Are Our Lawns Hurting Us and the Environment?
Updated: May 20, 2020
With spring arriving, city dwellers are coming out of their winter slumbers to start working on their lawns. They’re overseeding new grass to thicken their turf, spreading nitrogen fertilizer to promote grass growth, and spraying the first dandelions of the year with broad-leaf herbicides. Signs start to pop up on people’s front yards reading something like, “Protected by John’s Weed Killer Extreme” and a rumble of mowers echos through the neighbourhood as pieces of dandelion fly out the discharge chutes. This is all to create that perfect lawn you see on TV and in magazines; green and uniform with a white picket fence along one side. Does anybody ever stop and wonder why? Hundreds of dollars are being spent to spread chemicals across our neighbourhoods just to promote a monoculture of a non-native grass. Is there not a better way?
Where did this practice come from?
In the late 1700s lawns started to appear in the yards of wealthy North Americans, fashioned after gardens in England.¹ In England large estates were accompanied by nicely maintained lawns. It wasn’t until 1868, however, that lawns really started to gain traction in North America as up until this point, yards were typically fenced in gardens.
In 1868 a man named Fredrick Law Olmsted designed a suburb outside of Chicago called Riverside, one of the first planned suburban communities in the United States. The community laid out instructions that each house had to be set back thirty feet from the road and the yard was to contain one or two trees and must include “a lawn that would flow seamlessly into his neighbors’, creating the impression that all lived together in a single park”.² Shortly after this a book by Frank J. Scott, titled The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, was released and put a huge amount of importance on the lawn. The first sentence of a chapter titled, “The Lawn” states, “A smooth, closely-shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.”³ In the 1950s Abraham Levitt created Levittown, the first neighbourhood where lawns were in place already. In this community, homeowners were required to sign a contract stipulating they were to cut their lawn at least once a week from April until November. Abraham Levitt considered the lawn to be the most important feature in the community’s landscape.⁴ These, among other early influences, started to shape how yards were to look in a “proper” suburban home.
Starting in the 1940s, pesticides began to arrive. Chemical companies started making broadleaf herbicides such as The American Chemical Paint Company’s 2,4-D in 1944 and Dow Chemical Company’s 2-4 Dow weed killer in 1947 and insecticides started to show up such as DDT.⁵ As these chemical pesticides became available to the public, the marketing began. In the early days, marketing explained what chemicals the product contained and how they would kill unwanted weeds and insects from your lawn but as time passed the names of the chemicals started to disappear and the marketing focused on the ease of use and effectiveness in achieving a “perfect” lawn. Today, commercial marketing is driving much of the obsession towards a dark green lawn with no weeds or insects. The deep green colour is entirely created by commercial advertising, a lighter colour of lawn actually represents better fertility, root development, and disease resistance but deep green grass usually requires much more chemical use to achieve.⁶
The chemical companies used marketing to continue to advance the feeling that a lush green lawn with no weeds or insects in sight is not only favourable, but a necessity. It is to the point that citizens are shunned and looked down upon for not conforming to this philosophy and creating that “perfect” lawn. Because of this people want that perfect lawn at any cost. A 2002 survey in Toronto found that 81% of residents felt that it was important for lawns to have no visible signs of weeds and 79% felt no visible signs of insects was important.⁷
A combination of factors created the ubiquitous green lawn in front yards across North America and it appears that these types of yards aren’t going anywhere soon.
So, what’s the problem?
It is obvious that green lawns are loved in North America. They make great areas to play games and sports and create a nice, even look throughout a community. So what is the problem with this?
The amount of water required to keep a lawn alive and green is immense. The average lawn requires almost 40 000 litres of water each summer to stay green.⁸ Depending on the climate of the city, up to 70% of our water use goes just to our landscapes.⁹
Grass lawns require a huge amount of water for a couple of reasons. The first reason is the plants are not native and don't thrive in our natural climate. In order for grass lawns to stay vibrant green they need more water than what our climate provides so that means they need to be frequently watered. The second reason is the amount of rainwater that exits a grass lawn as runoff. The shorter and more packed down grasses are, the less intake of water into the soil. As well, the absence of dead vegetation greatly reduces water intake into the soil and increases runoff.¹⁰ A grass lawn doesn’t let water absorb, instead you see it stream down the gutters in front of your house.
Many places are facing water shortages due to droughts and with our warming climate, water will continue to become a more and more precious resource. Is wasting it watering a front lawn a good use of this resource? As climate change continues to increase our average temperatures and cause longer and more severe droughts, the water use associated with green lawns will either need to increase even beyond current levels or our lawns will need to evolve and change.
Another big issue with the amount of water being used on lawns is that water carries the fertilizers and pesticides we use on our lawns into our rivers and water supplies, hurting the environment and contaminating our drinking water. The use of pesticides and fertilizers, however, is a whole nother bag of worms.
Pesticides and Fertilizers
Every “proper” North American lawn care program includes a host of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and artificial, chemical fertilizers. In fact, most households in North American suburbia apply more pesticides per acre to their lawns than most farmers spread on crops.¹¹ These chemicals have many impacts on our own health and the health of the environment around us.
