Grass lawns have been a prevalent staple of urban spaces for centuries. This long-lasting fad began in the 19th century as a status symbol which only prevailed. Through the 20th century, a luscious lawn remained a status symbol and overtook suburban green spaces as these residents curated their homes to imitate the wealthier elite and have quickly become a commodity. This fad quickly became the norm for western urban areas and continues to this day, taking up 50,000 square miles, which is larger than the entire state of Ohio in the U.S. alone. These grasses have quickly replaced native plant species in order to appeal to this vision of the ‘American Dream’. This aspiration is extensively critiqued, though not much has changed regarding people investing in ecological improvements in their neighbourhoods. To start, we can look at the benefit of transforming grass lawns into something less unsustainable.
Social Effects of Lawns
These suburbs that support the $35 billion made annually by the turf industry were, and continue to be, desirable homes for many, though they threaten our environment. Socially, having a well-kept lawn remains the norm and now represents “morality, virtuosity, respectability, and good citizenship”. An unkempt lawn is a sign of a lazy homeowner, or even a sign of domestic or family problems. A study conducted in Nebraska in 2006 concluded that 90% of people surveyed take personal pride in their lawn’s appearance. Many towns and cities even have bylaws to ensure homeowners maintain their lawns to a respectable standard, or there could be legal repercussions. Though these lawns maintain a certain image that homeowners, neighbourhoods, and towns try to enforce, these people are often blissfully unaware of what else is happening around them. These suburbs focus on car culture and the necessity of vehicles, including the expansion and development of these unattractive, impervious roads and surfaces. This culture not only promotes the excess use of fossil fuels, but also destroys and prohibits any biodiversity that was once there. Even the greenspaces that suburbanites are so obsessed with contribute to the ecological issues of urban spaces.
Ecological Effects of Lawns
These grasses that are used in turf now make up 70-75% of open space in urban areas and is entirely comprised of just grass. These areas that once supported valuable agricultural crops now support harmful monocultures (single-species crops); turf grass. These inedible monocultures now offer no benefit other than ‘aesthetics’ and actively inhibit any other ecosystem services. Monocultures are particularly harmful as all the crops are draining the soil of all the same nutrients, which then requires the application of these nutrients artificially, threatening soil health, while also prohibiting species diversity that may have the ability to replenish the natural environment.
These grass areas are often seen as ‘natural’ green spaces with numerous benefits to urban centres but have failed to consider the social and ecological impacts. These “green spaces” are artificially curated and harmfully managed. In order to up-keep a lawn to societal standards, the grass needs to be maintained through time-intensive mowing; substantial water demand; and extensive fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide application. It has been estimated that Americans spend 65 hours a year, on average, just mowing their lawns. This fails to account for all the time spent watering, weeding, and applying various chemicals. Not only is mowing time intensive, but it also requires excessive use of fossil fuels producing as much pollution in an hour as a standard vehicle would over the course of 100 miles.
These lawns are not only threatening our atmosphere, but also our water cycle. To upkeep these lawns, a single household can use more than 5,400 gallons of water per 0.2 acres to keep the grass healthy. In some states, water used for lawn maintenance can equate to 60% of urban water use. This excessive water use is a blatant waste of a natural resource which is extremely harmful, especially because of current issues of global water stress.
Along with this water use, applying various chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides threatens water health, amongst other concerns. It has been estimated that each year, 70 million pounds of pesticides are used by American homeowners to maintain the aesthetics of their yards. These chemicals go on to pollute waterways, resulting in eutrophication.
Alternatives to the Grass Lawn
The effects of lawn maintenance greatly outweigh any benefits they may have supported in terms of carbon sequestration or managing water runoff due to their requirement of fossil fuels, labour time (and potentially cost), water use, and chemical input. A need to end this fad of turf lawns is upon us, but we need some solutions. If you are a homeowner looking to make your property a bit more eco-friendly, consider adapting your lawn to one of these options.
Planting a wildflower garden instead of a turf lawn can not only help bring back some of the ecosystem services to the land. These wildflowers can also actively support bees and other pollinator species in urban areas where they need it most.
Urban agriculture has numerous benefits, including maintaining biodiversity and improving urban food security. Turning grass lawns into edible gardens can help people learn to contribute to nature positively while reaping the rewards from harvests.
Micro-clover is an up-and-coming replacement for grass turf. It offers more benefits for lawns, including increased carbon sequestration and reduced maintenance costs and requirements, as it does not typically need additional watering, pesticide application, or time-intensive manicuring such as weeding and mowing.
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