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The McMansion trend has peaked

Americans' ideal home size declined to 2,100 square feet from a peak of 2,300, according to real estate research firm Trulia. (The full account of this trend was laid out by Kaid Benfield at Atlantic Cities, and it's worth checking out.)

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Phoenix rising: Can ‘the world’s least sustainable city’ go green?

Photo by moominsean.What was the most surprising thing that came out of Andrew Ross’s two-year research stint in Phoenix, Ariz.? For my money, it’s this: People who live there (weirdly) don’t expect their desert civilization to collapse around them at any moment.

“One of New Yorkers’ favorite things is to imagine the destruction of their city. There’s a whole library of movies and novels that do this,” Ross said during a recent visit to the Grist offices. “There’s no equivalent in Phoenix.”

Chalk it up to the power of denial.

Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU, sets the scene in his new book, Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City -- the product of his two-year study, which included interviews with hundred of Phoenicians:

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America has 40 million McMansions that no one wants

Americans, especially generations X and Y, want shorter commutes, walkability and a car-free existence. Which means that around 40 million large-lot exurban McMansions, built primarily during the housing boom, might never find occupants.

Read more: Cities, Sprawl, Urbanism

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Four ways enviros can keep Walmart in the hot seat

Hot-looking chair

This post concludes the "Walmart's Greenwash" series. To check out the rest of the series, follow the links at right, or start with the introduction.

Walmart's sustainability campaign is not your typical corporate greenwash. It is more complex and clever than that. It has enough substance mixed in with the spin to draw you in. It's easy to get swept up in the big numbers Walmart can roll out -- like the 30 tons of plastic hangers it recycles every month -- and to be charmed by the very fact of this giant company, with its hard-nosed corporate culture, using a word like "sustainability."

More than a few environmentalists have been won over. With their endorsements and the flood of positive press that seems to follow each of Walmart's green announcements, the company has managed to turn around flagging poll numbers, shift its labor practices out of the limelight, and, most crucially, crank up its expansion machine.

The environmental consequences of Walmart's ongoing growth far outweigh the modest reductions in resource use that the company has made.

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Maine to create car-free town with ‘really narrow streets’

The Shambles of York. (Photo by Bev Sykes.)

Residents of the yet-to-be-built town of Piscataquis Village, Maine, will keep cars from overrunning their town by making their streets too narrow to shove any but the cutest vehicles down them, reports Market Urbanism.

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Sick of the suburbs: How badly designed communities trash our health

Richard Jackson, from the PBS miniseries, Designing Healthy Communities.

This story is excerpted from a longer piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Researchers can have revelatory moments in remarkable places -- the African savannah, an ancient library, or the ruins of a lost civilization. But Richard J. Jackson’s epiphany occurred in 1999 in a banal American landscape: a dismal stretch of the car-choked Buford Highway, near the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Jackson, who was then the head of the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC, was rushing to get to a meeting where leading epidemiologists would discuss the major health threats of the 21st century. On the side of the road he saw an elderly woman walking, bent with a load of shopping bags. It was a blisteringly hot day, and there was little hope that she would find public transportation. 

At that moment, Jackson says, “I realized that the major threat was how we had built America.”

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Survey: The American dream home is energy-efficient

It’s not news that utilities can be budget-killers, and apparently people are getting wise to the fact that energy-efficiency means lower utility bills. A recent Yahoo survey found that energy efficiency is the one feature everyone can agree on when they imagine their "dream home" -- ahead of water views, a custom build and all the other things Americans usually aspire to.

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Photographer turns unrelenting boringness of suburbia into art

Jason Griffiths is an assistant professor of design at Arizona State, and apparently living in the middle of all that desert sprawl got to him after a while. In the early aughts he jumped into a car, drove all over the country, and made a discovery so banal it’s practically a tautology: Suburbia is the same everywhere. Except, because he's a photographer and he's been steeped in design thinking and this is what artists do, Griffiths managed to turn his sojourn into a book called Manifest Destiny: A Guide to the Essential Indifference of American Suburban Housing. It's a collection …

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Nature is trying to reabsorb the exurbs

Great news for folks who have watched the value of their exurban McMansions circling the drain over the past few years: These fringe habitations can be returned to nature to find new life as wildlife habitats. It’s basically the real estate version of composting. Okay, so there's not really an official effort to make subdivisions into sanctuaries, but apparently nobody told bears that. In Hopatcong, N.J., a cable TV repairman recently descended into 85-year-old Frank Annacone's basement and found a 500-pound black bear slumbering there. The folks at Gothamist dubbed it the "Reverse Goldilocks Bear," and in a true case …

Read more: Animals, Cities, Sprawl

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Merry Bikesmas: A 1970s Schwinn livens up a family holiday

Photo: Joe Penniston This year, as we have in years past, my wife and I packed up the kids and flew across the country to spend the holidays with her family in suburban Baltimore. Christmas at the Thomas house is always a festive affair: crab soup, wine by the bottleful, quality time with grandma and grandpa and sundry cousins. And for my benefit, they keep the Barry Manilow Christmas tunes to a minimum. (Sincere thanks for that, guys.) There's just one problem: Put me in the 'burbs for more than about 48 hours and I go completely batshit. I'm not …