A rant about lawns in America

They are bad and symbolize bad things.

Hey y’all!

I’m working away on a story about lithium-ion batteries, but (stop me if you’ve heard this one) it’s taking forever. There are, if anything, even more acronyms involved than in Transmission Month. I’m going to keep at it for a bit. Maybe for next week?

In the meantime, I thought I’d just share a rant of mine and get your thoughts.

I hate lawns — particularly suburban front lawns — beyond all reason. Probably more than I can justify. But they really are terrible.

I’m not just talking about the environmental impacts, though they are considerable. Maintaining millions of acres of monoculture means fighting against nature. With a little googling, you can find a million articles about the enormous amounts of water, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides used to grow America’s most common crop.

All that stuff is true, but it’s not what sticks in my craw. What bothers me most is the trade-off of public for private space.

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The loss of public space in suburban living

I always think back to something I heard when researching my story on Barcelona’s urban transformation a few years ago. I was touring the city’s new “superblocks” with Salvador Rueda, the visionary behind them and much of Barcelona’s transformation over the past few decades. His theme that day was that residences and businesses and roads will get you urbanity, but to make a city requires public spaces — “the public’s living room,” he called it.

Think of the vast area around Atlanta composed of highways, chain store strips, and suburbs. Virtually nowhere in that sea are there non-commercial public spaces for people to stroll or gather. There is no center in any of it. It is what we have in huge swathes of America: urbanity without cities.

Rueda said that, in the dominant American suburban model, wherein everyone lives in their own separate dwelling, there’s no way to maintain vibrant public spaces — everyone’s too spread out — so everyone basically has to recreate the benefits of public spaces in their own private estate.

Instead of public gardens, everyone plants their own garden. Instead of events, gatherings, and festivals in public plazas, everyone has their own backyard BBQ. Instead of playgrounds and parks, everyone buys their own toys and play structures and has their own f’ing lawn.

The promise of the American suburban dream is that we don’t need a public — that the nuclear family can be sufficient unto itself. As Margaret Thatcher famously put it: “There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

The lawn symbolizes the retreat to the private

The lawn began as a feature of UK feudal estates. The whole point was to flaunt wealth, to demonstrate that one owned so much land that one could afford to turn over swathes to nothing but ornamental green.

Then as now, maintaining that swathe of green required enormous amounts of resources and labor. That was the point, to show you had those resources.

The suburban dream of post-war America was that every white man could join the middle class and afford his own mini feudal estate, complete with its own stable (garage), its own compliant staff (wife and kids), and its own ornamental lawn.

Best of all, moving out to a suburban mini estate would free white families from being forced to share public resources with … those people.

As Heather McGhee chronicles in her new book The Sum of Us, when civil rights laws were passed and integration was forced on public spaces and facilities, many communities (especially in the South) simply abandoned them. McGhee’s central parable is about communities abandoning their public pools — often filling them in so they couldn’t be used by anyone — rather than integrating them.

The results hurt black people, but they hurt white people too. When things shift to the private realm, inequality takes over. Not everyone can afford their own pool. Most families just lost access to swimming entirely. This, McGhee argues, is why we can’t have nice things: oligarchs have used racism to convince white people to take on privately what was once provisioned publicly, to their own great detriment.

When we privatize public benefits (think of the shift from public pensions to 401k’s), the wealthy and powerful can use the changes to their benefit, but most people just end up with shitty, unreliable private versions of what was once a reliable public benefit. The same is true for urban land use. Suburbs are a way of privatizing everyday life, with most of the benefits of public spaces not distributed, but just lost.

We’re trying to compensate for the lack of a public by accumulating more and more private stuff, bigger and better houses and TVs and video-game consoles, bigger and better SUVs and trucks. We try to make each suburban mini estate a sufficient world unto itself, going deeply into debt to do so.

It doesn’t work. Americans are running ragged. Everyone’s constantly hustling. Few two-adult households can survive on a single income, but even dual-income households are struggling. Single people working multiple jobs are struggling even more. Everyone is expected to provide their own child care (and, during the pandemic, run their own school), nurture their own professional development, manage for their own retirement, and through it all, maintain their f’ing lawn.

The upper-income people can simply hire low-wage immigrants to do maintenance work on their mini estates, and sure enough, high-end suburbs and exurbs are full of bands of these workers, moving from empty lawn to empty lawn, running nightmare two-stroke-engine weedwackers and leaf blowers that create a constant suburban din and emit as much greenhouse gas as small cars, all to maintain the monocrop green that’s never seen by anyone but the other upper-income people with their own monocrop-green lawns. Those workers are practically the only people you ever see in such neighborhoods. The feudal lords are all inside, watching big-screen TVs.

