“The conceit of the American suburb is that we’re all in a great park together”

In a recent documentary, Michael Pollan discusses the American lawn:

“The conceit of the American suburb is that we’re all in a great park together,” Pollan says in the film. “The lawn symbolizes that continuity.” And yet, Pollan explains, despite the fact that lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the country, Americans tend to avoid spending time on them.

“Pollan raises this question in the film about what our relationship with our front lawn says about our relationship with our neighbors,” Fabrizio told The Atlantic. “I find that really interesting. We don’t go out on our front lawn; we hunker down in the back where no one can see us. I wonder what that says about us and how we all get along these days.”

The lawn of the single-family American home often serves two purposes:

1. A supposed connection to nature. It is evidence that suburbanites want to be away from the city and all its pollution, concrete, and density and instead want to connect with nature. This has a long history in American suburbs dating back to the mid-1800s ideas that suburban homes should be cottages in the woods. The fact that well-manicured lawns do not occur “naturally” in nature does not matter much here.

2. The lawn is a showpiece that is intended to both enhance the impression and value of the home as well as indicate how much the property owner cars about their investment. Regular care and maintenance, usually aimed at producing a green, lush, and relatively low-cut lawn free of weeds and edged by attractive bushes and flowers, broadcasts a message about the class status of the owner.

As Pollan suggests, the front lawn is then not really for use, either by the community (like a park) or the homeowners (who would prefer to limit their outdoor activities to the more private space in back). Indeed, certain activities in the front would be quite odd, such as grilling in the front of the house or placing a swings set in the front lawn.

Indicating social class by having no leaves present on the lawn

Now that blooming dandelions are not a threat and warmer weather and thick green grass is less common, how can the suburbanite indicate his social class through his or her lawn in the fall and keep it a notch above his or her neighbors? No leaves may be present.

Within the next month or so in the Chicago region, leaves will fall at varying rates and cover lawns. These could be leaves from trees in that yard or, given occasional high winds, leaves from several houses away. They could be wet or dry, big or small, green, red, orange, or other shades. And Americans will spend countless hours trying to corral them all, stuff them in bags or bins, and ship them somewhere else.

Why? Because even in the fall, a season that can be good for growing grass, the sanctity of the lawn must be upheld. Even as trees and bushes grow sparse and the flowers that once adorned the property wither, the well-kept lawn is important. Rakes must be employed. Blowers can be even better (at least when the leaves are drier) to efficiently move large amounts. Mowers can be used not only to keep that grass looking uniform but to mulch leaves.

And the best fall lawns, the ones showing the suburbanites of a higher social class or those who care the most about their property (values), will have no visible leaves. They are a blemish and may be removed daily. Carpets of leaves may be pretty in more natural settings but not on the suburban lawn: it must continue to show off the home and its owner until either covered by snow or gone dormant for the winter.

One downside of alternative lawns: they can be stolen

Amid droughts and other nudges away from the immaculate grassy lawn, the alternatives may be easier to steal:

Recently, the Hometown dental office in Hesperia had its artificial grass stolen after someone came in the middle of the day and measured it before sending a crew of people to lift it over the weekend.

Kara Sweeney, the office director and wife of the dentist, James A. Sweeney, DDS, told me that the timing of the theft came as a particular punch to the gut, because it happened at the same time that the couple were pouring their savings into renovations to improve their family business.

“Our office manager saw it and assumed that I asked him to come out [and measure the grass] as part of the renovations we were doing. Then that weekend a neighbor across the street saw three men pulling the grass up. Apparently a police officer stopped them with a pedestrian check and one of them took off into the desert. The police officer shooed them away, I guess, but they returned that evening to finish stealing the grass! I guess they already had their measurements and knew it would be the piece for their project. We reported it to the police and I am hoping the pedestrian check helps them find who did it,” Sweeney explained…

When I asked Sweeney what she plans on doing to pretty up the barren eyesore that now sits in front of her office, she said that part is still unclear. “We’re going back and forth on whether to file an insurance claim or not on the grass. We’re not even sure if it’s covered, to be honest with you. We got a quote for fixing our landscaping, not even replacing the grass because it’s so expensive, and it’s over $10,000. So that part is the part that makes me frustrated the most, of course,” she fretted.

I have seen the occasional story of thievery and lawns but it is hard to know how common this is. Even if lawns are sacred to many Americans, who might have the resources or interest in collecting data on this? (Lawn seed companies? Anti-crime groups?) It would take some work to develop this into a pressing social problem though it would be interesting to know whether such crimes are geographically clustered.

The traditional lawn is not very portable as it would require either a lot of labor or specialized machinery to dig up large pieces of sod. Alternatives, on the other hand, often are more portable. Sod can be picked up. To some degree, plants and greenery can be moved. The sorts of accoutrements that help homeowners distinguish their green piece of paradise from someone else’s might be easier to move.

