In the discussion of cities, there is much rhetoric about wayfinding and placemaking: the idea that a diversity of buildings from different eras, built for different purposes, and the way they interface with the street gives a city its sense of place. You know you are in New York City (and, if you are visiting, you know in which direction Penn Station lies) based on the orienteering beacon that is the Empire State Building.
The grid systems and tall buildings of cities may be our default references when we think of wayfinding, but wayfinding and placemaking are actually inherent in the natural landscape.
What makes a place distinct goes beyond its built environment into its unbuilt environment. On the train home, I know I am exiting the mid-Atlantic and entering the South when the hardwoods fade into pine and the thorny smilax vine begins to creep along the peripheral trees. I know I am home in the sandhills of North Carolina because of, well, the sandy hills.
To keep a lawn alive in the North Carolina sandhills where I grew up requires quite a bit of money and energy, because to do so is to fight against the landscape and its nutrient-poor, sandy soil. Lawns require constant fertilization, care, and an automated sprinkler. My parents attempted to plant some centipede grass in our front yard, but at best, the grass was patchy. At worst, it was dead. Sooner or later, they left it to the whims of the sand and pine straw.
My father, like myself, was never one to cut down a tree. So the longleaf pines that were already there grew, slowly, through their Dr. Seuss-like grass stage, through their pipe-cleaner-esque adolescence, fanning out into gangly young adults, gaining a little bit of girth and height each year. The backyard and one side was pine straw, with spotty patches of failed grass, a small graveyard of the pines. The side yard was mostly the eponymous white sand of the sandhills. We had a yard, including some stunted azaleas and crepe myrtles flanking the immediate three-foot perimeter of the house, but not a lawn. That space made me who I was.
After the neighbors replaced the nearby woods with an oversized house and lawn, annihilating a small ecosystem, the birds at our bird feeder grew fewer and fewer, and their species changed to hardier, more urbane types: sparrows, robins, some cardinals, and an occasional cedar waxwing. To this day, I wonder what happened to the goldfinches. There were plants in that patch of forest; rare plants, like the elusive sandhill lily and the tiny five-petaled blankets of sandhills pixie-moss, that were lost, further endangering these already brow-beaten species found only in this part of the world. Meanwhile, the neighbors’ lawn, like many lawns, introduced plants that we only too late realized had great potential to be invasive, such as Bradford pear and Chinese privet. What is lost to this carelessness cannot be regained. As we build more and more of our houses with lawns, we deprive ourselves of both natural signposts and crucial ecological elements.
The turf grass lawn, more than white-picket-fence Levittown Cape Cods, perhaps even more than the urbanist bugbears of highways and tunnel-vision car travel, renders entire landscapes, entire whole places, homogenous carpets of green. The botanical term for this is monoculture, an ecological system dominated by one plant. It is an extreme situation, one that is, despite numerous horticultural catalogs full of annuals and perennials, limited in its diversity. For all the talk in the suburbs around being closer to nature, the nature in question is both ersatz and an ecological horrorshow.
“Lawns … displace native ecosystems at a rate between 5,000 and 385,000 acres per day in favor of sterile, chemically-filled, artificial environments bloated with a tremendous European influence that provide no benefits over the long term,” the Roaming Ecologist writes: “no food, no clean water, no wildlife habitat, and no foundation for preserving our once rich natural heritage.”
Lawns, by acreage, are the nation’s largest irrigated crop, surpassing corn. Lawns consume resources, including fresh water (especially in those lawns cultivated in desert climes), fertilizer, pesticides and other chemicals, fossil fuels for mowing, and a mind-numbing amount of time, on an immense scale. Much hand-wringing goes on about the use of pesticides in industrial farming and the effect it has had on the worldwide population of pollinators, but less about its destructive use in lawn care. Lawns have introduced some of the country’s most invasive species, including English ivy, Japanese and Chinese wisteria, and decorative trees such as princess tree, Bradford pear, and mimosa. Second only to deforestation, invasive species are the largest threat to the world’s biodiversity.
And all this for what?
The lawn is, and has always been, a status symbol. Lawns have their roots in the English estates of the 16th century, where wealthy landowners planted turf grass for their cattle to graze on, and on which lawn sports could be played. These lawns, and later iterations such as the mathematically tidy gardens of Versailles and other elite estates, required meticulous hand-scything by hired servants to keep the turf grass at a handsome and desirable length. The few who could afford such a massive deployment of labor took pride in their lawns, which were, until the 19th century, only affordable to them.
With the invention of mechanical mowing, the lawn no longer required a small army of groundskeepers, and the once-unattainable lawn of the moneyed classes became available to the middle classes, which were now buying and building homes along streetcar lines outside of the city, in the first suburbs. The density of these suburbs relative to their later counterparts kept these lawns rather small, and the largest lawns tended to belong to those with large houses, keeping the big, grassy expanse aspirational.
With the massive car-based sprawl of the postwar era, the modern grassy, treeless lawn came into its own. The lawn, at this point, became part of American suburban culture: white and middle class, inextricable from the mundanities of conventional nuclear family life and the act of childrearing. Cold War paranoia placed a larger emphasis on surveillance in child-rearing, and the fenced-in, treeless backyard made it easier for parents to keep a continuous, watchful eye on their children.
Perhaps the most pervasive myth of the lawn is the oft-touted idea that lawns and fenced-in, grassy backyards are somehow safer or better for the activities of children than any alternative. This belief comes from a place of fear and isolationism. It subtly admonishes the decisions of non-suburban parents and erases the experiences of those children who grow up in the city or in rural areas. The idea that the woods or the city are unsafe for children is silly, as children have grown up in these environments for as long as people have lived in them. Rather than equipping children with the knowledge they need to be independent and adaptable to these environments, the de facto logic has been to eliminate all risk by only allowing children to play in a closed-off patch of turf grass.
Urban children may not have lawns, but they have public parks where they interact with other children from diverse backgrounds. Children (myself included) who grow up in rural places or near or in the woods are raised with information about the hazards of such environments and are taught the skills necessary to be self sufficient, such as plant and animal identification, navigation, first aid, and outdoor preparedness. The idea that children need a lawn, a cultural invention of the postwar era, is absurd.
Lawn care and horticulture are powerful industries whose future profits rely on the endurance of these myths and the persistent advance of sprawl. Many folks who enjoy the feeling of tending to land that the lawn gives them might scowl at me. The good news for people reading this and saying “what can I do?” is that wonderful alternatives to lawns are gaining momentum.
In desert climates, the most absurd places to have a lawn, xeriscaping—cultivating yards using native plants that require little irrigation—is becoming more and more popular because it saves time and resources. For others, taking space away from lawns and giving it to pollinator gardens, edible gardens, and vegetable beds, as well as gardening only with native plants that require much less fuss to keep alive, are great alternatives to the tyranny of the lawn, alternatives that not only save time, effort, resources, and money, but are good for the environment as well. Getting rid of turf grass and replacing it with native grasses, prairie, or whatever natural ground cover happens to be inherent to the place you live and that doesn’t require fertilization, pesticide use, or mowing is a great start. Allow native trees to grow, remove any invasive plants (sorry, folks, that means English ivy) from your yard, and the results will soon bear fruit, whether literally or figuratively, through the return of songbirds and pollinators to your outdoor space.
If you’re at all concerned about climate change and what you can do to help make the world a more habitable place for the millions of plants, animals, and people that live here, start by getting rid of your turf grass.
Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses. Outside of McMansion Hell, Kate is a guest contributor for Curbed, 99 Percent Invisible, and Atlas Obscura. In addition to writing about architecture, Kate has worked extensively as a sound engineer.