The Sad Story of the American Lawn

EVER WONDER WHY LARGE LAWNS ARE A STATUS SYMBOL? When one of the members of an e-list I belonged to asked this question online, I took great pleasure in hauling out a book called The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession by Virginia Scott Jenkins, published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1994. Here's the answer I came up with:

Jenkins says that the lawn as we know it now is a product of the American suburbs of the 1950s. However, the idea of lawn got its start at the end of the 18th century, when a few upper class Americans tried to imitate the landscaping style of English and French country estates. (As it happens, this landscaping style is spectacularly unsuitable to growing conditions in most of North America, but apparently the attraction of lawn-as-status-symbol was already far stronger than the counter-argument of lawn-as-pain-in-the-neck.)

Within 100 years, the popularity of lawn had trickled down to the American upper middle class. However, by this time the style already looked almost nothing like the aristocratic European landscapes that originally inspired it. European visitors to North America in the 19th century regarded the American front lawn as "strange," according to Jenkins.

In the 20th century, the lawn was adopted by the middle middle class, which took it along as the suburbs were developed, making lawn the conventional style of landscaping for conventional suburban housing throughout North America. The popularity of lawns was encouraged by the growing popularity of golf, which helped to funnel money into development of tools, chemicals, and special seed mixes required to maintain lawns (especially in environments to which they're not suited). A third influence was increasing affluence and the 40-hour work week--because of these, the North American middle class now had the time and money necessary to maintain those lawns. Today lawn care is a multi-billion dollar industry.

According to the Wikipedia, a recent NASA study found that nearly 32 million acres of the United States are now covered with lawn. Unfortunately, this popular style of landscaping can be very destructive:
  • Conventional lawns are often composed of just one species of (typically non-native) plant, which reduces biodiversity to a minimal level.
  • Conventional lawns are very poor wildlife habitat. Relatively few animals can use lawn for any purpose, and those that do use lawns are often introduced species and/or pest species.
  • Conventional lawn care typically involves use of pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, and gasoline-powered lawnmowers, all of which are likely to damage the environment.
  • Keeping a lawn green in summer typically requires supplemental watering.

And finally, unless you have kids who play a lot of sports, lawns are generally unproductive. Land that could have been used to grow food, shelter animals, grow trees, or allowed to serve some other useful purpose is instead placed at the service of (a largely imagined) self-aggrandizement. To me, this is the saddest part of the sad story of the American lawn.


Jo said...

Hi, I was checking out websites linked to Frog and couldn't resist checking out yours after seeing your interests and how you were so disenfranchised with life. I am just doing my bit with a suburban block and focusing souly on Frogs. Here they are under so much pressure with land development and wht seems like an eternal drought. Congratulations on your environmental blog award - well deserved!
Cheers Jo.

Wild Flora said...

Hi Jo,
Thanks for stopping by and an even bigger thanks for leaving a comment! It's wonderful that you're trying to create habitat for frogs. I'm a big fan of frogs and their cousins, salamanders, myself. These creatures have fairly demanding habitat needs (year-round moisture, standing water at just the right time of the year, freedom from predators) and are very sensitive to environmental pollution because of their porous skins. All of which is to say that they are having a terrible time. So thanks again for your work.