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.)

Lawn, yard issues affect even senators living in exclusive gated communities

The attack on Senator Rand Paul by his neighbor may have involved disagreements about yard maintenance:

That day may have come last month, when Boucher’s attorney said in an interview his client attacked Paul over long-simmering disagreements between the two about the care of grass, trees and other landscaping on their adjacent properties in an exclusive gated community…

“There is absolutely no political motivation behind this,” said Boucher’s attorney Matthew J. Baker. “It all stems from maintenance, or lack of it, at these two neighboring properties.”…

Skaggs said Boucher was exacting about the standards for his yard — landscaping bags filled with waste were a common site on his property. Neighbors said Paul had a reputation for a more relaxed style that some felt didn’t always jibe with a community that features gas lamps, Greek statuary and a 13-page packet of rules.

The senator had a pumpkin patch, compost and unraked leaves beneath some of his trees. Goodwin said it annoyed Boucher that Paul did not consistently cut his grass to the same height, and leaves from Paul’s trees blew on his property.

Early on in the article, this dispute is described as “the type of small-time neighborly conflict that has vexed many a suburban relationship.”

To some degree, this is why people move to gated communities or places with homeowner’s associations: they expect that the level of wealth or quasi-governmental oversight will relieve of problems with their problems. Instead of having to talk with their neighbors about potential problems, the issues are covered by community rules that can be enforced by a party that does not live on the property. And people often think that their property values are on the line: if my neighbor has a scraggly pumpkin patch or doesn’t rake their leaves, then I am going to be hurt by their lack of action that can clearly be seen from my house.

Still, even if such disputes are common, it is rare that they would reach the level of physical assault. More common is what the article describes as a lack of communication between the neighbors for years, what Boucher’s lawyer called “a cold war of sorts.”

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.