Many of us create or maintain lawns in our gardens without giving it a second thought. But could these innocent patches of greenery be a colossal waste of space?

"I hate lawns," says Abbie Richards, who takes a hard line on them. "That idea of being entitled to your own useless piece of green carpet, just to say you can afford it, without putting it to the use of, say, growing food. Lawns are symbolic of our lack of thought, of the collective ignorance of so many of our actions... But [to move away from lawns] requires a cultural shift."

Richards, who is a science communicator at the TikTok platform EcoTok, may well be exemplary of that shift. She has found herself becoming something of the voice of Generation Z when it comes to lawns, following a joke she made about the need to "cancel" golf courses. Private, residential lawns, she says, have become totemic of the confluence of environmental awareness and anti-capitalist sentiment for her generation. "It's a necessary part of climate change adaptation to do something better with the space," she argues. 

It's easy to see why manicured lawns, as alluring as they can be, arouse such strong feelings. Depending on the local climate, they can require abundant chemical fertilisers and pesticides, as well as considerable watering – to the tune of 1.5 billion cubic metres (329 billion gallons) of municipal water each summer day – in order to maintain that verdant shade and weed-free surface. Then there's the pollution caused by mowing. None of this has been mitigated by environmental legislation to date, which has largely tended to concern itself with the management of agricultural land.

The seeming desirability of lawns is increasingly at odds with their local context too: a lush green lawn is an incongruent and yet commonplace sight even in desert regions. Countries with no history of lawns – such as China – have recently begun embracing them enthusiastically. Globalisation is driving a homogeneity in urban landscapes – with the lawn front and centre and typically very green. 

We are, it might appear, addicted to lawns – which perhaps explains why 70-75% of urban green areas globally are now lawns, or why an estimated 23% of the entire urban land area on the planet is covered by them. In the US, that's six times the amount covered by corn, the country's largest irrigated crop. 

Certainly many of us will spend a portion of every weekend this summer maintaining them. Others, in pursuit of permanent verdancy, may already have made the switch to polypropylene fibre or recycled rubber-based artificial turf – the $2.6bn (£1.9bn) market for which is booming, in back gardens, on professional sports fields and in municipal areas.

Perfectly manicured lawns have been status symbols for centuries (Credit: Getty Images)

Perfectly manicured lawns have been status symbols for centuries (Credit: Getty Images)

Perhaps it's small wonder then that many of us are, as Paul Robbins calls them, "Lawn People" – the title the director of the University of Wisconsin's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies gave to his book on how grass, people and pesticides have come together to create a cultural landscape. 

"'Lawn people' are those who feel obliged to tend to the grass in their back-yard even though they know it to be bad for the environment," Robbins explains. A seminal study he conducted in 2001 found that, remarkably, those who use pesticides on their lawns tend to be more educated, have higher incomes and are more likely than non-pesticide users to recognise the environmental damage of their actions.

21st Century Gardening

From working with contaminated city soil to reconsidering weeds, pests and even lawns, gardening is changing as we adapt it to the realities of modern life. This series takes a look at its future in the 21st Century – and explores how it can be updated to fit with modern sensibilities and challenges, such as environmental awareness and pollution.

"Lawns are a reflection of the fact we're socialised to keep up appearances, to be cohesive with the community. Those who spray chemicals are more likely to know their neighbours by name," he adds. "And in the US at least you might even be legally obligated to tend to your lawn and fined if you don't. It's remarkable how people often say that they don't even want a lawn but feel they have to have it."

Robbins – who, based on the number of times he's now asked to talk on the subject, suggests that there must be change in the air – even argues that it's not us controlling our lawns, but our lawns controlling us. The rhythm of the lawn shapes the rhythm of the community, in the sense that they have to be frequently mowed to be kept at their youngest, greenest phase – and we comply. "Lawns are governed by these rules outside of people. What people do is respond to their needs," he says.  

