Attitudes like our neighbor’s are not that uncommon. Many of the people in this area don’t do their own yard work, so they don’t have to think about the environmental problems an immaculate, grassy, almost treeless lawn creates.
A lawn like our neighbor’s requires the application of countless chemicals which go straight into our water supply and wash directly into our waterways. The downstream effect is that some of these chemicals create algal blooms, diseased fish and die-offs. Treeless lawns also contribute to flooding problems. They harm insects and birds, contribute to habitat loss, lack of biodiversity and high extinction rates. In addition, the maintenance of lawns requires an enormous amount of water and fuel. Lawns are just not healthy for children and other living things.
The idea of the manicured lawn as a status symbol is not new. Like many American ideas, we took the idea of perfect expanses of grassy, weed-free, tree-free lawns from the English and French aristocracy. In the 16th century, lawns and fields surrounding European castles were kept free of trees so that guards could have a clear view if an enemy tried to approach. At that time however, lawns were probably a mix of grasses, chamomile and thyme. In the 17th century all-grass lawns became popular with wealthy landowners. Those expansive lawns were maintained by the hard labor of servants wielding scythes, and the grazing of sheep. These days, the servants have been replaced by landscape firms with loud equipment and the sheep are not allowed by most health departments.
Not only did the idea of grassy lawns come from Europe, many of the grasses used for American lawns are from Europe. Native American grasses are not as easily controlled as the kinds of grasses European landowners used for their lawns, so when wealthy landowners in America built their large estates, they had their lawns sown with grass seed from elsewhere. Blue grass, fescues, and bent grasses are all from Europe, and Bermuda grass comes from Africa.
The popularity of golf and lawn bowling also contributed to the proliferation of large-scale lawns in America, and in the mid 19th century cities all over the country began beautification campaigns. Public parks became common in even the smallest American towns, and the elegant, landscaped features of the grand English estate became democratized for all.
Slowly, the American craving for grassy expanses caught on, moving from public to private spaces, and as suburbs began to develop in the mid to late 19th century, so did the ubiquitous American lawn. The first lawn mower was invented in 1830 by Englishman, Edwin Budding. It was a push mower and wouldn’t be steam powered until around 1893. In 1900 the gasoline powered lawn mower entered the scene.
By the late 1940’s the need for affordable housing got a shot in the arm from returning GIs and their new families. Conformity was the norm, weeds (and Communism) were the enemy, and chemicals were the panacea. The population of America was growing and so were the suburbs.
One of the largest and most well known development firms of the time was Levitt & Sons, Inc. The firm created and sold ready-made suburbs beginning in 1947. The first of these planned communities was Levittown, NY. Levittown homes were designed to be affordable, and when buyers moved in, lawns were already in place. Abraham Levitt himself stated “No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns.” His opinion stuck, and here we are.
I’ve watched more and more healthy trees come down in our area since Hurricane Sandy, and while I understand my neighbors’ fears, it will make our flooding problems that much more of an issue in the long run. Some people in the area are becoming aware of the environmental problems lawns create, but there are still too many homeowners who cling to old fashioned, environmentally destructive practices.
It took almost 200 years for Americans to create all the problems that come from unsustainable lawns, and I wish we had the luxury of 200 years to fix those problems. What we can do is plant more trees. Please.