Do we still care about the traditional grass lawn?

Designer | Landscape architect

The typical single detached home has changed dramatically since the rise in popularity of the suburbs in the 1950s. And while the architecture, overall size and layout and building material technology have drastically shifted, one element has remained the same: the lawn. More specifically, the perfectly uniformed and evenly cut lush front lawn, which acts as the final piece for suburbanites who want the idea of the white-picket-fence home.

The front lawn is an enduring symbol of the suburbs. As American author Michael Pollan states in the short RadioWest film The American Lawn, “The concept of the American suburb is that we are all in a great park together, that’s what America is, and the lawn symbolizes that continuity”. However, at a time when we are trying to reduce our carbon footprint, or at least implement an awareness of more sustainable practices, there seems to be a gap in knowledge or willpower about the impact of our personal outdoor spaces. In fact, our maintenance practices for the lawn produce many harmful ecological effects on the environment, including:

  1. Pesticides that end up in our rivers and lakes,
  2. Potable water used for irrigation purposes and,
  3. The gas used in power tools to maintain the lawn, adding to our carbon footprint.

As a landscape architect, I'm not arguing against or criticising open lawn areas. Public open lawn spaces are one of the most critical public amenities we have. It’s a space for picnicking, gathering and playing. It adds value to our communities.

This is also not a criticism of the back lawn either (Trout, my dog, would never forgive me). People use their back lawns as an extension of their home, building gardens and hosting social activities. Yet, the fact is, no one uses the front yard for social or community building events. It’s also not a productive space for biodiversity. The front lawn is simply part of the home's front façade and as arts critic and entertainment reporter for the Chicago Tribune Christopher Borelli puts it: a habitat for mowers.

Borelli’s article How about rethinking a cultural icon? The front lawn explores our obsession with and inability to move away from the traditional grass lawn. For all its negative attributes, we still don’t question it. There remains an unspoken rule of home ownership that includes lawn maintenance. As Pollan explains in the film, “how well you take care of your lawn is the way you express your solidarity with your neighbours”. Homeowners who leave their grass too long or forget to rake up the leaves can become a great source of shame and a target for policing by the community. The community contract we all figuratively sign is to “do one’s part to maintain the unbroken green carpet you share with your community… A quiet reminder of the contradictions of the American Dream,” writes Borelli. “We want to stand out—but fit in.”

I experienced a similar feeling when I tried to implement the Leave the Leaves campaign in my front yard. The City of Winnipeg's Leave the Leaves campaign aims to educate the public about not raking up leaves as they provide a habitat for insects and nutrients for plants and other significant environmental benefits. I tried to do it this year but caved and raked all the leaves because I was the only one on my block who hadn’t cleaned my yard! Still, my failed attempt at the Leave the Leaves campaign highlights how strong of a deterrent the community contract is and its influence on modern lawn practices. And consequently, until the social contract changes, we won’t see substantial scale changes to the treatment of front yards.

Therefore, it appears that the discussion regarding the front lawn is one for the community to have and not for the individual protestor. Everyone has heard stories of the city fining people for converting their yard into a vegetable garden or neighbour's complaining about someone letting the grass grow tall and unruly. The few people that reject the traditional grass lawn could be categorized as part of the ‘anti-lawn movement’ and think the front yard is merely cultural conformity, but it's not that simple. Our neighbourhoods are great sources of pride and typically our most significant financial investment.

Maintaining market value in your home and “curb appeal” for the masses is a real concern for homeowners. And while this issue feels stagnant, subtle shifts in people's attitude have become more mainstream. In new suburban developments, where homeowners have more control over the design of their properties, people are starting to propose more areas of hardscape in their front yard or install artificial turf or another low maintenance alternative to sod. Even pop culture has highlighted alternative options to the traditional grass lawn with real estate and home improvement television shows featuring people who want less lawn to maintain. According to Borelli, “The American front lawn, the postage stamp of grass spread before a set-back house, the stage upon which you display status, the frame inside which you project taste, the one-time signifier of leisure that came to suck up leisure time, is increasingly seen as a waste.” Furthermore, the trend of moving away from the traditional glass lawn has never been more evident than over the last few decades. As per the United States’ census, “the average new home has grown 21 per cent, even as the average parcel of land it sits on has shrunk 400 square feet.”

So, if the front lawn is no longer a symbol of status and pride, is harmful to the planet, and is no longer something we want anymore—what are we doing? I’ll tell you in my next article where I explore what the front yard could be and how we can reclaim this underutilized space as asset to the community. Stay tuned.

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