Lawns in the U.S., and around the world
July 30, 2019 7:59 AM   Subscribe

The rise of the lawn to dominance in suburbia represents one of the most profound transformations of the landscape in American history. If it does not quite rival in its scale the Great Plow Up of the Southern Plains that precipitated the Dust Bowl (American Heritage) or the massive deforestation of the Midwest and South during the nineteenth century (American Forests), then it is at least not far behind. How did this transformation come to be? American Green: How did the plain green lawn become the central landscaping feature in America, and what is the ecological cost? (Longread)

Lawn sizes vary greatly from state to state (Home Advisor), and it's not only a U.S. thing.

Take Easy gives an overview of how lawns are viewed in a few countries around the world, while the Asian Turf Grass Center looks at golf green maintenance in different countries. Grand View Research provides industry analysis of lawn mower market worldwide, noting in the public preview that
North America accounted for a major market share in 2018 and is likely to be the largest regional market over the forecast period. Furthermore, trend of backyard improvement or backyard modification is on the rise in the region, which, in turn, is expected to drive the product demand. Asia Pacific is anticipated to exhibit the highest CAGR during the estimated period due to rapid urbanization resulting in rise in residential and commercial construction activities.

Moreover, upcoming global events, such as Olympics 2020 in Japan, necessitate the enhancement of the aesthetic appeal of lawns and yards. This is expected to trigger the demand for the product in APAC, thereby driving the overall regional market. Increasing online retailing, usage of robotic products, preference for energy-efficient mowers to ensure a lower degree of emissions, and popularity of landscaping services are expected to fuel market in Europe region.
Market Research provides a free overview of Lawnmowers Market – Opportunity and Growth Assessment 2019-2024, while Lawn Safe details the best lawn grasses for South Africa.
posted by filthy light thief (36 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
One thing I didn't see mentioned much are city ordinances around grass (and 'uncut weed') length, which codify what it means to have a maintained lawn (Minneapolis defines it as grass less than eight inches in length, Chicago defines it as less than ten)

What happens if you refuse to mow your lawn.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:30 AM on July 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

“We spent 98% of our evolutionary history in those savanna-like environments,” the ecologist John Falk, a proponent of the theory, once explained. “Our habitat preference for short grass and scattered trees seems to be a vestige of that history.” Not only is there little empirical support for this theory...
Thank goodness we're getting a little less enamoured of universal evolutionary explanations for culture-specific oddities. (Hello, '60s evolutionary explanations for bright red lipstick!)
By the eighteenth century, or perhaps a bit before, neatly mowed turf — maintained by laborers working several abreast with scythes — began springing up on the estates of the British aristocracy. The lawn had become a marker of class privilege in part because one had to be rich enough to afford to hire all the laborers needed to cut it.
Thorstein Veblen had a classic take on this in The Theory of the Leisure Class, where he argued that status goods are often practical goods which are modified just enough to make it obvious that the owner has so much wealth that they can waste endless resources on an imitation which serves no practical purpose whatsoever.

The lawn, he argued, is what happens when you apply status display to a cow pasture. You could have short grass because you are raising cattle: an obviously practical endeavour. Or... you could hire a bunch of gardeners to cut the grass short as if there were cows chewing on it, but instead you will throw away the clippings and have no beef to sell when you're done. The lack of cow patties (a practical fertilizer) and paths will make it obvious that this is a high-status imitation of the real thing rather than a low-status practical money-making endeavour.
posted by clawsoon at 8:58 AM on July 30, 2019 [24 favorites]

Michael Pollan was writing about the strange phenomenon of the American lawn in The New York Times Magazine thirty years ago: Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:05 AM on July 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

Interesting take regarding grassy pastures being signs of owning cattle, or being able to pay people to tend your yard.

The thing that kills me in sub/urban America are ornamental lawns, and signs that say "keep off the grass." The one purpose of grass is to walk on it. Otherwise, why spend so much time on making the perfect lawn? Or using lawn as filler between other spaces? There are so many other plants you could plant, most requiring drastically less care and tending, particularly if they're main function is for aesthetics.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:23 AM on July 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

I remember reading an article about the water cost of lawns in Arizona during the drought.

Seems the problem is still there.
posted by Mrs Potato at 9:32 AM on July 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

I don't understand those lawns around office buildings. Homes I get, they represent that Junior could come out and kick the soccer ball - but lawns surrounding office buildings? Really?

I remember reading an article about the water cost of lawns in Arizona during the drought. Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico for the most part are not the land of lawns - lawns are comparatively much less prevalent than across the rest of the southwest, and are being replaced by drought tolerant plants and crushed stone. Which looks absolutely terrible if it is just crushed stone. It's like the useless vestiges of an evolving species.

Southern California on the other hand gets barely more rain, is often as hot as Arizona (especially in parts of the San Fernando Valley mentioned in the article) in the summer and is the land of the lawn. They even sell fescue lawns at the lawn store, which is a 'cold season' lawn grass and requires more water than bermuda in the summer, and since it is a 'cold season grass' doesn't go dormant in the winter. Crazy! Across most of the rest of the southwest, fescue and other cold season grasses are essentially banned for residential home owners due to water use.

The thing that kills me in sub/urban America are ornamental lawns, and signs that say "keep off the grass."
At Texas A&M University in College Station Texas, practically every building is surrounded by a lawn with a 'keep off the grass' sign because the grass lawn is dedicated to the brave soldiers of XX random war.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:53 AM on July 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'm not going to argue for the continued demand for lawns, since I think the needs of the current era should create a different sense of priorities, but I will say that there was more to lawns than just status symbols in the US, for at least the brief period between WWII and the mid to late seventies.

With the enormous suburban expansion that took place, the lawn was a reminder of a more rural idea of land ownership as opposed to city living, but more importantly it held a variety of utility values in an era before air conditioning was fully adopted, when there were larger families and neighborhoods that socialized before indoor media recreation completely dominated free time, and when some normal indoor tasks and activities could be shifted or minimized by doing more outdoors.

The long read article touches on some of those things, but I'll also couch for them from my own experience and knowledge from homeowners I knew who either grew up during the post war years or owned homes during that time. Yards were used during that era so even if they aren't used in the same way or as much today, for older people the memories of that time I imagine still frame how they might think about them.

That doesn't excuse the move to making lawns over fertilized empty green show pieces, used mostly to compete with the neighbors over who can be the most anal about tending their sod and keep the house and neighborhood as a good investment, as long as they keep the riff raff out. I'm glad to see some of the desire for lawns seems to be fading, but I myself still have a soft spot for them because of the memories of time spent out in the back yard with family and friends.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:04 AM on July 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

I feel like lawns are definitely an example of wealth signalling, but the typical lawn being a mostly empty expanse of grass, instead of an expertly tended garden, is pretty much proof that the land-holder is just a poser. Real gardens require real gardeners, often full-time, and that's what rich people have. Middle class people just have green deserts. Too much hat for not enough head.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:05 AM on July 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

I suppose you could argue that having children who spend their time playing on the lawn instead of tending the cows who are chewing your lawn and turning it into money is itself a status symbol.

This idea was brought to mind by My Cow Bossie.
posted by clawsoon at 10:16 AM on July 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

One of my former neighbors had an excellent sense of humor.
posted by aws17576 at 10:44 AM on July 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

The thing that's somewhat important to remember though is that post-war, the GI Bill helped make home ownership much more affordable for people who previously wouldn't have had the chance to buy their own home. Not that everyone was included in that boom of course, but the huge expansion of ownership meant whole neighborhoods more or less grew together all at once where people weren't all that wealthy or better off than their neighbors. They wouldn't serve quite the same function as status symbols when the compared status wasn't all that high, save compared to those who couldn't get in on the new, lower requirements. That is to say, it had some level of status, but not of the same sort that exists when home prices make home ownership itself a much more difficult achievement.

In at least some neighborhoods, this meant lawns became something close to a public domain, a bit akin to neighborhood park, exclusive to a those who lived in the area, but open enough where people would interact through many of the connected yards behind houses or in and across streets that ran in front of them.

Those that "closed off" their lawns to use of others in the neighborhood, for passing through or playing, were noted as more the exceptions than the rule, at least where I grew up. Many families today I'm sure still get some good use out of their lawns for activities, pets, gardens, or whatever, but the tendency seems to have made them very much more private enclosures than they were in an era of big families and neighborhoods with lots of kids and interactions between neighbors from around the block, rather than just those directly next door.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:46 AM on July 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

I feel weird having a pointless lawn so I go lie in it and read . Feels good. Worth the effort ? No. I work a lot so I pay around $200/mo for mowing trimming and organic treatments. And I still have to trim the shrubs! Also, I love my flat backyard for play, but for the sloped front, would prefer wildflowers.

Also stone gardens / crushed rock make me think of abandoned warehouses. I don’t get that look.
posted by freecellwizard at 10:48 AM on July 30, 2019

For office buildings, at least lawns are better for water retention and urban heat islands than paved parking lots.

The happiest grass I ever saw was in the Samegrelo region of Georgia (not that Georgia). And the happiest cows, which spend their days running completely free in both cities and countryside, providing free lawn maintenance and fertilizer until they head - on their own - to the byre for evening milking. Cows happily snoozing in the median strip of an intercity motorway is a sight and a half. Maybe we should all take note...
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:54 AM on July 30, 2019 [7 favorites]

the GI Bill helped make home ownership much more affordable for people who previously wouldn't have had the chance to buy their own home.

Yes, sort of but with huge caveats. Starting with, the home ownership percent in the US was about 50% from 1850-1930. Then home ownership stalled and then homebuilding stopped due to the great depression and the war, and fell back to 40%. So a move from 40% in 1940 to 60% in 1960 is pretty big, but +10% from 1930-1960 is the real difference. The differences due to loan terms, FHA, GI Bill, etc are really overstated. Homes most assuredly represented a monied, privileged group even then and do even moreso now.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:03 AM on July 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I cringed when an acquaintance of mine was bemoaning the fact that "..people in our town just don't take care of their yards!" She then admitted she grew up in a nice, middle-class Minnesota town, where everyone had nice yards/lawns. We're in a much grittier, working-class (mostly) town, with a lot of rentals. I just wish folks would plant food instead. We're growing wheat, barley, and oats...coming soon to a front yard near you!
posted by dbmcd at 11:10 AM on July 30, 2019 [7 favorites]

To the lawn-defenders: Why are lawns composed of grass rather than, like, clover or other native ground covers? Why are golf courses the model everyone follows rather than meadows?
posted by tobascodagama at 11:20 AM on July 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

My thought/ belief: people prefer lawns, as it conveys the appearance of taming nature, man besting the beasts, and all that.

I just wish folks would plant food instead. We're growing wheat, barley, and oats...coming soon to a front yard near you!

Even plant fruit trees - no need to process the food, just pick and eat!

Also stone gardens / crushed rock make me think of abandoned warehouses. I don’t get that look.

I grew up in a Mediterranean climate (The Spruce), where it's naturally pretty dry and temperate, but invasive grasses have turned the hillsides golden in the summer, and living through a few multi-year droughts made lawns seem like an excessive luxury in that part of the world. Now I live in the land of gravel yards, and it makes me happy* that this is the norm, because this is the high desert, where plants are naturally sparse. Still, there are some areas where lawn is used as filler landscape, even with fake rolling hills, in commercial districts. I feel sorry for maintenance crews who not only have to manage the lawn, but also the rolling terrain.

I think stone gardens can be done well, but endless swaths of crushed rock without adornment or any plant does seem artificially stark. Our rock yard is sprouting weeds, thanks to a pretty rainy year (well, rainy for central New Mexico).

* Though seeing the Anytown, USA neighborhood with lawns and big trees (next to a desert landscape) (Google streetview, 207 Laguna Blvd SW, ABQ, NM) makes me pine a bit for living somewhere that a more lush landscape is normal. But not long for it enough to move to the south, where everything is growing, even the street signs get a bit green and fuzzy (Google streetview, N Jefferson Davis Pkwy, NOLA), because that means lots of humidity, and I'm not (yet) accustomed to warm and moist air.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:21 AM on July 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

As a plant ecologist:


It’s essentially a moral imperative at this point.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:22 AM on July 30, 2019 [10 favorites]

Two thoughts. The first is that in addition to all of the costs that are outlined in the article, lawns take up a lot of space. ("That house, the Levitts liked to boast, only took up about 12 percent of the lot.") This means that there are fewer houses in a given area, which means that decent bus service does not have enough people living near potential stops to support it. It means that supermarkets -- even convenience stores -- don't have enough people living within walking distance to patronize them. So nobody walks, nobody takes transit and everybody drives. Lawns are the primary cause of sprawl.

The second thought is from a fascinating work, Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, where a UCLA research team (circa 2003) embedded in the homes of 32 middle-class nuclear families for a week each doing detailed study; interviews, thousands of photos, detailed inventories of goods, and every 10 minutes the location and activity of everybody in the household was recorded.

Every house they investigated was a single-family house with an ample yard; some had pools, trampolines, patio suites and so on. It was LA, so the weather was always decent. I wish I had a record of all of their detailed findings, but (as cited here) in the week the spent with each of these households, adults spent something like 2 minutes per day on leisure in the yard on average, and kids something like 6 minutes per day. Most adults and kids never used their yards for recreation (the adults did maintenance work, of course).

It would be one thing if the billions of dollars and environmental costs -- both the direct and indirect -- came from a space that was actually heavily used, but it's not. We could have a small park on every block, maintained by fairly paid city staff, for less money and it would provide more value than the empty lawns. And we could use the rest of that lawn space to house people, so we could support transit service, walkable communities, local shops and everything else.

Ban private lawns.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:24 AM on July 30, 2019 [16 favorites]

We're growing wheat, barley, and oats...coming soon to a front yard near you!

Excellent idea. And why can't we stick to what works in that particular environment? I remember friends on Cape Cod complaining that they had to sweep sand off their front porch every morning. And Trona, CA is famous for having a dirt-only football field, since grass won't grow there. (IIRC their annual championship game was called the Borax Bowl.) But no, we must look like England, or something...
posted by Melismata at 11:24 AM on July 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

We mow a few areas of our lawn, but we don't fertilize or water it (or poison it! What!!?), and we are fond of the clovers, wildflowers and even the creeping charley that grows everywhere (though we do try to keep the creeping charley under control by hand weeding on occasion--we also remove dandelions before they go to seed--our lawn in the only one without dandelions!) We also mow very high with a Fiskars non-motorized mower. This means that our lawn is green and pretty when everyone else's dies and turns brown in July, because they mow their lawn down to the nubbins. And then they water the dead plants, wtf.

Most of our lawn is wild garden, and we try to manage and encourage the volunteers we like. We've gotten about a dozen new trees that way (birch and spruce) and a lot of interesting flowers that sometimes we didn't know were there until we cleared out the overwhelming invasives.

A few years ago, the street was redone and the city put sod in the boulevard which promptly turned into weeds. We weed it for the most noxious weeds (like prickers and tansy) but let the rest grow and it's so beautiful and full of life. Until the City comes and mows it down. They leave the rest of our boulevard, but mow that bit because I think they use the excuse that it's "their property" and "for safety of drivers," which is just sad. They do this once a year after everything grows to be so pretty, and I hate it.

I used to be self-conscious of our "hippy" yard, but I've gotten over it now that there's so much evidence of life and pollinators. We find that eliminating things is too hard, but "managing" or directing certain plants into certain areas is satisfying. We've got a lot of Virginia Creeper, for instance, which is a bear to get rid of, but we "direct" it into a doorway arbor that makes it look nice. And we don't mind all the goldenrod, because the bees are crazy for it. (No, you aren't allergic to goldenrod, look it up.)
posted by RedEmma at 11:38 AM on July 30, 2019 [7 favorites]

I wonder if pushing a 3000 rpm casualty-causing sharpened blade around has helped to make lawn care acceptably manly and thereby broadened its cultural impact.
posted by clawsoon at 11:46 AM on July 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm glad to see front lawns disappear at a steady rate in Los Angeles. The program that pays for native/dry conversion by square foot got recharged with funds again recently. We did ours shortly after buying the house in 2013 and turned it into a 95% native drought tolerant plants area. These species take a while to really settle in but it's so rewarding in the end. Armies of butterflies, bees and humming birds every year when the wild sages and other plants go into crazy blooms and it smells just lovely. Plus our water bill dropped significantly of course.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:58 AM on July 30, 2019 [11 favorites]

Also, our city used to have a lawn mowing ordinance, but it was pointed out that the City itself was the biggest violator of keeping their areas mowed, so they stopped enforcing it. I LOVE the fact that they can usually only manage to mow most of their street boulevard type places about once a year, and the grasses and flowers grow grow grow. My suburban Chicago family refuses to have a compost heap (because vermin, they say) and are obsessed with keeping their gigantor lawn mowed. Yes, I think it's stupid. And I hate that so much of rural Chicagoland gets mowed waaaay off into the ditches. I always imagine the holocaust of insects and frogs and such that suffer when the mower comes. Yes, I'm like that.
posted by RedEmma at 12:06 PM on July 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

Some counties in Florida are enacting fertilizer restrictions in the summer months to prevent algae blooms, but big lawn care disputes the benefit.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:24 PM on July 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I've got questions about what people are doing to their lawns (or the size of their lawns) that require 2-4 hours of work every week? I realize this is biome specific, but I think we've watered any part of the lawn twice in three years, and even then it was just the part that we put new seed down. I mow every other week, maybe fifteen minutes, so maybe four-five hours a year. It's by far the least intensive part of outdoor home maintenance.

