Adding social norms and social pressure to seeing lawns as “a window into your soul”

Do lawns say something about a homeowner?

Photo by FOX on Pexels.com

To our neighbors, our lawn was just another suburban expanse of green. But to my dad, like millions of other yard-having homeowners, it was a canvas, a psychologist’s couch, a playpen, a physical manifestation of his deepest fears and greatest joys. Our lawn was one of the few places in my father’s world where he could impose his will. Plus, it was a respite from his three children. It was a miracle he ever came inside.

Watching my dad out there year after year taught me this: A lawn can tell you an awful lot about its owner.

This fits with the American idea that things you own, ranging from a home to a car to your smartphone, say something important about you. They are not just items to use or enjoy; they reflect your personal brand, even as millions of others may have the same things.

People might also do this with lawns. If people keep up their lawn, they assume the homeowner cares about their property and home. Americans generally like this. Those who do not keep up their home and lawn are less trustworthy as are people who do not own homes.

At the same time, lawns are also the product of social norms. What do the neighbors do with the lawn? How might a messy lawn be perceived by neighbors? Are nicer lawns connected to higher property values? How do different brands sell grass seed and other lawn products? I have argued before that a well manicured and clear lawn is connected to social class. Communities have expectations about what lawns should look like and can exercise both formal and informal sanctions, whether mowing lawns for residents and sending them the bill if the grass is too long to dirty looks.

More broadly, the idea of a green and lush lawn is tied to the American suburban dream. The nice single-family home surrounded by an oasis of green hints at private property, nature, and an attentive homeowner. A neighborhood with such lawns is a sign of care and neighbors who value their community.

Reactions to suburban yards filled with dandelions

Is a mark of a suburbanite who cares about their property values and yard a lawn free of dandelions? In a recent walk, I saw this yard:

On a corner lot, this yard was filled with dandelions all around. And to compound the issue, two of the next three yards adjacent to this home looked similar.

What does this all mean? Is this a set of households devoted to eco-friendly lawn care? Or, is it a sign that the owners do not care about their property and/or their neighbors?

Remarkably, many of the nearby lots have no dandelions whatsoever. Even as these three lots have helped spread thousands of dandelion seeds, the weed killers used nearby have done their job. The whole neighborhood is not overrun with dandelions. The damage – mostly visual? – is contained to three lots.

At the same time, I could imagine some of the neighbors might not be happy about the situation. The optics of yards given over to dandelions might not play well in a middle-class neighborhood where green manicured lawns are an expectation. What kind of neighbors are these to subject others to this blight? What if someone was trying to sell their home nearby?

Soon enough, the most visible signs of these dandelions will be gone. The seeds will have scattered, contributing to windy days where the air is visibly full of plant matter. Will the neighbors forget the dandelions? Will they be back next year? Is all of this a matter of overwrought suburbanites policing their artificial nature known as a lawn? The grass and the weeds may be more than just that; they are markers of social class and social norms in suburbia.

The suburban lawn and patio as protection against COVID-19

If people gather for Thanksgiving, experts are advising they meet and eat outside. Here is one example:

How much safer is an outdoor meal than an indoor meal?

Much, much safer. Almost all transmission of this virus happens indoors.

Even if people are close together?

Eating outdoors doesn’t mean you’re invincible. Still try to stay six feet apart. If you huddle together around a cramped table and have close, face-to-face conversations with the people next to you, you could absolutely infect them.

This is time for the patio or lawn, found in millions of single-family homes and in many suburbs, to shine. The lawn does not just have to be a status symbol; it can confer health benefits by allowing people to spread out.

This is not the first time that the suburban lawn was said to boost health. In the gathering urbanization of the nineteenth century, suburban lawns provided space away from polluted and noisy cities. Listening to the radio the other day, I again heard mentioned how River Forest, Illinois was intentionally built with features meant to highlight nature.

Before COVID-19, the suburban lawn was also said to aid good health. It helps people get outside to work and move around (canceled out by the use of gas-powered equipment?). It encourages kids to play in a safe space. Depending on the season and/or weather, the patio and yard can act as an outdoor extension of private living space.

Now, the lawn and patio can be a private spot away from COVID-19. Outsiders are not welcome. The fresh air, breeze, and distance can limit transmission. Nature, or “nature” in many suburban settings, can serve as an oasis. All that lawn and patio maintenance can be put to use. And, hopefully, people can stay COVID free.

It’s the time of year of suburban pressure to clear leaves

Cleaning up the leaves in a suburban lawn is rarely enforced or legislated. It is just an expected task for the suburban homeowner: thou shall not have many (or any) leaves in your lawn by the end of the fall season. Why is this the case? Here are a few possible reasons:

  1. A well-kept lawn, from green grass neatly kept to an absence of weeds to being cleared of leaves, is a marker of social class. It is part of keeping up the neighborhood and supporting property values. Lack of attention paid to the lawn signals less-invested homeowners, less valuable properties.
  2. Clearing leaves is an unquestioned social norm that simply continues on because people did it before. That leaves could be beneficial for lawns and garden beds may not matter; the inertia is already there for clearing leaves and it could take time for new patterns to emerge.
  3. There are commercial and industrial forces invested in making sure lawns are seeded, treated, and cleared. There are rakes and leaf blowers to sell. It is big business helping Americans remove leaves.
  4. Suburbanites pass along this social norm to each other through conversation and exhibited behavior. Neighbors share words while outside about their lawns. One suburbanite rakes their leaves because they see their neighbors doing it.