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But the middle class — especially that precarious lower end, where everyone is one unforeseen layoff or health condition away from penury — has to do all that mini-estate maintenance itself. And good lord, the hours people put into their lawns. They dump poisons on them one day and fertilizers the next. They mow, rake, trim, and blow leaves to maintain their own little patches of monocrop green.

Why? It’s all so dumb. This is the thing I hate most about suburbia — it makes the people who live in it, myself included, enthusiastic participants in their own alienation.

Here’s a bit from part five of my Barcelona series:

More than half of Americans describe the neighborhood they live in as suburban.

In the US, Rueda says, “people want to be living in dwellings separated.” But if every family gets their own mini estate, their own piece of land and private castle, then the benefits of urbanism become more difficult to achieve.

Without density, there is no walkability. Public transit becomes slower and less frequent, so almost everyone needs an automobile and begins thinking of themselves, in relation to urban spaces, primarily as drivers.

Drivers fight to defend space for cars and parking. When they hit traffic, they ask for more lanes. Drivers don’t want more people living near them, because that means more cars and more competition for parking, so they fight all efforts at density.

The imperatives of drivers make it more difficult to create active, vibrant public spaces. Even where urban public spaces are built, they don’t come alive without sufficient density around them. They become internal tourist destinations, places residents drive to visit.

Without public spaces, Rueda says, all the amenities of public space, including exposure to greenery and basic social mixing, must be recreated privately. “They need some garden,” Rueda says. “They need to make the barbecue to contact one between them.”

For people who live in single-family homes, mixing with other people requires planning. Spontaneous social mixing — “bumping into” friends and neighbors — has been designed out of the spaces most Americans inhabit most of the time.

The thing is, people need spontaneous mixing. Research shows it is the primary way humans form friendships (which is why so many professional-class Americans make lifelong friends in college, when they are forced into close proximity). The number and depth of social connections is a reliable indicator of physical health, psychological health, and longevity. Loneliness and isolation kill.

People need publics

To me, the lawn, especially the front lawn, is a symbol of all this. It was meant to be a signal of wealth and security, to show that in America, every (white male) citizen is a feudal lord of his own estate. But like so many other such signifiers in US life, it has become an anchor, just another private responsibility piled atop others. And to what end? Who is looking at the lawns anymore? What does that swathe of monocrop green signify other than conformity and habit?

No matter how much we try to replicate the benefits of public spaces and public life in our private estates, it is futile, because the one thing you can’t replicate is people. You can nurture your lawn until it’s a perfect simulacrum of a well-tended public park, but there’s still no one on it. (And before you say it, do your kids really play on your front lawn? Do you see a lot of kids on front lawns when you drive through your neighborhood?)

It is good to be among people, to be in a community, to be reminded of proximate shared concerns — the quality of urban services, the wise use of urban land, the health of local retail. It is good to be able to sit on a bench in the sun and watch as people walk by, to see and hear and smell the life around you, to be reminded of the people and families you live among. It is good to bump into people by happenstance, moving through or gathering in places that have no commercial purpose, that are simply there for the residents of the city to be in, to live in — the public’s living room.

There are dozens of places like that in Barcelona; I can think of a handful in Seattle, very few near me. In Barcelona, you can walk or take a bus or a subway from one to the next. Here — and probably where you live — it’s mostly auto-dependent, so you have to deal with parking, and if you find some, then you’ll be dodging cars everywhere you walk.

The point is, I hate lawns. They are a pointless private labor. And honestly I don’t get the aesthetic attraction either. Go anywhere in nature, you find a beautiful, blooming diversity in every square inch. What’s the big achievement in abusing a patch of land until it only grows one thing?

In conclusion, you should:

a) speak up and advocate for walkable public spaces in the place you live, and

b) replace the grass on your front lawn with a variety of low-water, drought-tolerant plants native to your bioregion, from ground cover to flowers to bushes to trees. It encourages biodiversity, draws birds and bees and insects of all sorts, is beautiful to look at and smell, and best of all, requires very little maintenance.

It was one of the first things we did when we moved into our house 15 years ago and it has been an ongoing delight. It’s pleasant to work in the garden when you feel like doing it, switching out plants and moving things around, but day to day, it’s maintenance-free. And it wasn’t all that expensive (though we did quite a bit of the labor ourselves).

Anyway, that’s my rant on lawns. Feel free to rant back in the comments.

And if you’ve got a picture of a front lawn (or garden or xeriscaped plant farm or whatever) that you’re proud of, email me a picture. (It’s david at volts dot wtf.) Maybe I’ll send a few out, for inspiration.

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Here’s Mabel, who turned one year old on St. Paddy’s Day: