The Impact of Lawns

So let me get this straight, we destroy biodiversity, we prohibit animals from coming near our lawn, we put up “don’t step on the grass” signs, and we spend countless hours and resources on maintaining it, and we get nothing in return. Why are we still doing this?

The History of Lawns

The idea of the lawn originates from the Renaissance in the 16th century. Here lawns were cultivated by the wealthy in France and England, however, the lawns were not planted with grass at first, but rather with an assortment of smaller plants like thyme or chamomile. The word “lawn” stems from the Middle English word “launde” which originally referred to an opening in the woods, free of trees.

“glade through this laund anon the deer will come” – Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part III, 3:1:

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Early examples of lawns were used around medieval castles because they gave the guards a clear view of potential enemies. The closely cut grass lawns began to emerge in the 17th century in England, France, and Scotland. Lawns were definitely a sign of wealth and social status because a closely cut grass lawn required a lot of labour to maintain, and at this point, it was all done by hand. Immigrants from Europe brought both the idea of lawns, as well as seeds to plant them, with them to North America, and around this point, in time the idea of the lawn become more widespread due to the industrialization, as people now could require machinery to assist with the maintenance of the lawn. 

Lawns introduction through sport

In the US and Canada, the lawns were used for bowling, both in Virginia and Boston bowling greens were cultivated even before 1650. Another big sport that furthered the introduction of the lawn was golf, which came from Scotland. The first courses in North America were established in Montreal in 1873 and Quebec in 1875, in the US the first course was built in New York in 1888. Fun fact the US Golf Association had a huge influence between 1910 and 1924 as they funded research with the US Department of Agriculture about the ideal ways to cultivate grass – which ultimately led to the widespread availability of the American lawn.

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The suburbs and city planning

But there is another reason, besides golf that made grass lawns so widespread. The suburbs. During the mid-19th century, cities grew and became gradually more industrialized. Factories and bigger corporate buildings started popping up, and with it, city planning started including the concept of “urban beautification”, this is how the “park” was born. The concept of the American park was actually inspired by British estate grounds with shrubbery, fountains, ponds, and landscaped lawns. From parks being introduced in major big cities, it didn’t take long for the concept of the backyard to become stable – and with the expansion of suburban areas, there was plenty of space (Planet Natural Research Center).

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The widespread inclusion of the lawn in the American home inspired many inventions and products that consumers could buy to maintain it. Effective lawn mowers for one, but more importantly, consumers started buying pesticides and herbicides, and it was because of these products that the idea of the “weed-free” lawn become the standard. See, lawns had all kinds of flowers and plants in them all the way up until the ’50s. Clover, for instance, was only categorized as a weed because the early broad-leaf herbicides of the 50’s coincidentally killed it along with dandelions, so the companies selling the herbicides started marketing these plants as weeds (because their products conveniently got rid of them, in truth, “create a problem, create a solution” in a nutshell, because of course, something so useless as the lawn has massive economic capitalistic potential) (Elizabeth Kolbert, 2008, Turf War, NY times).

The impact of lawns

Habitat destruction / biodiversity

One of the issues with lawns, right off the bat, is the areas lawns take up – it’s a lot. In the US, lawns cover more than 50 million acres of land (Mary Talbot, 2016, NRDC.org), when including parks and golf courses, the collected landmass is equal to that of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts combined (Joshua Rapp Learn, 2017, Discover Magazine).

According to a NASA study, lawns take up 2% of all of the US, making it the largest irrigated monocrop, in fact, 3 times more than irrigated corn – and mind you, there is absolutely no yield, no product that comes from it, it is just wasted space (Earth Observatory, 2005) – and as we will come to learn here, wasted space with a negative impact.

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Then there is also the notion that natural habitats are destroyed, along with native vegetation. Many homeowners plant exotic and invasive species that end up compromising native ecosystems (Robert H. Thompson, 2004). Some of these invasive species include English ivy, Japanese and Chinese wisteria, as well as decorative trees like the princess tree, the Bradford pear, and mimosa. Second, only to deforestation, invasive species are the largest threat to biodiversity (Kate Wagner. 2019, Curbed).

