Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony (1995)

Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony
by F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori and Gordon T. Geballe

London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. Hardcover, 148 pp., Notes, Index, 19.95.

Reviewed by David McRobert

Most Canadians and Americans are passionate about their lawns.  They religiously and enthusiastically plant, weed, fertilize, spray and mow them.

This passion was evident in the summer of 1994 when, according to the Toronto Star, the “lawn wars” broke out in Toronto, Ontario.  On May 9th, Toronto City Council voted to authorize the city solicitor to draft a bylaw that would allow property owners to create natural gardens in their yards, provided the gardens are surrounded by mowed buffer strips, similar to one in place since 1991 in Waterloo, Ontario and several US jurisdictions.

This City Council motion reflected a new idea that natural lawns which have been untouched by lawnmowers are easier on the environment and more aesthetically pleasing.  The issue was brought to a head by Sandy Bell, a Toronto musician who refused to cut her lawn for two years and was fined $50 in 1993.

Immediately, City Council was attacked by middle class defenders of the status quo, who contend that natural lawns are often both an eyesore and an invitation to lazy owners to ignore their civic duties.  In the council debate preceding passage of the motion Toronto councillor and former engineer Tony O’Donohue said that natural lawns are “a load of rubbish.  I can understand having a wilderness area if you have a couple of acres of land, but not in a city like Toronto.”

In some ways, this conflict was quite predictable.  For years groups like Pollution Probe and Greenpeace have sent canvassers door-to-door in many urban and suburban communities encouraging homeowners to break the lawn habit and cultivate creative rock gardens, plants and flowers in their stead or let their lawn grow wild.

This new book by Bormann, Balmori and Geballe makes a compelling argument that, if we are serious about protecting the environment, we need to change our attitudes about lawns.  The authors, all professors at School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, show that production of carefully manicured lawns has staggering environmental costs.  Watering lawns requires vast quantities of precious water supplies.  Gasoline-powered mowers consume millions of gallons of gasoline, thus contributing to global warming and urban smog problems.  Fertilizers and pesticides, often applied in excess, wash off of lawns into groundwaters, wells, streams and lakes.  Grass clippings are then bagged and hauled off for disposal, thus contributing to solid waste problems, or composted at public expense.

Redesigning the American Lawn outlines the origins of ideas about lawn and the reasons why lawns remain an enduring and prominent feature in North American culture.

The book is divided into five chapters.  Chapter 1 explains why most Americans love of their lawns, and locates the lawn aesthetic as an exotic ideology imported from England.  Chapter 2 describes the early questioning of the lawn aesthetic, and identifies much of the resistance to lawns with the efforts of Rachel Carson, the pioneering author of Silent Spring published in 1962.

In Chapter 3, the authors show that the American lawn industry is an economic juggernaut that has promoted the spread of “industrial lawns” to promote sales of lawn mowers, pesticides, irrigation equipment, seeds and other lawn-related paraphenelia.  Chapter 4 provides detailed information on the environmental costs associated with lawns.

Having laid out the sins of the average homeowner, Bormann et al.  offer a variety of ideas for creating more environmentally-sound lawns in the final chapter.  In sum, they offer three basic options for breaking the lawn habit.  First, they suggest various strategies for reducing the environmental impact of current practices.  Don’t apply fertilizers or pesticides to your lawn. Use a spoon, trowel or some other device to remove some weeds every week.  Use a hand push mower which is gasoline and smog-free.  And keep most of the grass clippings on the lawn itself or rake them up and compost them with your food wastes.  Another option which they recommend entails planting ecological grass varieties which require less watering and maintenance.

They also propose two more radical options: first, they suggest the concept of “freedom lawns” analogous to those contemplated by Toronto City Council that allow unrestricted growth of wildflowers, clover and other herbaceous plants.  The second more radical idea is the total replacement of lawns with new landscape designs, including those which eliminate grass and rely on a combination of tile, gravel and border plantings.

Bormann et al. have synthesized a vast amount of knowledge and new research in their effort to develop “new landscape paradigms that will both meet our environmental needs and satisfy our search for new aesthetics….”  This book provides some timely advice on how we can “unite our environmental concerns with direct personal action.”  I recommend it to those people who want to act locally while thinking globally, and help to cultivate a new lawn and garden aesthetic.

David McRobert is an environmental lawyer who works for the Workplace Health and Safety Agency in Toronto.

From: Reflections on the Lawn Wars, Alternatives, Winter 1995

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