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.

It is hard to find the “perfect home”

A list of homebuying myths ends with this one:

Myth #6: You bought “the perfect home”

According to a survey by Nerdwallet, 49% of homebuyers had regrets about their home-buying process.

“There are regrets that you can live with and there are regrets that you really want to avoid,” Manni says. “It’s completely normal to regret not having enough space, but you don’t want to regret things like your mortgage or interest rate.”

Manni encourages homebuyers to do their research on home location and take the time to know your mortgage options to avoid feeling stuck down the line.

“Your dream home is not going to be ready and waiting for you — you’re going to have to look,” Manni says.

Regrets can be big or small and making such a large commitment – financially as well as in many other areas – can amplify such concerns. At the same time, what leads people to expect a perfect home in the first place?

A better way to approach this may be to uncover at which point homeowners turn from a twinge of regret to something that pushes them toward a new place to live. What is the tipping point?

“People want these larger homes”

I’m quoted in a recent Zillow story titled “Upsizing on the Upswing: The Big Decision More Homebuyers are Making“:

The data corresponds with what sociologists are seeing firsthand, says Brian Miller, an associate professor of sociology at Wheaton College, just outside Chicago. Miller, who studies cities, suburban migration and culture, argues that several factors could be impacting the shift in housing trends, including the strength of the national economy.

“I see a lot about tiny houses and micro apartments in Seattle, San Francisco, and New York — these cities who are really grappling with housing issues and trying to fast-track 200- or 400-square-foot apartments,” Miller says. “And yet the overall pattern across America is that people want these larger houses.

“The economy has gotten better over the last few years,” he continues, with a nod to cities like Dallas, one of the hottest housing markets in the country. “It seems it’s enabled people to [buy large houses] again.”

Popular culture may be influencing this decision as well, Miller adds, pointing to how homes are depicted on television, in both the reality and scripted genres.

“The typical home on TV is huge. Think about the ‘Friends’ apartments, which were impossibly large,” he says. “I’m thinking of HGTV shows I’ve seen over the past few years, where the dining room seats 10 or 12. I don’t have those parties, but if you’re watching HGTV, it just seems like everything is huge.”

I think the larger story goes like this: Americans tend to like large homes and even major financial issues, such as the bursting of the housing bubble, may not be enough to reverse that trend. This does not mean the desire for large homes will continue forever. Yet, major changes need to occur to the economic system and/or enduring values need to shift for Americans as a whole to embrace smaller homes.

Related topics:

McMansions are back.

There are a limited number of tiny houses in the United States.

The houses of Donald Trump

I was recently looking into what Donald Trump has said about the single-family home – arguably the cornerstone of the American Dream – and found this article on his six personal homes (including pictures and video tours). Two quick thoughts:

  1. Not surprisingly, Trump does not go small with his homes. No McMansions here. These are all expensive, luxurious properties.
  2. His homes are all on the East Coast or in the Caribbean. For a man who built his candidacy for president on support from forgotten America, his homes are from the elite areas.
  3. His style seems to be more traditional. This may be to project that his relatively new power – several decades of money and influence – are connected to traditional sources of power. There is not a modernist structure here. The Manhattan penthouse maybe comes the closest but even that is more opulent than modern or edgy.

Were McMansions ever for everybody?

There is an idea out there that McMansions were everywhere at some point, invading the countryside and were within the financial means of all Americans. A recent Australian headline reminded me of this: “Small, smart, sustainable: Why a ‘McMansion’ isn’t for every Canberra homeowner.” The article goes on to argue that market forces are pushing people toward large houses that they don’t need.

I’ve never seen hard numbers on this – nobody is really measuring McMansion construction – but we can make some guesses based on Census data about the number of new homes of certain square feet. Between 1999 and 2016, the percent of new homes over 3,000 square feet was between 17% and 31%. Not all of these homes are McMansions for a variety of reason: some are too large (over 10,000 square feet or so), some are not architecturally garish or discombobulated. Based on this, maybe 15-20% of all new homes since 1999 were McMansions? That is a sizable amount but not a majority.

Additionally, how many Americans could afford such homes? At the peak of the housing bubble, not everyone could buy a large new home in a nice community. Could everyone in the middle class access such a home at some point over this time period? Maybe. And that doesn’t even account for whether those who could afford McMansions wanted one (maybe 50% of Americans at most would want one?) or had other considerations when purchasing their home that led to another housing option.

