Rethinking the largest American crop: the lawn

With droughts, shrinking water supplies, and changes to housing, here is one effort to question the traditional American lawn:

After all, your front lawn is not an inevitability. It’s a work of art — an antiquated design aesthetic, a handed-down invention, one we stopped noticing ages ago yet remain coerced by property codes to maintain. There was a time when the front lawn was tied largely to contentment, to everyday middle-class life: Anyone who grew up in a suburb has a mental slide show of images — bikes cast to the side, lazy games of catch, parents admiring their green thumb, trick-or-treaters, snowmen and nervous dates idling in curbside cars — linked inextricably with front lawns. In earlier eras, these were reflected through sitcoms, light family comedies, late-century Updike novels. When we had free-range children, a kid’s weekend would begin a lot like that image of John Wayne in “The Searchers,” hovering at the front door, an expanse of land before them. Then, at least since the 1970s — John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” say — our image of American front lawns became less benign….

Your front lawn, in a sense, became a malignancy, a vacant space within a vacant place, soulless and mowed to a sterile sheen — cultural shorthand for the dullness covering a cancer. Think of all the front lawns in the new movie adaptation of “It” — long and wide and distracting from the threat gestating beneath the town’s idyllic streets, covered up by village elders. Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” in which people allow bad feelings to simmer for way too long, begins with a house fire, its main characters standing on the front lawn: “Lexie watched the smoke billow from her bedroom window, the front one that looked over the lawn, and thought of everything inside that was gone.”…

“By the 1950s, it’s firmly rooted that a front lawn is a painting, a non-productive space,” said Elaine Lewinnek, a professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, and author of 2014’s “Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl.” “The front lawn is designed to be useless, to simply increase property values. It’s also intended to separate neighborhoods that have lawns from cities — you see rules against drying laundry in front yards, for instance, because suburbanites are different than ‘those people‘ drying clothes in public (in the city). ‘Sophisticated suburbanites use machines.’ Still, you need a great lawn to fit in. William Levitt (who created the seminal planned community of Levittown, N.Y.) said if you own a lawn you couldn’t be a communist — you had too much to do.”

A small anti-lawn movement began in the 1960s, sprung partly from this pressure to maintain appearances. Lorrie Otto, a housewife just north of Milwaukee, created a stir when she let her front yard revert to prairie. She found her lawn wasteful, boring — and many agreed, starting “Wild Ones” groups that, to this day, advocate for naturalistic landscaping. “This argument against lawns, it gains its steam in tandem with the ’60s environmental movement,” said Terry Ryan, a landscape architect with Jacobs/Ryan Associates, whose work includes Chicago Riverwalk. “People start to realize lawns take water and chemicals to maintain — sometimes herbicides and insecticides — and though grass is green and cooler than pavement, it starts to seem like a poor use of resources.”

This is a decent quick history of the lawn and the meanings attached to it. Yet, there are few alternatives suggested here. In times of severe drought, such as recently experienced in California, residents are innovative: paint the lawn, change the lawn out for drought-resistant plants or stones, use greywater for watering, or water the lawn anyway despite public mockery or fines. But, if Americans are truly serious about doing away with the traditional lawn, the answer lies with new ways of designing housing and spaces. Doing away with the grass lawn does not necessarily mean the loss of a private yard but they often go together. Imagine more single-family homes with much smaller lots or more row homes or, going further, more condos and apartments built up rather than sideways. If the lawn is a waste of resources and land, a sign of oppressive middle-class conformity, and not worth the time it requires, some major changes would be needed to shift away from it.

Perfect lawns and suburbanization

A comic on how much water, energy, and land is devoted to lawns in America includes information on when the perfect lawn emerged:

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Woe to the suburbanite who follows the ideas of this comic and lets their perfect lawn disappear. Not even drought such as that experienced in California in recent years (see posts about California lawns here, here, and here) would convince all suburbanites to give up on the perfect lawn.

How might the quest for the perfect lawn end? Here are a few scenarios:

  1. Younger generations and retirees have less and less interest in maintaining a yard. Once you have handed off those duties to your HOA or a business, why not just cut out this cost all together?
  2. A restriction on lawnmower emissions or noise. I live in a fairly quiet neighborhood yet one of the major pollutants – both in noise and burned gasoline – must be lawnmowers.
  3. New construction includes other kinds of lawns that are greener and more cost-efficient in the long run. It may be difficult to let a lawn go once you have it but imagine future homebuyers starting with no lawn.

A few fake LA lawns watered as CA drought continues

The lawn may be so culturally powerful that fake lawns need to be watered:

But a CBS Los Angeles investigation found the water has not stopped flowing outside DWP buildings. Rather, the DWP has installed sprinklers to soak its fake grass for minutes at a time…

On a recent Thursday morning, sprinklers ran for six minutes, soaking fake grass outside the South LA substation. Even an area completely devoid of grass — real or fake — was inundated by water from sprinklers.

The excess water ran down the sidewalk and toward the street in an apparent violation of city code stating, “No customer of the Department shall use water in a manner that causes or allows excess or continuous water flow or runoff onto an adjoining sidewalk, driveway, street, gutter or ditch.” Such runoff is prohibited even for recycled “gray” water.

I realize that this story appears to be driven less by concern for water supplies – which are an ongoing issue in California – and more about neighbors expressing anger that they have to conserve water lest they be fined while the city appears to be wasting it. In other words: big government should follow its own rules. This could be a microcosm of national politics.

Yet, could there be a good reason for watering the fake lawn?

“We’re rinsing the grass to make it more sanitary,” said Richard Harasick, director of water operations at the DWP…

“We’re really just trying to wash out dog pee,” he said.

So it is dogs that utilize the fake lawn. Who knew that even replacement lawns need so much regular maintenance due to regular use. (Some need to be painted.) And getting people to stop their dogs from using the replacement lawn may be difficult.

Perhaps a solution here is to get rid of the fake lawn entirely. A common sight in recent years in California is to use lawns replaced with other features like drought resistant plants or stones. There was even a rebate program implemented for this as the state aimed to replace a lot of turf.

One takeaway to this story: it is hard for Americans to get rid of lawns as well as reactions to their use and maintenance.

Maybe the American lawn is dead

Get through the history of the lawn and recent reactions to drought in California (see here, here, and here) and read one conclusion about the fate of the American lawn:

Maybe we really are in a new era. Maybe it will signal the end of our love affair with lawns. Maybe the new national landscape—a shared vision that inspires and enforces collective responsibility for a shared world—will take on a new kind of wildness. Maybe, as the billboards dotting California’s highways cheerily insist, “Brown Is the New Green.” Maybe the yard of the future will feature wildflowers and native grasses and succulent greenery, all jumbled together in assuring asymmetry. Maybe we will come to find all that chaos beautiful. Maybe we will come to shape our little slices of land, if we’re lucky enough to have them, in a way that pays tribute to the America that once was, rather than the one we once willed.

Here are four reasons why I think this will take some time – if indeed a majority of Americans do get rid of their lawns in the next few decades:

  1. What California has experienced hasn’t hit many other states. For much of the country, this drought is still an abstraction.
  2. Americans associate their green lawn with their single-family home with kids and all the success that the lawn and home symbolize. This is a simplification with some validity: the green lawn = the American Dream. This is why so many neighborhoods and communities fuss about and fine lawns that don’t look good.
  3. The lawn industry will fight back. Yes, the lawn industry has a lot invested in this and could develop varieties of lawn that need less water as well as champion alternatives that they can sell.
  4. A return to “nature” in our yards isn’t exactly real nature. It is another human modified version. Some replacements for lawn could take less work than the perfect grass lawn – but others will still require a good amount of maintenance. And I’m not sure how many homeowners really want truly untended yards.

California argument that new pools save water over lawns

A painted lawn or desert yard may not be necessaryinstalling a pool can save water over the years.

The industry took a huge hit during the recession, but business is back. Industry tracking firm Construction Monitor says there were 11,000 pools installed in California last year, the highest since 2007. The state is on track for 13,000 this year in a drought…

“It certainly concerns people. and I think our business would be much better without the drought, but that’s due to some misperceptions about pools and water use,” he said. “Even in the first year, when we replace lawn, you experience water savings by putting in a swimming pool and in the subsequent years after that, the savings just add up.”

The numbers vary depending on what you calculate. And Orange County Water Agency found it takes a couple of years to begin saving water by installing a pool, but Harbeck crunched the numbers for the Larsen’s pool and says it will save more than 6,600 gallons in the first year and more than 17,000 gallons each year when compared to watering the lawn it’s replacing…

The pool industry says owners have to do their part too by using pool covers and maintaining low water levels to preserve every drop in the drought.

I imagine there may be skepticism that this could be such a win-win-win: water saved, happy residents sitting by their new pools, and the pool industry with lots of new orders. But, if the numbers really do indicate that pools save money over time compared to lawns, would the facts/science win out? Still, it sounds like replacing the lawn with no pool would save even more water.

