Why Do We Need Lawns Again?

A growing number of Americans can look back and remember a yard of green grass as part of their childhood. The patriotic image of a single-family home and a white picket fence would seem momentarily out of place without the mowed lawn, but how often are they actually used? What is the underlying impetus besides their (seemingly) traditional picturesque quality? Given a closer look at what all of real costs of having a lawn actually are, it may be time to question whether or not they’re as vital as American culture would suggest.

The Great American Lawn

Typical American Home

Try Googling “American Home” and see how many images include a lawn. It’s the vast majority.

For something that has grown to be the foreground in the image of the American Dream, lawns are not an American creation. In fact, there was a time not that long ago when expanses of grass were just as rare in the United States as they are in the rest of the world. Short, edged, manicured grass was originally a component of the English garden, prized for its formal plan and meticulous upkeep. Though created to promote the beauty of nature, relatively little was natural about these hyper-constructed landscapes. It was only a matter of time before a growing wealthy class in America imported the idea of expanses of well-trimmed green rolling over their grounds.

Even then, however, American lawns were a luxury reserved for those that could afford to pay others for the high cost of maintenance. Before 1827, livestock was the most economical way of keeping grass short and most people in smaller homes opted for yards of vegetable gardens or gravel. It was the cylinder push mower, invented by an Englishman named Edwin Budding, that eventually opened the realm of feasibility to a wider American audience.

The idea of a thick, green front lawn was not the only thing that was imported from outside of the United States. We actually needed the grass as well. With younger, suburban generations being surrounded by lawns since the beginning, it’s easy to think that we simply culture species that grows naturally in the U.S. As it turns out, grasses native to the great American plains could not be trimmed to the carpet-like fullness of English gardens, but English grasses proved not hardy enough for the seasons in the American climate. Thanks to the stalwart efforts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Golf Association (not such a surprising alliance) by 1915 we had blends of seeds that could provide stable, beautiful lawns across the country. The post WWII flight into suburbia had acres of possibility waiting, complete with plenty of grass seed to go around.

Finally, every home could have not only the brick chimney and the white picket fence, but a little piece of formal garden all to its own. After all, it only takes 3 billion hours of time and $40 billion a year for America to keep its lawns lush. The numbers may seem big, but they’re not all that surprising when they represent 25 million acres of land (about the size of the State of Virginia) according to author Evan Ratliff in his paper “Turf Wars.”

The Drawbacks of Sprawling Green

bags of fertilizerGiven that the grass we use is essentially a foreign species in our climate, it is no surprise that we have to go to great lengths in order to maintain it, making a lawn an incredibly energy-intensive amenity. One can certainly start with water. The perfectly green lawn requires regular hydration, but how much exactly? The Environmental Protection Agency pegs water usage on the average lawn at around 10,000 gallons a year (a year’s worth of showers). Irrigation remains the largest source of water use in the country. For most Americans, that’s potable water pulled from an aquifer or reservoir.

For Americans, the green lawn brings many fringe benefits such as privacy, an image of wealth and increased curb appeal of the home. Yet despite the decades of engineering that has gone into perfecting the American lawn, it still has an annoying tendency to encourage unwanted side effects: bugs, weeds, moss. For some reason nature has continued to have a stubborn tendency of promoting imperfections in this artificially conjured monoculture.

Fortunately, this is nothing that chemicals can’t fix. Americans spread around 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 78 million pounds of pesticides annually, the bulk of which are petroleum based. While portions of these chemicals may help create the appearance of a healthy lawn (because grass can be healthy even when it is dormant and brown) they do not promote health in much else, including humans. The CDC continues to find residential pesticides in the blood and urine of Americans of all ages.

Eartheasy points out that 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 19 are linked with cancer, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 15 with neurotoxicity, and 11 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Of those same pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater, 23 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources, 24 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms vital to our ecosystem, 11 are toxic to bees, and 16 are toxic to birds.