McMansions have certainly exerted influence over the last few decades, particularly among the upper-middle class, in certain communities (generally whiter and wealthier communities), and in depictions of newer housing on TV and in movies. But, I don’t think they have been pervasive as sometimes is suggested.

Predicting the “great senior sell-off” to come

Here is an update on one event that might be coming down the road: the time when the Baby Boomers decide to sell their homes.

Nelson pointed to the affordability issue as well as the fact that about a quarter of Millennials prefer urban housing, such as condos or townhouses, over the detached suburban homes that were the Boomers’ preferred habitat. Younger buyers, he said, will also be looking for starter homes—smaller than the big Colonials and split-levels that line America’s cul-de-sacs. “We can predict the next housing crash,” he said at the time. “That’ll be in about 2020.”

Four years later, Nelson tells CityLab that that he believes the sell-off will still occur—but later, in the mid- to late 2020s. This has to do with people deciding to defer selling their homes, hoping to get a better price later than settling for a lower price now. “Home values in much of the country are still less than those before the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009,” he says. Prior to the recession, the typical homeowner would sell a house about every six years. “It was like clockwork,” says Nelson. “This drove a lot of planning and development projections.”…

Nelson predicts that the fringe areas surrounding cities will bring the biggest headaches for Boomers looking to unload their houses. Because Millennials will be looking for small homes when they finally start to buy in larger numbers, the sprawling McMansions of the exurbs won’t be desirable to many of them. “The Boomers in the exurbs are going to be in a real pickle,” says Nelson. “Even in a dynamic market like Washington, D.C. or other booming cities, the market for those homes is going to be soft.”…

But many analysts do agree on one thing: More housing will need to be built for Millennials—and it needs to be scaled to their desires, not their parents’s. “Millennials are likely to prioritize different features in their homes, such as greener materials or in-law suites,” says Molinsky. And according to the Harvard Joint Center’s projections, nearly 90 percent of those looking for homes in 2035 will be under 35 or 70 and over—and both groups tend to buy less square footage.

I suppose we’ll see what happens. I tend to think that Millennials might not be as transformative as some have suggested in regards to where they want to live or in what kinds of houses they inhabit. At the same time, there may be fewer Millennials than Baby Boomers in the market for housing – both due to different sizes of the various cohorts as well as the limited purchasing power of some Millennials  which means it could take some time for those Baby Boomer dwellings to find buyers.

It is also interesting to consider what might happen if these homes, particularly those on the metropolitan fringes, can’t be sold. Would they be demolished? Converted? The community retrofitted? Drop to a low enough price that they become very attractive to certain groups? We have plenty of history as a country of people spreading out but not much experience with any serious contraction.

Zoning trade-off: privacy vs. adverse effects

The conclusion of Sonia Hirt’s book Zoned in the USA sums up the advantages and disadvantages of a zoning system that privileges the single-family home:

Arguably, zoning – the kind of zoning that makes explicitly private space the formative compositional element of America’s settlements – does deliver the gift of privacy to American families. But put all the other arguments mentioned in the previous paragraphs together, and one begins to wonder whether the original promises of zoning were either highly suspect from the beginning or have since been turned on their heads. Paradoxically (from the viewpoint of zoning’s founders), we may not have more pollution and worse public health with our current zoning that we would have if we had modified our land-use laws more substantially over the last hundred years.

As Hirt discusses, residents can have their own private homes – the largest new single-family homes in the world – but that comes at a cost of traffic and commuting, worse pollution and using more land, and worse health as well as some unrealized dreams of zoning including reduced crime. Some would argue that the privacy is overrated as well: compared to many other countries, Americans have given up on public life.

While it is easier to imagine mixed uses in dense urban neighborhoods – imagine Jane Jacobs’ vision of a bustling mixed use New York neighborhood – it is harder to imagine mixed use or zoning throughout the vast expanses of American suburbs. Even New Urbanists have tended to design neighborhoods or shopping centers dropped into suburban settings rather than the whole fabric of suburban communities. From the beginning of American suburbs, there was the idea that the urban dweller was escaping to a cottage in nature. The home out there offered refuge from people, dirt, and bustle. Today, this legacy lives on when suburban residents oppose certain land uses near their homes for fear of a lower quality of life and subsequently reduced property values.

Ultimately, would the American suburbs even exist without the fundamental desire for privacy?