Perhaps this practice will pass into history at some point. But, as long as we have a suburban emphasis on single-family homes and their lawns, there will be more years of raking, bagging, mulching, and clearing leaves.

Patterns in political yard signs

A new book by three political scientists look at how Americans have deployed and reacted to yard signs in recent election cycles:

We just started being puzzled about it. We did things like code the amount of traffic on a given street, and we thought maybe people on a street with high traffic would be more likely to put up signs. But you find out that those people wanted to let other people know where they stand- that it wasn’t just about catching the eye of passing traffic [to try to get out the vote for a candidate]. We found out that there’s a combination of expressive and communicative motives…

One of the things that was really clear from our studies is that signs are really important to people who display them. They’re emotionally invested in these dynamics and are more likely than people who don’t put up signs to say that it’s a good thing, or a reasonable thing, for neighborhoods to be doing.

I also think this is why we hear about these stories of theft and vandalism-people going to extremes around signs. At least seemingly, in news reports, it can accelerate fast, from people putting up signs to some kind of an altercation, a police report, a fight on the street. I think it’s because people view it as a real affront when someone messes with their expression of self…

You really notice, when you’re walking around, those places where signs are battling one another. But when we did spatial analysis to look at the clustering of signs systematically, in a way that would cut through those strong anecdotal impressions, we found that, really, there wasn’t much evidence of the intermingling of signs-the famous Sign Wars, where there’s a Biden sign at one house and a Trump sign next to it. Really, it was more about like-minded clustering: pockets of Biden supporters signaling to one another, pockets of Trump supporters signaling to one another. More solidarity than outright conflict.

I appreciate the systematic approach for a phenomenon that lends itself to anecdotes. This is how social science can be really helpful: many people have experiences with or have seen yard signs but unless researchers approach the issue in a rigorous way, it is hard to know what exactly is going on.

For example, I regularly walk in two different places in my suburb and I have been keeping an eye on yard signs. At least in the areas I walk, the signs are primarily in favor of one party in the national election while local election signs are more varied. Furthermore, the number of people who have signs is still pretty limited even in a heated political climate. But, just based on my walks, I do not know if what I am seeing match my suburb as a whole let alone communities across the United States. And unless I interact in some way with the people with (and without) yard signs, I have little idea of what is motivating them.

I wonder how the behavior of putting out political yard signs relates to other political behavior. If a political yard sign is expressive, how much does this carry over to other parts of life? Are these the people who are most active in local political activity? Are they the most partisan? Are they the ones always bringing up politics at family gatherings or among friends?

I would also be curious to how this relates to social class and particular neighborhoods. Lawns, in some places, are sacred: they should be green, free of weeds and leaves. Property values are important in many places. Political signs might mess up particular aesthetics or introduce the idea of conflict when suburbanites just want to leave each other alone.

CA homeowners looking to use greywater to save their lawns

Californians looking to keep watering their lawns and plants may be turning to recycled greywater:

At the California Water Resources Board’s recycled water unit, chief Randy Barnard is fielding many calls from homeowners desperate to save their beloved lawns and gardens. “If they’ve got a prize fruit tree they’ve been babying for years, they don’t want to lose that tree,” he said.

But for many, he has some bad news to share. Recycling water at home is not as easy as just hooking your shower up to the lawn sprinklers, and recycled water probably won’t save the lawn…

In California, homeowners are now allowed to irrigate with untreated water straight from bathroom sinks, washing machines and bathtubs, as long as — among other requirements — the water lines run beneath soil or mulch, so as not to come in contact with people. That rules out using untreated gray water on lawns, which typically need above-ground spray heads or sprinklers.

Gray water can even go to vegetable gardens like Negrin’s and Friedman’s, as long as it doesn’t touch root vegetables or any other plant part that’s eaten. Tomatoes are fine, but forget about carrots.

The latest plumbing-code changes have enabled families to install these straightforward laundry-to-landscape systems without a permit, sending wash water into the yard with a valve to divert it back into the sewage system when needed. A handy homeowner can do it with no more than a couple hundred of dollars of piping and parts.

Necessity – a drought though perhaps the state’s required water consumption cuts provide the motivation now – leading to innovation. Three additional thoughts:

1. This hints at the lengths people will go to continue watering their lawn and plants. Not everyone want to paint their lawn or replace it with other surfaces besides grass.