There’s always the cutting. Americans utilize an estimated 38 million lawnmowers in order to keep their grass trim and tidy. Having walked behind a mower a number of times in my youth, I’ll admit there is something cathartic about the steady pacing back and forth with the world drowned out by the hum of a gas powered engine. A suburban zen, if you will. The catch is that lawnmower engines have traditionally been dirty beasts, producing as much pollution in an hour as a car traveling 100 miles. One of the key reasons is the absence of the catalytic converter found in our automobiles–deemed an expensive addition to a piece of lawn equipment by the industry. When all is said and done, lawn care is a prime contributor to smog and low-level ozone, accounting for nearly 5% of air pollution in the warmer months of the year according to the EPA.

Why the Devotion?

A question more consistently asked these days is despite all of the drawbacks, why is the dedication to the American lawn so strong? What drives the carnal passion for stepping out the front door and gazing over the sea of tiny green blades separating a house from the road?

The strongest reason always seems to be the “playscape for children,” but having grown up in numerous suburbs I have to question whether or not this is really used as often as our collective romantic nostalgia lets us believe. Having some elbow room between neighbors seems more likely. Perhaps the image of a carefully maintained lawn rather than natural plantings makes it easier to justify owning larger plots of land? Maybe it is because our culture has made lawn care relatively straightforward where the process of maintaining a landscape of natural species is foreign to most of us?

meadow instead of lawn

A front yard of wildflowers is an attractive alternative to a manicured lawn requiring a fraction of the maintenance

I would guess that the biggest reason is inertia of a cultural image. We have a tendency to lose sight of the momentum that a status quo has in our society. The residential lawn probably means the same thing to Americans that it meant to wealthy English landowners back in the 17th century: a symbol of opulence and sophistication. But just like the expectation of having a formal living and dining room, the fixture of the American lawn is ripe for reassessment. Newer planning models are already putting the necessity of the lawn into question. Dwell Development’s “microcommunity” model gives a new face to the idea of suburban planning, giving their homes almost no yards and placed closer together in order to promote a stronger neighborhood and transit-oriented development.

There are many beautiful landscapes that can be made from local, native plants requiring a fraction of the care and water and chemicals that we sprinkle over grass. Vegetable gardens are also a prime candidate for yard space, giving our green thumb a chance to reach into the dirt while literally giving back some fruits of the labor.

Image Credits: hilltowntreeandgarden.com , endalldisease.comnature.nps.gov

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14 Responses to “Why Do We Need Lawns Again?”

  1. Great post. Do lawns also keep pests at bay? I can’t imagine how many living things would end up in a front yard of wild flowers…

    • Thanks for stopping by Steve. I think that something besides lawn would foster a more diverse ecology of species, but in part I think that’s kind of the goal. What kind of ecosystem this is probably has a lot of variability. Shrubs & ground cover vs. longer prairie grasses vs. wildflowers. There is a degree of flexibility to toggle against levels of tolerance of different people.

      Also, when it comes to critters getting access to the house itself, we have a number of ways to protect against that (many of which we utilize anyway) like insect barriers and creating a tight connection to the foundation. There’s also no reason why any solution can’t be held back from the house as well, as many lawns are. Gravel paths, french drains, or garden beds would all provide a spatial separation from a yard that was allowed to be a bit more “free”.

  2. While I would agree that we don’t need big lawns there are some positives. A perennial turf sequesters a good deal of carbon. There are also lawn species that require much less mowing and watering such as Zoysia (in places warm enough to use it). Lawns also contribute to cooling and allow for percolation to recharge the aquifer. Some areas had the foresight to build in non-potable water systems for yards/gardens etc. Finally, at least when I grew up the kids of the neighborhood did lots of active play on lawns. We actually exercised more than our thumbs!

    • Hey there Steve. I agree those things do happen, but wouldn’t you say that they’re probably occurring less than the non-lawn alternative? Carbon sequestration of grass has to be muted by all of the energy that is required for people to maintain it. Not only the mowing, but the entire petroleum supply chain of producing chemicals and getting them to homes.

      As always there is certainly a more sustainable option than what most of us are currently practicing: organic lawn care, with an electric lawn mower powered by PVs, and watered with a rain barrel or greywater system. However, what’s the harder switch for people and what leaves us in a better place?

  3. Very good post and a common question I see every lawn mowing season. I’m torn because I have made money in past jobs maintain parks and mowing people’s lawns. Great money, but it was passed down because no one could maintain it on their own and it’s so expansive. Sure it’s a great job for a 16-20 year old, but is it really needed?

