Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Suburban Lawn: A Single-Use Paradigm

As a recent graduate, forced into early retirement by the job market, I find myself once again doing a job that I loathed from about fifth grade until I started at Notre Dame: mowing my family's oversized front lawn. My father is looking down on me now, chuckling to himself that the job he assigned to me 13 years ago is still mine - and we even have the same walk-behind lawn mower.

When I was just 10 years old, I swore each and every Saturday morning that I would never, ever have a lawn when I grew up - it wasn't worth the wasted time to me as a kid. Today, at 22, I realized that I still would never, ever have a lawn, but I realized that a $210,000 education had given me an ideological reason for my gripe: lawns are single-use constructs, and if I have learned anything at all about good architecture and urbanism, that is a big no-no.

The lawn perfectly encapsulates the conflict of what we are trying to achieve by building sprawling suburbs. When we "drive till we qualify" and plop ourselves on a half-acre in a brand-new exurb subdivision, we are signing up for what looks like a match made in Heaven: a new home close enough to all the conveniences, yet also right out there in Nature, with lots of open space and room to breathe. Similarly, with a personal lawn, we want Nature at our doorsteps, literally, yet we want it just so:

"Your first impression … and it stays with you … is one of quiet, spacious beauty. The gently curving streets with modern lighting are uncluttered by cars … Everywhere you look, your eyes rest on the loveliness of well-kept lawns, majestic shade trees, fruit trees and flowering shrubs."
- 1950s ad for Levittown, PA, from

The essential problem with suburbia, one that the public at large is finally beginning to realize, is that you can't actually have it both ways. You don't get to live out in the "quiet, spacious" country, yet also live amidst manicured surroundings with easy access to culture, commerce, and education. In a case of 'something's gotta give', both sides end up giving, and suburbanites are left with neither the pleasantries of true country living nor the perks of living in the big city.

Similarly, the manicured private lawn is another failure to link the true nature of the country with that of the city. A lawn is inherently unnatural, for Nature does not produce anything single-use on its own. Indeed, our lawns are constantly trying to go back to a natural state, with weeds and dandelions cropping up as soon as the first rains come. But because we want the lawn just so, we spend weekends toiling to keep it unnaturally single-use. And unlike a farm field, which is also single-use and somewhat unnatural, the lawn provides absolutely, positively no benefit to us other than aesthetics and the occasional football game or family gathering. For that, we are willing to invest countless dollars and hours, use harmful chemicals, and consume what would likely be replaced by a thriving ecosystem. What's worst, we claim to have a piece of Nature in our yards, when in fact the entire thing could not be further from a legitimate ecosystem.

The irony of it all is that cities typically feature great and expansive urban parks that allow for exactly what uses we do get out of our lawns: picnics, strolls, games for all ages. Since these parks are communal, they can offer us far more amenities than individual lawns, and the grass that we must maintain there gets a constant stream of use instead of the occasional pickup game. We can argue whether the cost to maintain the manicured communal park lawn, both economic and environmental, is indeed worth it, but such cost is surely not worth it for each and every household in the U.S.

Surely in today's world of "green" thinking, where a magic convergence of concerns for economy, energy, climate, and environment are moving common sentiment away from large-lot sprawl, we can put some serious thought into foregoing the green parcel that made William Levitt fawn. There are tons of more sustainable options like rain gardens, native plantings, permeable courtyards, and the simplest, a much smaller patch of green for each home. Let's hope for a better understanding of the diversity that characterizes good ecosystems as much as it does good urbanism.

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