Then there's the lawn's moral dimension: the well-tended lawn as symbolic of order, as an expression of being a good citizen – in part, Robbins says, by abrogating one's property rights to do as one pleases with one's lawn, in favour of doing what's best for property values, which have been shown to be higher in areas where everyone maintains their lawn to look a certain way. And the deeper meaning of lawns hasn't yet been fully explored, he contends.

A number of sports are thought to have evolved side-by-side with the lawn (Credit: Getty Images)

A number of sports are thought to have evolved side-by-side with the lawn (Credit: Getty Images)

Other factors have come into play over recent history to underpin our lawn "fetish" too. Lawns have been expensive status objects since the 13th Century, back when the idea of cut turf is first recorded – not least because of the labour involved before the invention of the lawn mower. When this machinery emerged in 1830, it did much to democratise access to a private lawn which would previously have been cut with scythes, shears or grazing animals.

But according to Kristoffer Whitney, assistant professor of science, technology and society at Rochester Institute of Technology, New York, it's only since the 1950s that historical factors have melded to make the modern residential lawn such a powerful presence. 

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The lawn's long-standing, deep-seated cultural aesthetic is the product of the pastoral ideal of the British nobility in the 17th Century, which has since been exported worldwide. Since then, its influence has been compounded by rapid suburbanisation, which has allowed the middle classes to own a lawn too, as well as the power of advertising, which has reinforced the lawn as symbol of domestic contentment, and the interests of big business. 

At the end of World War Two, the demand for synthetic nitrogen fertilisers was so high, the US government decided to put its ammonia factories – which had been used to make explosives during the war, but could also be used to produce fertiliser – back into action.

"It's an aesthetic and business infrastructure that, once it was in place, we just took for granted, and still do," says Whitney. "Those of us who have one [a lawn] don't even think about why we want or maintain a lawn – it's just what we do. But I do think there's a generational shift against lawns now, at least in terms of how Generation Z will eventually drive policy change in terms of how we live, in relation to the types of housing choices available, for example, with denser living and so more shared green spaces."   

Until then, according to a 2018 study by Maria Ignatieva, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Western Australia, the benefits of lawns continue to be far outweighed by their environmental impact. She calls for the development of less intensely-managed lawns with native drought-resistant plants and a new generation of ground covers, adding that we're only just starting to explore such alternatives – the likes of meadow and grass-free lawns, such as are now popular in Sweden and being studied in her interdisciplinary Lawn As A Living Lab project in Perth.

In California, lawns are estimated to swallow up around 40% to 60% of all the domestic water used (Credit: Getty Images)

In California, lawns are estimated to swallow up around 40% to 60% of all the domestic water used (Credit: Getty Images)

"The fact is that there's still very little research on lawns as an eco-system, and we urgently need more, because even the proposed alternatives can require intense management," she says. "It's going to take time to change attitudes as to what we should expect from a lawn, or even what a lawn is for. It's only recently in lawn history that, because they were so expensive to maintain, we've started to actually use lawns rather than just look at them. But clearly water usage is the big question, one that's only going to get bigger."

Indeed, some people, such as the residents of California – who, like the peoples of many arid zones around the world, have suffered a series of droughts over recent years – are now even being paid to rip out their lawns. They get up to $2 (£1.53) for each square foot of turf grass that they remove, with the state also offering subsidies to those who have artificial grass installed. 

Others are embracing more eco-minded approaches to their lawn space, notably 're-wilding' to encourage bees and other crucial pollinators. Even golf, which has been criticised in the past for its pursuit of what has been called "the Augusta syndrome" – golfers' expectations that every course will have the emerald perfection of the famed US Masters golf course, Augusta National – has seen an acceleration in greener thinking over the last 18 months. According to Jonathan Smith, executive director of the GEO Foundation, an international not-for-profit organisation helping golf become more sustainable, more courses are letting nature in and moving to biological management, if only because that tends to prove cheaper in the long run. 

"Television over the last 30 years has created a connection between those highly manicured courses and quality and we're definitely in a situation now in which it's courses having to lead golfers to change their outlook," he says. "There can be resistance – golfers don't want to be associated with anything bad, like chemical use, for example, but they don't want bumpy greens either."