2. Doesn’t this pose something interesting safety issues? What if the homeowners do this wrong and contaminate certain things they grow. Who regulates all of this? I can imagine someone complaining about the children who could be affected by this.

3. If this is relatively easy to do, why isn’t this a common feature of homes already? Even if your location isn’t experiencing a major drought, this seems like basic conservation.

Will outlining the monetary and environmental costs of lawns change behavior?

Americans may like their green lawns around their single-family homes but they come at a cost:

These days, front lawns cost Americans $40 billion a year to maintain, and are spread over about 50,000 square miles—the land area equivalent of the entire state of Alabama.

This vast swath of ornamentally maintained land is generally bad for the environment. A lawnmower generates more greenhouse gas emissions per hour than 11 cars, according to the Environmental Protection Agency; nitrous oxide emitted by fertilizer has 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, and lingers in the atmosphere for as long as 120 years. Swept into waterways, those fertilizers strip the water of oxygen, causing algal blooms and “dead zones” that kill freshwater and marine life.

Then, of course, there’s water use. Americans consume around 9 billion gallons of water a day on average on outdoor use—most of it watering their lawns. That’s more water than families use for showering and laundry combined. As populations rise, water needs will only get more taxing in many states.

The writer concludes by suggesting that California’s drought and trend-setting may just help limit lawns in the future. However, there are at least two major hurdles to overcome:

1. The cultural importance of a lawn should not be undervalued. The minor connection to nature (or “nature” modified appropriately by humans) is important.

2. Simply citing large numbers or figures like above may not go very far. In the abstract, $40 billion sounds like a lot until you consider what kind of money is spent on other things. Or, what might people do instead with that $40 billion? Even the environmental concerns – and the effects sound quite harmful – are more abstract since the consequences are pushed down the road either in time or place.

Perhaps the best way to combat the American lawn would be to change the American view of nature and what is appropriate around single-family homes. We have seen some of the shaming efforts in California, from overhead photos of celebrity compounds to neighbors reporting each other over water violations. This could be done more positively with incentives (such as being paid to remove turf in Western state) or new trends. What suburban resident would want to be the only one on the block with the green costly lawn if all the neighbors had moved on?

More painted lawns in California

Why tear out your drought-stricken lawn in California when you can just have it painted green?

Wasting no time, a Lawnlift employee gets to work in Pearson’s yard by mixing up a potion of water and natural pigments which bring to mind cosmetics used by women every day.

Within minutes, the dessicated lawn is rejuvenated before its owner’s astonished eyes.

“I love it! This is the color of my grass when I water it every day. I absolutely love it. I am thrilled,” she said.

The product is non-toxic, lasts for 12 weeks and is water-resistant — even if the lack of rain is the main threat to California’s gardens.

Power acknowledges that his company is cashing in on the drought, in particular over the last 12 months.

“Sales from last March to this March have easily doubled and in fact we are 150 percent higher than last year and we attribute most of that to the drought,” he said.

California is not the only market for his products: he also sells in Canada, and a few weeks ago made a $15,000 sale to Algeria.

No need to give up that symbol of the American Dream – the manicured lawn – when you can take advantage of ingenuity – non-toxic paint that lasts 12 weeks! I’ve seen numerous articles on this in recent years and I would love to see some pictures of what lawns look like after 12 weeks rather than view more images of the initial verdant pictures from the initial spraying. Perhaps now is a good time to get into the lawn painting industry…

What you can make from giving up your lawn in the West

There are some growing incentives in California and other Western states to replace your lawn with something else:

Even before Brown’s order, some of California’s 411 water districts offered rebates — now as much as $3.75 per square foot — to persuade homeowners to give up on grass.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority pays $1.50 per square foot of lawn replaced with desert landscaping, up to 5,000 square feet. After that, it’s $1 per square foot. Arizona and Utah also have lawn rebate programs…

In addition to paying rebates, the Southern Nevada Water Authority sponsors landscaping contests and offers homeowners free, downloadable designs, divvied into categories, such as “pool-friendly” and “child-friendly.”…

Las Vegas officials say they have removed nearly 4,000 acres of grass, with plans to rip up 3,000 more. In Los Angeles, officials want to take out 25 million square feet of grass by year’s end.

But there’s push-back from the $25-billion-a-year grass industry, which says lawns are good for the environment, producing oxygen, preventing soil erosion and dissipating heat.

Lawns are part of the American Dream and go along with owning a home and having private space. That grass industry is big and many Americans seem to like the status of having a well-kept lawn. Yet, when this dream comes up against ecological realities – as the article goes on to note, LA gets 15 inches of rain on average a year versus 50 inches in New York City – the lawn may just have to go. This isn’t something new; see this earlier post about painting the lawn.

I like the idea of landscaping contests because that would allow homeowners to still fight for status but in more sustainable ways. Perhaps some businesses would even want to sponsor these or offer discounts to those competing. At the same time, I do wonder how neighbors might view some of these new yards, particularly if they are front yard vegetable gardens (one illustration in the article).