A Lawn Story
I enjoy thinking about the things that we assume to be an intrinsic part of life, mainly because we don’t remember the choices and incentives that went in to making them that way. A perfect example of these seemingly inevitable pieces of design is the humble lawn. The emerald green quintessential adornment of any suburban house is actually a relatively recent invention. More than that, our individual and personal lawns may be a powerful force of environmental destruction. Let’s find the roots of this story (a lawn joke).
The precursor to ‘lawn’ is ’launde,’ which comes from Middle English, originally referencing an opening in the woods but later referring to any artificially created piece of land that looked like a glade, perhaps as a place to set up encampments, meet, trade or celebrate. As building became more sophisticated in the Middle Ages, open spaces (accidental lawns) were created around castles and other structures so that defenders could see approaching visitors.
The first intentionally tended lawns came when the temperate climate and growing political stability of upper Europe allowed landowners to create park lands around their ever larger stately homes and manors. In this era, lawns maintained by hand were the ultimate status symbol, as they required vast expenditures of resources and labour to maintain.
Through the Victorian era and the burgeoning Industrial Revolution, machines were developed that allowed large park spaces to be maintained ever more efficiently at scale. Wide public spaces started first in Europe and the United Kingdom (initially in and around cemeteries) and then made their way to the United States with visionary urban planners like Frederick Law Olmsted. His vision for a publicly accesible New York Central park was the first of its kind in the United States.
However, it wasn’t until the early 1900s, with the rise of lawn intensive sports like golf, that the US Golf Association and the United States Department of Agriculture worked together to develop a better mix of grasses to form a lawn especially suited to the drier American climate. This mix of private, commerical and government interests is an interesting blend of incentives and one that probably continues to this day.
Despite any social or economic exclusion associated with the game of golf, a golf green is still a communal space when compared to the lawn attached to an individual property owner. There are economies of scale and maintenance associated with parks, golf courses or other large expanses of lawns that don’t make sense to an individual owner.
It was only with the development of personal mowing equipment, fertilisers and pesticides that it became physically viable to maintain personal lawns across entire suburbs. The ability to maintain a lawn didn’t guarantee that people were actually motivated to want one. That’s where organisations like the American Garden Club and planned suburban geographies like Levittown came in.
For people to take on a behaviour, they have to be clear what it entails. They need a vision of it and why they want it. As Seth Godin puts it, ‘People like us do things like this.’ The American Garden Club was part of what a good lawn looked like, “a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged." The concept of a private lawn is born. However, the social conformity that reinforces this creation comes from artificially created suburbs like Levittown.
Built from 1948, Levittown was the brainchild of Abraham Levitt and his sons. Situated on Long Island, it was a cultural template for a prebuilt suburb, with lawns already in place when people moved in. This wass a crucial conceptual shift. These type of private-but-communal spaces were not fenced in. They were visual representations of both status and community. In this setting, the lawn was as much under the control of a community as they were by the individual landowner. Many modern suburbs actually still have rules about how people must maintain their lawns, lest one patch of unruly grass reflects poorly on the entire street.
Here, however, is where the story takes a darker turn. An estimate from 2005 suggests that lawns cover 163,169 square kilometers of the United States. Apparently that is about the size of the state of Texas. This would make lawn grass one of the largest intentionally grown plants in the United States, without it being in any way edible. What does all this greenery cost?
Well, a great deal of water for a start. Hundreds of litres of (usually drinkable) water. Also comes pesticides, herbacides and fertilisers. All of which impact other animal and plant life. All of which runs off the lawn into our watersheds. This adds up to billions of dollars spent on unedible agriculture, in the United States alone. We’ve all seen grass grown in deserts or other arid countries. Usually at the cost of even more water, fertiliser and pesticides.
Biologically, a lawn’s lack of biodiversity fails to mimic any natural ecosystem. Thus, it provides no safe harbour for wildlife. The lack of clover or other mixed plants provides no necter for crucial pollinators like bees. The shallow root systems of a lawn absorb nowhere the same amount of water nor resist the same level of erosion as more complex ground cover.
So why does it persevere? Probably because it isn’t about the actual natural green space, and more about the various types of social signifying that comes with a lawn. Cultural signalling can be imitative. A lawn shows we have something that harks back to a large landowner’s estate of ages past. In group behaviours can also reinforce group conformity. People trying to grow a more wild arrangement of grasses and wildflowers, or use their greenspaces for productive or food agriculture have been fined or restricted in their efforts.
If people need access for spaces to play, then better urban design would ensure that everyone has access to safe communal park spaces for playing games, having larger picnics or group events. Most individual lawns are likely to be heavily under utilised, whereas a park is a shared resource.
We seem in the grip of poor historical design choices. That we restrict wild and healthy ecosystems and reward the creation of a ‘green chemical desert.’ An artificially created, toxic and ecologically useless artifact. Something to think about next time you head out to crank up the lawn mower.
Flanders, Judith (2006) Consuming Passions, Harper Press: Great Britain.
Abrahamson, Eric. Freedman, David H. (2006) A Perfect Mess. Phoenix: Great Britain.
Photo by Tiago Rodrigues on Unsplash.