The issues with grass lawns:
Grass lawns found predominantly in first-world countries have become a staple in landscaping and development, occupying huge amounts of land and resources. Whilst the immaculate grass lawns have become a dream to many, the history behind this obsession carries a dark past and has dominated vast amounts of land that could otherwise be used far more efficiently.
In the United States, 3.2 trillion gallons of water is sprinkled onto grass lawns every year. Along with 200 million gallons of petroleum for mowers and 3.2 million kilograms of pesticides to tackle weed infestation. While grass is a natural blanket for soil, the lawns found in neighbourhoods, streets etc, exclude native plant and tree species reducing wildlife and biodiversity as a whole.
Grass is the largest crop in the United States by area, covering over 40 million acres of land. In perspective, the second-largest crop (corn), consumes 1/3 of the land. Whilst in Australia, 11% of cities are utilised for grass lawns on average!
These blank, green sheets only remain green when given unsustainable amounts of water. It’s estimated, 30% to 60% of urban freshwater is used on lawns with most wasted due to poor application like spraying on concrete pavements and roads according to the Columbia Climate School.
Each year millions of kilograms of pesticides are used globally to tackle weed growth. Between large chemical use and water application, much of these dangerous chemicals are drained away and can be found in local waterways home to many native and ‘alien’ species. Homeowners on average use 10 times the amount of pesticides per acre of grass compared to farmers with crops!
In the United States, lawnmowers contribute to 5% of the countries annual greenhouse gas emissions. That’s what over 40 million acres of arguably wasted space causes. Each year, more than 6.4 million kilograms of fuel is spilled when refilling equipment, losing greater than double the oil of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.
With water helping to transport pesticides into waterways, large amounts of biodiversity are lost. Animals such as fish are prone to dying from water pollution as well as birds and insects that eat berries contaminated with pesticides. This effect on wildlife can have implications for humans as well, catching and consuming seafood containing pesticides or swimming in lakes/oceans riddled with dangerous chemicals.
The history of grass lawns:
Hundreds of years ago, lands were first cleared in France and Britain around castles providing guards with an uninterrupted picture of the surrounding terrain. Initially, the first plots of grasslands were looked after by cattle and sheep. This initial convenience soon became a luxury in the 1700s representing wealth and power. Within a few years, lands would be devoured to make way for luxurious and immaculate lawns surrounding the wealthiest houses. This obsession took off in France, England and Italy. During the time, slaves were utilised to help keep the lawns pristine. These green and immaculate displays of power showed how the lucky few were so well off that they didn’t need to utilise the space for growing food, raising cattle etc. This European-dominated luxury soon took off in colonial America, again representing the same values.
Between the 1830s and the 1870s, new inventions and developments began such as the push lawnmower, sprinkler and estates/neighbourhoods now making the lawn available to the white middle-class societies across Europe and America. Soon the grass lawn would become a symbol of ‘fitting-in’, with houses blanketed in grass. Indeed, the grass lawn would still be used to define the white culture as ‘superior’. Between the return of soldiers after the Second World War and the suburban boom, lawns became a staple in many households. So much so that police forces would begin fining people for planting vegetable gardens or plants on their own property if it interfered with grass lawn development.
Behind the neat, green lawns found on every street is a dark past, a past that supported the exploitation of labour and resources.
The efficient alternatives:
There are far better ways to utilise the millions of acres dominated by grass. In the United States, one-third of grass lawns replaced with corn crops could feed the entire demand for corn each year. Now, perhaps many homeowners wouldn’t want large crops colonising the side paths of neighbourhoods everywhere (fair enough), nevertheless, this is simply an example.
– Converting front yards into thriving vegetable gardens could make for brilliant community projects and lifestyles, allowing locals to pick local produce and vis vera.
– Transforming a plain, green yard into a native oasis would encourage local insects/ pollinators and animals while supporting soil designed to grow native plant species.
– Low maintenance gardens like xeriscaping that requires low irrigation demand would help incorporate greater plant varieties and draw additional carbon dioxide (CO2).
Across numerous countries, initiatives are encouraging owners of land to replace their grass lawns for miniature farms, native plant jungles etc. Some initiatives are even willing to pay homeowners to do so. With a growing global population, we cannot afford millions of acres to be wasted on areas that appeal to the eye, not climate.
Along with wasting space and scarce resources, grass lawns fail to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) in the long term. Grass front and/or backyards do absorb carbon dioxide but only for so long. Every year grass lawns suck up around 81 grams of carbon per square metre. However, once the lawn is due for a cut, much of the biomass is sliced to shreds allowing the gases to be released back into the atmosphere. This process is a never-ending cycle, drawing and losing carbon dioxide continuously. While there may be a constant fluctuation in carbon lost and absorbed, the damage done to the atmosphere is permanent. According to David Archer, carbon will last in the atmosphere longer than nuclear waste!
In today’s first-world society we continue to lose resources, food production and carbon, in return for the product first mastered by the exploitation of labour on enslaved people.
Let’s be clear, the solution is not fake grass nor is the solution bare soil. We must find long-lasting alternatives to this issue whether it be vegetable gardens, native flower yards etc. Doing so will bring back biodiversity, remove greater amounts of carbon dioxide and ultimately have far greater benefits than drawbacks. Grass itself is not an environmental issue, it’s our obsession with perfection and our desire to ‘fit-in’ that’s caused grasses to conquer vast amounts of land, water and pesticides.
Grass can and should still be incorporated into landscaping in the future but not as a substitute for native plants, crops etc. The future of development must focus on community farming, native inclusion and whatever else will help drastically minimise our environmental impacts.
There is a future for grass, just not a future monopolised by it.