But are lawns all bad?

Lawns provide habitats for some species and support soil organisms. They transpire and evaporate water to create cooler micro-climates, essential to mitigating heat in our cities. The soil under lawns handles rainwater drainage in cities too, with only 5-15% of the rainwater becoming surface runoff, as opposed to 60% in largely grass-free urban areas. (Read more about why environmental groups want gardeners to leave lawns unmown.)

Though the concept of cut grass began in the West in the 13th Century, it's since caught on arond the globe (Credit: Getty Images)

Though the concept of cut grass began in the West in the 13th Century, it's since caught on arond the globe (Credit: Getty Images)

Several studies over the last decade have also highlighted lawns' potential as carbon sequesters, though they can also emit carbon if they're fertilised often and the soil under lawns may eventually reach a saturation point beyond which they produce more emissions than they capture.

And letting a lawn grow into long grass is likely to enhance this carbon-storing ability even further. According to a 2018 University of California Davis study, wild grasslands are now more resilient carbon sinks locally than the forests that are often cited as all-important in alleviating climate change effects – though these environments are quite different from garden grasslands, and forests provide other benefits such as different habitats for wildlife.

According to Janet Manning, a scientist with the Royal Horticultural Society – who notes that lawns have somewhat fallen out of favour in gardening show-grounds of late – lawns of any kind are certainly preferable to artificial grass, as uncannily like the real thing as the latest versions may be. "They just present an even bigger list of problems, from the chemicals used in their production, to the micro-plastic pollution, to the water use to keep them clean, to the fact that in doesn't look any good for long and in 15 years or so landfills will be overflowing with it," she explains.

Other concerns about artificial grass lawns include the loss of habitat for wildlife such as bees, which burrow into ordinary grass, and the disruption they can cause to the food chain.  

However, it doesn't have to be this way.

"Historically lawns have been an expression of our attempts to control nature, when nature will control your lawn for you, if you let it. There are ways of tending to a lawn that don't mean you have to mow it all the time, use mains water or pesticides," says Manning. "It isn't about getting rid of lawns, as there seems to be a movement now saying we must do, but about changing our approach to them, and our expectations of how they look."

Golf course lawns may have contributed to the current focus on achieving a perfect green carpet (Credit: Getty Images)

Golf course lawns may have contributed to the current focus on achieving a perfect green carpet (Credit: Getty Images)

The bigger question, says David Hedges-Gower, chairman of the Lawn Association, is whether that is possible – or whether our attachment to the established lawn aesthetic, after seven centuries of lawn hype, and 70 years of the lawn as a mass consumer good, is just too strong. Can we accept, he wonders, that without watering and pesticides, the stereotypical lawn works for some climates, but definitely not others? 

"We've been sold a dream of prettiness with lawns, without really understanding them at all - we [gardeners] don't put a plant in our gardens we don't know, but the lawns just seem to be there," he says. 

Robert Pavlis, a biochemist, gardener and the author of the book "Garden Myths", is sceptical that change to our lawn culture is really coming. For one, he says, the alternatives proposed so far "just don't work in practical terms", either because they require some expertise to maintain, or because they're not hardy enough to walk on without damaging the plants. This would negate the current functional purpose of a lawn to an extent – since they're considered valuable spaces for play and leisure, as well as for showing off.

Pavlis also draws a distinction between gardening and lawn maintenance – which is one reason why city authorities tend to favour using lawns to fill leftover public places or to beautify abandoned ones: it's easy, cheap and no great competence is required to maintain it. 

"Likewise, the problem is that, being pragmatic, the majority of people with lawns are not gardeners either," says Pavlis. "If everyone just let their lawns do what they want, as environmentalists argue for, most people wouldn't accept the results. Why? Because it would be ugly. I'm not sure we're going to change that perception. The truth is that most people would rather make an aesthetic choice with their lawns than an environmental one."


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