Drought leads to more lawn spray-painting, lawn removal in California

Painting the lawn is not new but the practice has picked up in California with the big drought underway:

For about $300, the New York Times reports, homeowners can transform their sun-baked brown lawns into lush, bright shades of green. According to the Times, “there are dozens of lawn paint options available, from longer-lasting formulas typically used on high-traffic turf such as ballparks and golf courses, to naturally derived products that rely on a highly concentrated pigment.”

Drew McClellan, who launched a lawn-spraying business in July, told the paper he has more requests than he can handle…

According to LawnLift, a San Diego lawn paint manufacturer, sales of its “all-natural, non-toxic and biodegradable grass and mulch paint” have tripled this year.

In April, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order that limited the watering of “ornamental landscape or turf” to no more than two days per week. Violators are subject to fines of up to $500…

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California told The Associated Press that the consortium received requests to remove 2.5 million square feet in residential lawns in July, up from 99,000 in January. The Municipal Water District of Orange County is taking in 20 to 30 applications a day, the AP said. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves Silicon Valley, received more than 1,700 requests.

Between the ripping out of lawns and painting the lawn, this is a rather large project. Two quick thoughts:

1. I wonder if this signals a long-term shift away from lawns in California. The drought may answer this question, particularly if it lasts a long time, but it would be interesting to see what happens if the drought ends soon: would people go back to lawns?

2. Could a green lawn now become even more of a status symbol, symbolizing that a person has the means to keep it going even under these dry conditions? Or, perhaps the shift away from lawns will be accompanied by the development of new status symbols in yards.

Veblen: lawn = cow pasture

In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen briefly tackles the lawn:

Everyday life affords many curious illustrations of the way in which the code of pecuniary beauty in articles of use varies from class to class, as well as of the way in which the conventional sense of beauty departs in its deliverances from the sense untutored by the requirements of pecuniary repute. Such a fact is the lawn, or the close-cropped yard or park, which appeals so unaffectedly to the taste of the Western peoples. It appears especially to appeal to the tastes of the well-to-do classes in those communities in which the dolicho-blond element predominates in an appreciable degree. The lawn unquestionably has an element of sensuous beauty, simply as an object of apperception, and as such no doubt it appeals pretty directly to the eye of nearly all races and all classes; but it is, perhaps, more unquestionably beautiful to the eye of the dolicho-blond than to most other varieties of men. This higher appreciation of a stretch of greensward in this ethnic element than in the other elements of the population, goes along with certain other features of the dolicho-blond temperament that indicate that this racial element had once been for a long time a pastoral people inhabiting a region with a humid climate. The close-cropped lawn is beautiful in the eyes of a people whose inherited bent it is to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land.

For the aesthetic purpose the lawn is a cow pasture; and in some cases today — where the expensiveness of the attendant circumstances bars out any imputation of thrift — the idyl of the dolicho-blond is rehabilitated in the introduction of a cow into a lawn or private ground. In such cases the cow made use of is commonly of an expensive breed. The vulgar suggestion of thrift, which is nearly inseparable from the cow, is a standing objection to the decorative use of this animal. So that in all cases, except where luxurious surroundings negate this suggestion, the use of the cow as an object of taste must be avoided. Where the predilection for some grazing animal to fill out the suggestion of the pasture is too strong to be suppressed, the cow’s place is often given to some more or less inadequate substitute, such as deer, antelopes, or some such exotic beast. These substitutes, although less beautiful to the pastoral eye of Western man than the cow, are in such cases preferred because of their superior expensiveness or futility, and their consequent repute. They are not vulgarly lucrative either in fact or in suggestion.

Public parks of course fall in the same category with the lawn; they too, at their best, are imitations of the pasture. Such a park is of course best kept by grazing, and the cattle on the grass are themselves no mean addition to the beauty of the thing, as need scarcely be insisted on with anyone who has once seen a well-kept pasture. But it is worth noting, as an expression of the pecuniary element in popular taste, that such a method of keeping public grounds is seldom resorted to. The best that is done by skilled workmen under the supervision of a trained keeper is a more or less close imitation of a pasture, but the result invariably falls somewhat short of the artistic effect of grazing. But to the average popular apprehension a herd of cattle so pointedly suggests thrift and usefulness that their presence in the public pleasure ground would be intolerably cheap. This method of keeping grounds is comparatively inexpensive, therefore it is indecorous.

Veblen is suggesting the lawn is a particular kind of status symbol, a connection to nature and a particular level of economic standing. Plus, this is a particular kind of Western urban adaptation of nature: have a little patch of grass and an animal, all standing in for a real connection to nature and a symbol of owning more expansive property. All of this sounds Bourdieuan: the lawn is a particular expression of class status and training.