Why Americans love suburbs #7: closer to nature

A consistent appeal of suburbia for many Americans is to be closer to nature and green space. While suburbanites appreciate their proximity to urban amenities without having to actually live in the big city, they also often appreciate more open space and closeness to nature. American suburbanites may be out of touch with nature and children may be exposed to less nature these days but the suburbs are viewed as offering access to nature just outside the single-family home.

As cities grew in the nineteenth century, they became dirty places. While this is an ongoing issue in many large cities still (think smog in Paris or air quality in Beijing), these growing cities had particular problems including how to construct sewers (Chicago’s efforts in battling excrement helped it grow), dealing with waste from all the horses, and soot (see pictures of Pittsburgh turned dark in the middle of the day). The suburbs offered some distance from the grime of the city and more proximity to pristine nature.

Exactly what kind of nature suburbanites experience is up for debate. As one critic of suburbia suggests, the suburbs often involve “nature band-aids.” Suburbanites may be interested in farms or “agrihoods” but the average suburban dweller has a small plot of land around their home. I am reminded of one situation I discovered in my research on suburban development where residents of a newer subdivision complained vociferously when the adjacent cornfield turned into a new development. This common process of suburban development – more agricultural or rural land or open space is turned into sprawl – can frustrate many residents.

One consistent experience involves using and caring for the lawns that surround many single-family homes. The green lawn is an important symbol of the owner’s social class as well as a space for outside recreation. Caring for the lawn is vitally important. Neighborhoods and communities exert pressure. Residents make sure their lawns are green in a variety of conditions ranging from watering during droughts, painting their lawns, and searching out the best seeds. They often have plenty of trees, prized by suburbanites for their foliage, functioning as key symbols of nature, and ability to define edges of properties and hide views of others.

Beyond lawns, suburbanites are often interested in parks, forest preserves, and green spaces. Theoretically, these uses limit the possibility that the green space can be turned into other uses. Even somewhat protected green space like a golf course can provoke concerns if it is turned into something else. Additionally, these spaces enhance property values of single-family homes, allow space for children to play, and can become sites of local social activity. Some of these places can offer more authentic nature (less controlled by humans) though many of these sites are carefully kept. Furthermore, even in these preserved spaces, it is difficult to truly escape the suburban noise and evidence of civilization.

Sometimes, nature can be perceived as the enemy of suburbanization. A great example is dealing with water. Flooding is a persistent issue. More housing alongside roadways and parking lots do not allow water to soak into the ground. Think the Houston area after a hurricane. In spaces with less human activity, flooding and waterways changing course do not have the devastating or annoying effects that they can in suburbia. Turning land into suburbia can have the effect of bulldozing over natural ways of dealing with water and instead trying to channel it or eliminate it around homes and other uses. This is not always successful and much money can be spent on the issue. For example, the Deep Tunnel project in the Chicago region is a massive civil engineering project born out of urban and suburban development.

Of course, the opposite can be true as well: suburbanization can be the enemy of nature. Rachel Carson’s influential work emerged by suburban settings. At the same time, nature itself can also adapt to suburbanization. The wildland-urban interface can move as creatures like coyotes, deer, baboons, and birds adapt to human activity.

While critics of suburbs may not understand why suburbanites cannot see the ugliness of sprawl, many Americans believe the suburbs offer a little more natural space in which to move and breathe.

Now that the dandelions are almost gone, how lawn owners of different social classes can set themselves apart

I argued nearly two months ago that how different households treat dandelions in their yard could be a sign of their social class. Now that dandelion season is mostly over in our area, how might homeowners continue to exhibit their social class through their lawns?

  1. Green grass. Significant patches or brown spots are not good signs of a higher social class. This reminds me of celebrities and leaders in California caught with very green lawns even during a severe drought.
  2. The lawn should be cut to a good height regularly and meticulously trimmed. And this should probably done by someone else to indicate a higher social class.
  3. Sprinkler systems, soaker hoses, and elaborate ways to water the grass and plants indicate both caring more about the lawn as well as additional money to pull it off.
  4. Attractive plants, bushes, and trees. Many a real estate listing says yards are “professionally landscaped” but the implication is that more professionalism in this area – presumably related to expertise, thought, and effort – improves the quality of the property. A nice house with a sizable yard that is only the greenest lawn is likely not going to be as desirable as the greenest lawn complemented by other natural features.

Now that I have listed these options, I wonder at what point these different measures must be done in certain neighborhoods and communities. Imagine having a brown lawn in a less desirable neighborhood versus a ritzy one or being the one with a million dollar home who still cuts the lawn and trims the edges on their own. Perhaps there is a baseline of lawn care expected in most American locations and then extra features accrue depending on local practices and social class.

