More specifically, we’re talking about the non-native turf grasses that cover vast amounts of ground in North America. The suburban lawn never filled the nature void for me. I would go for walks in the neighbourhood of my parents’ house, find mostly monotonous short-cut grass with a few trees here and there and some manicured flower beds, and come back rather bored from lack of meaningful natural stimulation. Living or working in high-rise buildings with similar monotonous grassy lawns below produced the same kind of nature deficit. I now know this effect is consciously or unconsciously felt by most people, that a varied natural landscape with diversity and intricacy in its colours, composition and uses packs a much bigger psychological benefit than sterile lawns.
Apart from being boring, the other cons of the lawn tradition have been well documented: high water and pesticide use, the destruction of animal habitats and biodiversity, not to mention the number of people-hours spent on maintenance. Environmentalist Michael Branch quips, “while [lawns] are sometimes referred to as 'ecological deserts', this characterization is an insult to deserts, which are remarkably biodiverse ecosystems”.
I’ll fess up, I have a small patch of grass in the back I like to lay a picnic blanket on when it's a sunny day and read or doze off, and it’s fun to have an area where my toddler can run around unhindered. Lawns are treasured by many who would be alarmed at being forced to give it all up. The feel of grass under your feet, an area for kids to play, just somewhere to lay... It is nice. The issue is the scale at which lawns cover available land. More and more people for a variety of reasons are switching some or all of their lawn space over to alternative uses. Some just want more colour and variety. Some prefer productive use of their land by growing herbs, vegetables and fruits. Others want the ecologically friendly and low-maintenance option offered by a garden comprised entirely of native plant species that have evolved to adapt to the local conditions (in addition to providing an ideal habitat for small native wildlife, such a garden will require no ongoing watering or weeding, once established). At our house, we’ve replaced our front-yard with perennial plants and part of the back will go towards a vegetable garden as well. We also don’t use any herbicides or pesticides and keep the watering to a minimum. Of course, this means our grassy patch is sometimes weedy and browning, but we always knew we weren’t perfect-lawn people.
Unfortunately, new suburban housing developments are still popping up complete with the requisite front and backs lawns, along with by-laws to regulate their look, something that seems to be carried more by momentum than anything else. The situation is very well expressed in this article by the Permaculture Research Institute:
"...with new developments...forests are felled, natural prairies degraded, and animal habitats dismantled. While all this destructiveness can’t entirely be blamed on the lawn, our insistence on having them over productive gardens or revitalized natural landscapes widens the footprint we make. Instead of filling in the gaps of our development with swaths of nature, we bend the entire world to our will, which seems to be grass road medians, grass parks, grass embankments and on it goes, with rarely any of it being used for grazing or food production. For all the resources we waste, we match with it entirely misappropriated land use."
It's time to ditch the dominance of the lawn. There is so much good - for us, for the land, for many little creatures - that could come from all of that space instead.