Around here, rain storms, a slowly gestating wall of humidity, and the odd perfect 70-degree day or two have announced the beginning of lawn mowing season (also known as spring) in Washington. The two-and-a-half-story rowhouse I live in leaves me acquitted of this duty, and for that I’m glad, but I didn’t realize the (non)decision to live in a house without a lawn had a moral and sustainability component until I heard of Fritz Haeg.
Haeg is an architect in Los Angeles who’s been getting scads of attention for his Edible Estates campaign. Its mission is to abolish the suburban residential lawn.
His argument: Lawns are useless, cosmetic spaces that extract our time and sweat while giving very little in return. They turn the focus of the community inward to individual houses and don’t encourage relationships across a neighborhood.
In Haeg’s view, community gardens are a far better investment of space and time, for many of the same reasons that other sustainability buzzwords like New Urbanism and green roofs have risen to wider public consciousness. Community gardens become a focal point for the entire neighborhood, and, with transportation from fields to grocery stores unnecessary, they help to reduce the carbon footprint of the nation’s food supply. The urban farmers growing produce in Detroit, New York, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and other cities all already understand this. Also, you’ve probably noticed that food and commodities prices are skyrocketing.
Haeg links American’s attachment to the lawn back to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, but since the 18th century, it seems like appetites for lawns must have also been fed by bad urban planning of the type Jane Jacobs abhorred. If a community lacks quality communal green space, everyone is going to insist on having bigger and bigger lawn. If they get them, then no quality communal green space will ever be built. There’s also enough middle class conspicuous consumption attached to the average suburban spread to make it suspect. What is a lawn for, except to exhibit to your neighbors how much free time and disposable income you have to pour into a manicured and cropless field? Certainly, lawns have value as a transitional zone to mediate public and private space between the street and the home, but compared to the crisis of sustainability and global food shortages, this is another luxury. And I bet Haeg would say that community gardens can perform the same function.
It’s yet another inversion of the illusionary mentality of booming postwar suburbs that still drives development in many places: A big house with a big lawn, away from all the people, leads to a lifestyle that is definitively less livable and sustainable.
So who’s trading in their lawn mower for gardening shears?