When maintaining a lawn it is also not uncommon to rake leaves and grass clippings put them in plastic bags, and throw them away, often to landfills where they will never biodegrade. However garden waste would be great in compost, or even better, leaving it on the lawn could help spark biodiversity. Microorganisms and insects live in falling leaves and grass clipping and when removing them you’re removing a vital part of an ecosystem.

Water consumption

Lawns also require massive amounts of water, especially in places where they wouldn’t thrive naturally (arguably, lawns, per definition, wouldn’t thrive naturally anywhere, but alas). Every year across the US, lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water a year (Mary Talbot, 2016, NRDC.org). On average, a lawn requires more water than rain can provide. In the US about 1/3 of all residential water consumption is used on lawn irrigation. This comes out to about 7 billion gallons of freshwater every day (Ronda Kaysen and Henry Fountain, 2019 NY).

This is a huge problem, and it will be even more so in the future, only 1% of all global freshwater is available to humans, and with increasing, climate changes water resources are decreasing in many areas – so using this amount of a finite resource on a lawn, idk about you guys, but it sure feels unethical.

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Fossil fuels / emissions

Now you wouldn’t think that fossil fuels were involved in lawn keeping, or maybe you would, I don’t know your life. Anyway, it is. The majority of lawnmowers today run on gas, and as a result, 200 million gallons of gas is used to keep lawns neat in the US every year (Mary Talbot, 2016, NRDC.org). In 2011, a study found that 26.7 million tons of pollutants were emitted by landscaping machinery (Ronda Kaysen and Henry Fountain, 2019 NY times). The worst thing about these machines is that they have little to no pollution control, which actually makes them dirtier than cars (Robert H. Thompson, 2004) and as a result, I would strongly advise against riding your lawnmower to work.

Pesticides

Keeping your lawn nature-free usually require some harsh chemicals, and about 70 million pounds of pesticides are used on lawns in the US every year (Mary Talbot, 2016, NRDC.org), and of course using both synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides comes with some dire consequences for biodiversity, and aquatic environments, as well as for water and soil quality. All for a green lawn.

Social and cultural aspects

Moreover, from a cultural perspective, lawns have an almost homogenizing effect, they make neighborhoods, cities, and wholes areas all around the world look very similar, and as such the lawn could be argued to carry some aspects of cultural erasure as well. I also read a piece about city planning in predominantly black neighborhoods in the US, and how green areas, parks, and trees have been less of a priority there, in contrast to white neighborhoods and that has resulted in a significant temperature difference, making the areas predominantly inhabited by white people more pleasant to live in, both visually and in terms of Summer heat. City-planning, parks, and urban beautification as such also carry some significant cultural and social implications.

The lawn also definitely still maintains its historic tie to wealth, with global (especially golf, again) resorts turning tropical regions of natural growth forests and ingenious land into flat recreational spaces for wealthy tourists to practice their best swing.

Today, the lawn symbolizes a form of stability, order, and similarity, to the extent that lawns are mandatory in many communities. That is, it’s against communities’ guidelines to grow anything but grass in certain areas, and this is an outdated and unsustainable mentality.

Alternatives to lawn / sustainable garden options

  • Grass alternative: in areas prone to drought replacing grass lawns with native plants that are better suiting for the climate, like succulents, you can also look at groundcovers likes moss, ferns, or wildflowers. You can also cover an area in rocks or gravel (Jiahn Son, 2020, Princeton Student Climate Initiative).
  • Native vegetation: shrubs or trees have much higher carbon-capturing abilities, and native species of plants will also improve biodiversity
  • Leave it be: you can also leave your lawn alone, less mowing, less irrigation, and let nature run its course
  • 50/50: Lawns are just dead zones, however, to combat the uselessness of the lawn you can always start by having “no-mow” zones or planting wild plants and flowers in half your yard, if you’re dealing if a strict home-owners association, this might be a place to start
  • Start a garden: reclaim the benefits of fresh veggies and herbs from your backyard – this way, the resources and time your put into your yard will now give you something back, which will be more sustainable than supporting big agriculture.
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