What’s the issue 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 look impressive, 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 are 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 and streets, 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.
Grass only remains 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 crop farmers.
In the United States, lawnmowers contribute to 5% of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions; that’s what over 40 million acres of arguably wasted space can do. 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 is 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 maintained by cattle and sheep. This convenience soon became a luxury in the 1700s representing wealth and power. Within a few years, land 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 that 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 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 began fining people for planting vegetable gardens or plants on their own property if it interfered with grass lawn development.
Behind the immaculate green lawns found on every street is a dark past; a misunderstood or often unrecognised history 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 homeowners wouldn’t want large crops colonising the side paths of neighbourhoods everywhere, nevertheless, this is simply an example.
|Going back to vegetable gardening||Converting front yards into thriving vegetable gardens would make for healthy community projects and lifestyles, allowing locals to pick produce and grow their own.|
|Going native||Transforming a grass yard into a native oasis would encourage native insects/pollinators and animals whilst supporting soil designed to grow native plant species.|
|Low-maintenance||Low-maintenance gardens like xeriscaping that require low irrigation demand would help incorporate greater plant varieties and sequester additional carbon dioxide (CO2).|
Across numerous countries, initiatives are encouraging owners of land to replace their grass lawns for miniature farms, native plant yards 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 cut, much of the biomass is sliced to shreds, releasing gases like methane (CH4) back into the atmosphere. This process is a never-ending cycle, drawing and losing carbon dioxide continuously (only this cycle isn’t in a state of equilibrium).
In today’s first-world society we continue to waste resources, food production and carbon, in return for the product first mastered by the exploitation of labour on enslaved people.
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 mass adoption of it that has brought about these issues.
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.