    We do these things for the suburban dream but it doesn’t get used like it did nor how you would think it would – that’s just reality. Most ‘burb parents are afraid to let their kids go out in most situations nowadays due to various concerns. So why a private yard? A park would actually have more eyes watching in case of incident.

    Having to own a mower (riding or not), trimmer (because the edges have to look good) and everything else associated with a lawn is yet another economic barrier holding people back from moving up financially. Add the gas, oil, chemicals and it’s even more detrimental to the environment…

    Now that we’ve built this environment, I definitely like to see that it looks good and expect my neighbors to keep up their end of this suburban arrangement. We could all argue it’s one’s Constitutional right to blah blah blah about all of this. So there’s the crux of it all. I don’t see a solution just popping up because there’s so much money at stake and so many “traditions” at stake.

    Me personally, I’d love to just see things reduced and let some of our green edges grow instead of continuing to build and fuel the madness.

  4. “Most ‘burb parents are afraid to let their kids go out in most situations nowadays due to various concerns. So why a private yard? A park would actually have more eyes watching in case of incident.”

    This is my feeling as well, Erik. A better planning model could be tighter lots with better use of acreage that all have better access not only to transit, but communal public space/parks.

    You’re right as well that no one wants to be told what they can’t do–and I’m not sure that’s even the goal anyway. I’d hope that we can just find enough people to honestly ask the question to themselves: I was going to build this, but why? Is there another option that satisfies all of my aspirations without a lot of these externalities? Even getting people to ask the question would be a big step forward.

  5. Tradition in human societies is the great moderator of entropy. Excellent post. Some very astonishing/scary stats here. I’m in favor of anything less maintenance, having mowed countless lawns as a youngster.
    However, being that this as a system for generating a profit, is it even possible to retract the nostalgia of the finely combed lawn from the American home? I think not. One can only hope.

  6. So much great information on the lawns in the US. If you do your research of your area, there are some “native” grasses that can be used. I personally am working towards using bermuda grass since it is native to FL and sand planes. This is commonly known as a weed grass, but since it doesn’t require much for irrigation or anything else, it is the best option for where I live. However, before I plant my grass, I’m working towards building an edible garden that takes up the majority of my property.

    Another statement about lawn mowers hit home. I hate the smell of gas powered lawn mowers and the noise they produce. I purchased a battery powered lawn mower and love it. It isn’t as powerful and only lasts so long, but the ability to hear and no awful gas smell makes it worth it. I purchased an extra battery and now I can do my entire 1/3rd acre with one switch of the battery.

    Here’s hoping once everything is set up and planted we can become completely organic as to not pollute the groundwater and use rain barrels for irrigation. This will also make it safer for the children playing in the “yard”.

    • Absolutely, Liz. It sounds like you’ve mapped out a great plan. I am a huge fan of the edible garden approach. It makes so much sense in so many ways–not only environmentally productive, but it’s resource positive in whats that help us towards growing more of our own fresh food. It’s great to hear that most people are making this transition. I’d have to say that one of the things I miss the most living here in the city is having a garden.

  7. Such good points. Kids are never out on the lawn playing as in years gone by. I lived in AZ for 7 years and I loved the properties that were sand, rocks and desert plants…bringing the desert into the city. I hated to see grass planted and watered and watered…how silly abd wasteful! Namaste…Anne

  8. I live on almost 80 acres in Indiana and I can tell you the sole reason I keep a lawn around my house: BUGS! Ticks are a huge problem around here, so we keep the grass mowed so we can go outside barefoot for more than 10 minutes in the summer without getting eaten alive. Sitting here looking at it, another feeling that comes to mind is one of a ‘defensive perimeter’. Rodents, would-be robbers, foxes, snakes etc. have a much harder time hiding in a manicured lawn. It might be simply psychological, but it’s there. Besides, it’s pretty.

  9. Another thing to consider is how many guys are mowing out there during the summer at noon, for an hour at a time, with their shirts off and of course no sun tan lotion.You’d think skin cancer didn’t reach my area of the country (west-central Pennsylvania). And hey, RCC, 80 acres of mowing? There’s got to be a better way to keep out ticks, and better uses for your money.

  10. Hmmm…I meant sunscreen, not suntan lotion.

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