love the prices at H&M!)
  • The alternative technology of battery-powered equipment is evolving fast enough to make this a plausible option for the commercial landscaping companies that would laugh away the idea of using rakes. I mentioned one of the low-emissions, low-noise models here. Like everything in the world of modern battery-tech, these devices are expensive now but will move quickly down the cost curve as volume moves up. How can I say this? Because half the investment bets being made in Silicon Valley — on energy systems, electric-powered transportation, mobile devices, space equipment — are based on the assumption of rapidly falling battery prices, and are also meant to accelerate that process.

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: