My first inkling that America's lawn obsession might not be terribly healthy came around 1995. We'd just moved into a new house in Far North Dallas, and 10- or 11-year-old me decided that the next-door neighbor's lawn — green and smooth and as flawless as a golf-course fairway with manicured grass to cushion falls — was the perfect spot for football. The neighbor, a hard-nosed high school track coach, promptly ran us off and upbraided my father for letting me trespass. This struck me as backward. What good was such cushiony grass if not for play?
At the time, I chalked this up to my neighbor being an uptight jerk, an assessment I stand by. But that explanation is incomplete in that it overlooks the bigger picture: Lawns are awful.
This conclusion is admittedly self-serving. Two years ago, in one of those compromises a married person with two small children and two large dogs sometimes has to make, I agreed to swap our cramped apartment just south of White Rock Lake for a three-bedroom house in Richardson, but I was decidedly unenthusiastic about once again having a yard. Since then, I've waged a half-intentional campaign of aggressive neglect. We haven't watered since we've been there. I own a lawnmower, but it's one of those human-powered reel contraptions and it's no match for the shin-high bluestem that seems to spring up overnight. Sometimes I borrow a gas mower from my fall-prone, 70-something-year-old neighbor, but between work and kids, this can be infrequent. The other day, I peeked outside the window and found that 70-something neighbor had taken it upon himself to mow our front yard. It's not something I'm proud of, but my wife and I figured it'd be best to retreat quietly from the windows. We wouldn't want to startle him and make him fall.
But the awfulness of lawns is something close to an objective fact. Maintaining them is time-consuming and expensive. They suck up ungodly amounts of water. When it rains, their fertilizer-heavy runoff pollutes waterways. They pit neighbor against neighbor's kids. They are decadent and unsustainable totems of middle-class prosperity.
For several centuries, lawns were the exclusive purview of very rich Europeans, people who were wealthy enough to keep large swaths of land out of productive cultivation and afford the labor required to keep the grass neatly scythed. European-style lawns began to take root in America in the mid-1800s after Andrew Jackson Downing recommended expanses of "grass mown into a softness like velvet" as part of a popular gardening treatise he published in 1841. His ideas were later incorporated into the broad lawns of New York's Central Park and lush, pre-automobile suburbs like Riverside, Illinois, which were aped in subsequent decades by the developers of less exclusive suburbs. “No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns,” declared Abraham Levitt, whose name would become synonymous with the post-war explosion of inexpensive, mass-produced suburbs. In post-war America, lawns became a standard feature of the single-family home.
The cumulative size of lawns is vast. By acreage, turf grass is the largest irrigated crop in America, according to a decade-old NASA estimate, covering three times the area devoted to corn. Clumped together, it would more than cover the state of Mississippi.
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Since the non-native grasses that compose most lawns can't be kept green with rainfall alone, and because water and sunlight make the plant grow, lawns require intensive intervention, sucking up a total of about 9 billion gallons of water per day in aggregate and costing the average homeowners about 70 hours of labor per year. Lawns tend to be punishing for the environment as well. In addition to the ecological effects of runoff, which can overwhelm water bodies with excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, there's the act of lawn-mowing itself. According to National Geographic, one hour running a gas mower can pollute as much as driving a car for four hours.
Lawns are particularly troublesome in arid cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, where it's a challenge to find enough water for people to drink, much less keep a bunch of ornamental grass verdant. The water crunch in a place like Dallas is less acute, but the principles at play are the same. There isn't nearly enough available water to sustain the population long-term without intensive conservation efforts or massive infrastructure investment. North Texans remain attached to their lawns, though recent price hikes for water may spur many to reassess the value of a green yard.
There really aren't that many good reasons for lawns. Responding to a Wonkblog piece describing lawns (accurately) as a "soul-crushing time suck," Turf magazine editor Ron Hall critiques the author for failing to mention "the economic value that nicely maintained lawns add to properties. It doesn’t hint at the good will and sense of civility lawns engender in our neighborhoods. But, the biggest omission in the piece is its failure to mention the well-documented environmental pluses lawns contribute to our communities — capturing dust, their cooling effect, reducing runoff, etc."
But nicely maintained lawns only boost property values and engender civility because that's what decades of increasing suburbanization has led people to expect, not because of some virtue inherent to a well-tended piece of grass. On the latter point, whatever environmental pluses are associated with the typical American lawn would be matched by yards of native plants and grasses without most of the damaging effects.
Lawns aren't going to disappear anytime soon. They are effectively part of North Texas' infrastructure, there for however long the house it surrounds stands. But at the very least people can water a little less, rely on native plants a little bit more. If one simply must have the perfect golf-course lawn, at least let some kids play on it. Finally, if you see a lawn that's a bit overgrown or rough around the edges, don't call code enforcement; congratulate the neighbor on taking a principled stand with their forward-thinking mowing and irrigation policies.