The well-cultivated lawns of Levittown

The history of environmentalism in the suburbs Crabgrass Crucible includes this description of how Levittown encouraged good looking lawns:

Abraham Levitt, among others, remained keenly aware of the additional work and expense suburban horticulture demanded, as well as the collective benefits that could follow if all Levittowners took the time and trouble to cooperate. However well-chosen and planted, all their grass, shrubs, and trees would die, and the chickweed prevail, if new owners’ commitments and skills were not also fortified. Through a gardening column in the Levittown newspaper, Abraham opened up a weekly line of communication to bring home to Levittowners how “lawns, like all living things, require care.” He “used to come around in a chauffeur driven car” to check on his homeowners’ floral upkeep. If lawns went unmowed or unweeded, he sent his own landscapers to do the job and followed up with a bill in the mail. Most developers at the lower end, like the Romano brothers, were far less solicitous, especially once their homes had been sold.

As lawn cultivation was taken up by new as well as longtime homeowners, its collective benefits, reinforced by the pressure of neighbors’ peeled eyes, helped make it the most ubiquitous of horticultural practices on Long Island. Whether these residents were white or black, however, their memories downplayed the landscaping contributions of builders and developers. Early Levittowners recalled a “sea of dirt” or mud that surged with rain, an uneven respreading of the topsoil, and scrawny, “inexpensive” shrubbery and trees. Residents later remarked little about any lawn damage from roaming children or dogs, or the neglect of lawn care by a neighbor next door. Instead, whether they were Levittowners or lived in African American Ronek Park, their recollections revolved around a joint if rival pursuit of horticultural handiwork. “Everyone” took up the mowing and watering and often the fertilizing and weed killing. As with Levittowners, Eugene Burnett remember “a kind of competition goin’ with that” that made Ronek Park yards into “some of the most beautiful lawns I’ve ever seen anywhere.” Caught up in the lawn-making enthusiasm, even Robert Murphy tried to plant one outside his Crystal Brook home. Yet for large lot owners, the dynamic was less intensely communal – the Murphy’s lawn was not even visible from the road. For denizens of Old Field, but also for smaller lots of horticultural hobbyists, lawns drew less investment of emotion or energy than other vegetation they cared about. (77)

Three pieces of this stand out to me:

  1. The pressure to maintain a nice lawn was present in the early post-war mass suburbs. It may have been present in earlier suburbs but fewer Americans could access those communities.
  2. It appears some of this pressure was promulgated by Abraham Levitt, part of the company that founded the community. At the same time, the developers of Ronek Park did less to landscape new homes there and the pressure to have a nice lawn also was present there.
  3. There are some hints that social class matters here regarding lawns. Was the lawn an essential part of purchasing a single-family home which offered access to the middle class American Dream? Could a poor lawn reduce or invalidate the success of the new suburban homeowner?

It is hard to imagine images of postwar suburban homes, whether in magazines, film, or television shows, without lush green lawns.

The number of dandelions in the yard as an indicator of social class

It is the time of year around here when dandelions are sprouting now that we have some warmer weather and rain. If you walk, bike, or drive around, it is not hard to spot stark differences between yards with no dandelions and those with a lot of dandelions. Here are some quick connections between the number of dandelions and social class:

  1. There are certain expectations in the United States, particularly in suburbs, about lawns. Americans are obsessed with lawns: it must be green (even under drought conditions), of a certain height (lest you violate local ordinances), and free of weeds. It is big business to help Americans keep their lawn looking good. Residents experience pressure from neighbors to keep their lawn nice. Even senators can be attacked for not keeping their lawn in a way that pleases the neighbors.
  2. Those with more money can more easily (a) pay for lawn care and treatments as well as (b) pay for lawn care products that they apply themselves. It is not necessarily cheap to keep a pristine lawn. It is not just a matter of avoiding dandelions but having lush greenery all around, consistency in the kind of grass, and a regularly manicured height.
  3. A nicer and larger lawn is connected to wealth and social class. It is a signal of the homeowner’s ability to tame and maintain nature. It supposedly shows they care about their property. It suggests they want to present a tidy image, which is always connected to property values.
  4. As a test of numbers 1-3 above, imagine trying to sell a decent priced house in a major metropolitan area where the yard is just covered in dandelions. Even if the house is in good shape, wouldn’t all those dandelions harm the image of the home? How many realtors would want to present an image of a lawn filled with dandelions to prospective buyers?
  5. Homeowner’s associations for townhouses, condos, apartments, and houses tend to do a good job of keeping dandelions in check. I assume this has to do with keeping up a positive appearance for the community. Fewer dandelions means a better image, more exclusivity, and higher rents or prices.
  6. The landscaping on our campus tends to look really good around graduation time when plenty of families and visitors are in town. The dandelions are largely in check.

In sum, I would suggest that the dandelion-free yard is yet another American status symbol. Just as people passing by might infer the social class of residents based on the size of the dwelling and the exterior appearance and the cars in the driveway, the number of dandelions may be used as a marker of social class.

(There certainly could additional factors that influence the number of dandelions in the yard. In addition to resources as noted above, addressing the dandelions requires time and physical ability which could be in short supply for a variety of reasons.)