Admittedly we're skirting the municipally banned eight inches sometimes, and the grass is probably half clover/crab grass/dandelions/wild violets. Our effort level is pretty much kept at 'somewhat enjoyable to hang out in, neighbors don't comment'.

The weird thing about yard maintenance is that part of the reason why other local property owners care so much about their neighbor's yard is because of their property value - an unmaintained yard is seen as an attack in their wealth. I'm not so much worried about the neighbors calling the city on me as much as one of the rental's landlords or a real estate agent who sees my yard as a threat.

There's a lot to unpack about how people feel about yards before we get to the banning lawn phrase.
posted by dinty_moore at 12:26 PM on July 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Homeboy Trouble: We could have a small park on every block, maintained by fairly paid city staff, for less money and it would provide more value than the empty lawns.

For all the problems of my recently built (circa 2007?) suburban neighborhood (all houses for miles, too many cul-de-sacs walled off, etc.), they did this one thing right: different sizes of community-scale parks along a central off-road pathway. Some are big enough to play soccer on the lawn, some are smaller and better for small-scale kids games.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:28 PM on July 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

As a child, I was not a fan of mowing the lawn, and declared that I would not mow my lawn when I grew up. My parents dismissed this idea...but I moved to Arizona nearly three decades ago and haven't mowed a lawn since.

For most of that time, I've had lawns that, as I occasionally noted, "I don't water it, though I might consider washing it"--pure crushed stone, weeded per community guidelines. For the past few years, we've had a more mixed yard, with bigger rocks and cactus and assorted shrubs. I have to weed the flowerbed and should go around occasionally to remove invasive species, but that's about it, and I love it.
posted by Four Ds at 1:09 PM on July 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

We have a small patch of lawn in our urban yard and its biggest benefit is to the dog (toilet) and the local fauna that keep it manicured. We have a small army of rabbits, birds, and the occasional skunk and possum that wander through and help me with the yard care duties. Surprisingly, it mostly keeps them out of the vegetable garden. I planted a little clover a couple years ago to fill in some bare patches and it's slowly expanding, so maybe that's helping.

It's a shared yard, so unfortunately I couldn't really rip out the grass even if I wanted to. And being an urban yard, it's assuredly tainted with all manner of heavy metals (we stick to the raised beds for edibles). So we could replace it with... sand,I guess? I never water or fertilize the grass, so I'm not sure that's a huge benefit other than not needing to mow every so often.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:46 PM on July 30, 2019

I should add too my earlier comment and say that I’d be more than happy to have something other than grass for most of my yard, but HOA guidelines don’t let you do that. For closely packed suburban home with yards in the square foot size and not fractional acres, there’s a more or less continuous front and back yard running down the street and even replacing my front with 15% shrubs and flowers took multiple submitted drawings and plans co-signed by neighbors. So there’s that.
posted by freecellwizard at 3:56 PM on July 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

So we could replace it with... sand,I guess?
What about making couple of circles or squares of perennials in the lawn? Sage and lavender are examples of plants that are nearly no maintenance when they get going, and they attract butterflies and bees. Alliums can be nice, too.
posted by mumimor at 4:00 PM on July 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

When I was a kid, about half of the year myself, my brother and our friends practically lived in our yards, at least during the day. So I'm pro yard. Also pro-well kept yards, because they discourage mice.

It seems to me a lawn is a different thing than a yard. If you have a yard, you use it. a Lawn is for keeping children off of.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 4:00 PM on July 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

This post is full of valuable knowledge, though it takes a while to get through it. Did you know that one national study, for example, revealed that 11 percent of those surveyed admitted to eating dandelions straight off their lawn (from the American Green link). This is a very nice surprise to me.
posted by mumimor at 4:31 PM on July 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

BTW the lawn-size-by-state article from Home Advisor is just junk filler and is meaningles, so I'd skip it. They just grabbed some random house size and lot size info from some other real estate web site, nothing to do with actual *lawn* size. (And I think the original source of the data was just MLS listings of houses for sale over some unreported time span?)

(Which is why Vermont is on top-- that's actually all woods etc.)
posted by thefool at 5:15 AM on July 31, 2019 [4 favorites]

Seems that lawns aren't going anywhere quickly if there's a whole industry set up to support them, and another industry (real-estate) that directly benefits from having them on a property.
posted by ZeusHumms at 7:20 AM on July 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

What happens if you refuse to mow your lawn.

previously (yesterday)
posted by bendy at 11:38 AM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

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