Have you ever stopped in a street full of big, green, perfectly groomed lawns and wondered, “WHY”? As places to socialize or grow food, backyards really have primacy in North America. Those seas of green in front of our houses are mostly unjustified by any human activity. Yet, people remain addicted to them, take care to keep them clipped and weed-free, and sometimes take it upon themselves to police those who step outside that norm.
There’s a classic, hilarious and oft-quoted New York Times essay by Michael Pollan (http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/why-mow-the-case-against-lawns/), who tells us that the modern North American lawn originated with Frederick Law Olmsted. The latter designed Central Park, among other notable sites. Olmsted was commissioned in 1868 to design a Chicago suburb, in which he stipulated the 30-foot setbacks that helped standardize big lawns on this continent. Now Americans spend tens of BILLIONS of dollars per year to maintain them.
This contrasts sharply with residential planning elsewhere on the globe. My cohousing community is hosting a WWOOFER named Heike from Dresden, Germany, here to learn more about organic and sustainable living. Heike’s home is a multi-storey building that’s flush with the sidewalk outside. Her neighbourhood is typical of many found in Europe, built by people who understood that most of the real living happens in the back, where families gather, kids play and food is grown.
Why sacrifice all that space, with its potential for a more sustainable and fulfilling life, on the altar of convention? Whom does all that lawn really benefit, besides the industries that produce chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and lawn mowers? The Lawn Institute in East Dundee, Illinois asserts that lawns have benefits – for example, they have a greater cooling effect than air conditioning. But so do shade trees, gardens and a reduction in square footage occupied by pavement. So, to mow, or not to mow? That is the question. You be the judge.