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Landscapes, not Lawnscapes

April 19, 2012

This time of year is always a gift to us pale and cabin-fevered northeastern folk, (or to anyone in the high-latitudes who just suffered months of solar deficiency). The sun is steadily increasing its arc through the sky, which means that for the first time in a long time, I’ve been outside with exposed skin, and I like it. A lot (hence the lack of recent blog posts).

The daffodils and crocuses are hurrying, stretching up their little green fists and smiling into the warm air. The snow is sneaking away back into the darkness, conceding until its return next winter. Its retreat reveals the earth underneath, and where there was a white blanket appears new textures: a patchwork of forests, streams, boulders, footpaths and wetlands, and of course, the ever-present American lawn. So, this time of year while I’m laying in the still wet and cold grasses that surround our built environment, I’m thinking about lawns.

I wonder about how we’ve come to be married to the idea of a lawn, bound by the shackles of maintenance until death do us part. As a student of ecological design, lawns violate some very important design principles, of which I’ve become a disciple. They demand constant energy and material inputs, they decrease biologic diversity and erode soil, they have no useful outputs, and they work against nature, or at least the existing ecology. Yes, they are wonderful for frisbee and cartwheels (I will never demote the importance of such activities), but overall, the American lawn has expanded into an omnipresent landscape of ecological degradation and wasted energy.

Through some poking around on Wikipedia, I’ve since learned that lawns originated in North America via our admiration of England’s wealthy upper class, whose estates featured cascading manicured fields and sweeping green lawns. Thomas Jefferson eventually accomplished this luxurious aesthetic at Monticello, though at today’s lawn standards it was sub-par, since grass seed blends were not readily available and scythes were used to mow. But with persistence, imported and modified seeds, and improved mower technology, the American lawn was born. And thus it became a staple to the Post-war suburban landscape. Levittown, NY has become the archetype for this kind of development, as it was the first mass-produced surburb. Abraham Levitt, the designer and builder, so eloquently summarized this trend, “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.”

And so, through the decades and different development trends, toxins and pesticides, water shortages and contamination, ecological and financial crises, the American lawn lives on. It proudly parades each of its bladed flags throughout the northeastern highlands, the midwestern prairie, the muggy southeastern marshlands, the dry western deserts, and moist and temperate pacific northwest. No matter the eco-region, you can be sure to fine the same blend of Bermudagrass and Kentucky Bluegrass.

I posit this: an evolutionary move away from a strenuous and destructive landscape that continues to consume our precious resources. Instead, lets move forward to one that is productive and regenerative, that will continue to renew without persistent human inputs.

To do this, I think a paradigm shift  is in order; one that shakes the notion of lawns as symbols of a higher status. This may be a bit difficult, since status the foundation on which the lawn was so heartily embraced and thus became indoctrinated within the national landscape. And there are still archaic connections between poverty and food growing, with persistent yet subtle stereotypes existing against farmers and gardeners.

Slowly, the change is happening. There are groups such as Food not Lawns, who works with communities to turn grassy backyards into highly productive community spaces. Usually, these are done through organized permablitzes (seems like lots of fun!)

And by golly, even the Wall Street Journal posted an article about the current trend in suburban development. “The trend has its roots in the growing distaste for prototypical suburban sprawl: mile after mile of look-alike homes broken up by the occasional park. The sustainability movement, with its emphasis on conservation, preservation and local food production, has helped, too.”

So yes, it is exhausting to see lawn after lawn in the typical American landscape. But, its more refreshing to see the changes that are beginning to happen, and the growing community of like-minded folks who seek to find a deeper connection with their eco-region.

See also my other posts on Alternatives to Suburban Sprawl, or Urban Regeneration.

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