Pesticides from lawns leech into the waterways around us and, ultimately, into our drinking water supply having negative impacts on our health. Studies have found that low doses of lawn-care herbicides — levels below what is assumed to have adverse health consequences for humans — cause complications to developing embryos and have been linked to a considerable amount of negative health effects.¹² ¹³ Many lawn pesticides have been linked to negative reproductive effects, neurotoxicity, kidney and liver damage, endocrine disruption, and cancer.¹⁴ Chemicals used on lawns don’t just impact our water either; they have even been shown to end up within our residences in house dust from being tracked in from the outdoors.¹⁵
Chemicals from our lawns can also have impacts on the natural environment around us. A 2015 study found freshwater fish to be greatly affected by pesticides. The fish developed behavioural disorders and genetic defects when exposed to insecticides. The fish were found to be particularly sensitive to the environmental contamination of water and insecticides were concluded to cause serious impairment to physiological and health status of the fish.¹⁶ As well, a 2002 study found that pesticides found in streams during spring and early summer were toxic to many aquatic plants, degrading the quality of the ecosystem.¹⁷
It has been shown that banning pesticide use on lawns does have positive impacts on water quality. For example, one year after cosmetic pesticides were banned in Ontario, concentrations of pesticides in urban stream water were significantly reduced. Pesticides including 2,4-D; dicamba; MCPP; total phenoxy herbicides; and total insecticides were all in much lower concentrations than before the ban.¹⁸
The use of chemicals on our lawns clearly has impacts on ourselves and on our natural world but what if we don’t use any chemicals? Is a grass lawn still an issue?
With a perfect grass lawn the goal is to remove all plants that aren’t grass and remove all insects, small mammals, and amphibians. Essentially the goal is to create a plot of land with a biodiversity of one species.
With only grass there are no flowering plants and nowhere for pollinators to get nectar. Bees are the most obvious species to be impacted by this lack of flowers. It has been well documented that honeybee colonies have been collapsing due to colony collapse disorder so our native bees are going to be ever more important to protect. If you let your lawn grow a bit until dandelions start to bloom you will quickly see how many bees rush to the bright yellow flowers to gather nectar. Grass offers nothing to pollinators who need the nectar from flowers to survive. Monarch butterflies are another pollinator that is impacted by the lack of flowers in our yards. Monarch populations have declined by more than 80% from the 21-year average across North America in recent years.¹⁹
Pollinators such as bees, beetles, moths, and butterflies are impacted by these monoculture ecosystems but what about other animals? Yards devoid of a variety of plants are not going to have a healthy population of insects, even without considering insecticides. With no insects there will be no birds, small mammals, or amphibians. With only grass you will find you have just that, only grass.
The more diversity of plant and insect life you have in your yard the more your yard will come alive. It will come alive with scurrying voles, singing clay-colored sparrows, and beautiful butterflies. The key to any healthy ecosystem, urban or not, is biodiversity.
What are the alternatives?
Vegetable gardens are a great alternative to a lawn of grass. Organic gardening allows us to connect with our yards in a very deep way. When the food that we put into our body is being grown by us, we gain a connection and appreciation to the food and the land. Gardening has also been shown to positively affect our mental health with noticeable decreases in depression and anxiety and a quantifiable increase in attentional capacity and self-esteem.²⁰
Vegetable gardens also attract a ton of beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife. A vegetable garden is a much better use of the space in our yards than a lawn.
Diverse selections of plants
You can use all types of plants to partly or completely replace grass in your yard. There are many grass alternatives that are drought tolerant so they don’t need to be watered and have beautiful flowers attracting insects and providing habitat for the species around us. A few grass alternatives are moss, thyme, sedum, or clover. Dutch clover is great for adding nitrogen to the soil and pollinators flock to the flowers. In fact, before herbicide companies convinced us that clover was bad (herbicides that target broad-leaf plants kill clover along with all of the other weeds), it was common and encouraged to have clover in a good lawn mix to increase nitrogen in the soil. Frank J. Scott, in his 1870 book about keeping a proper yard said, “No better varieties of grass for lawns can be found than those that form the turf of old and closely fed pastures, blue-grass and white clover are the staple grasses in them”.²¹
A mix of different species of plants will add a variety of benefits to your yard. The more biodiversity you can create, the more healthy of an ecosystem you will have.
Keep it organic
If removing your grass lawn is not an option for you you can still have a positive impact by cutting out chemicals. Instead of spraying for weeds, pick them by hand or let some of them grow and avoid chemical fertilizers. If you keep your lawn organic you can greatly decrease the negative impact of your yard on the environment and your community’s health. The dangers of pesticide use are too great to just ignore.
Unfortunately a 2002 analysis of the lawn care reform movement in Canada suggested that the current support of changing the way we keep our lawns is “confined to narrow environmental concerns that [does] little to address wider social and environmental issues”. The analysis went on to state that measures should be taken to build radical social and environmental alternatives that extend beyond the current view of the lawn. The analysis also pointed out that a “powerful counter-discourse” is in place challenging the status quo and emphasising human health and environmental costs in how we currently keep our lawns.²² Do North Americans care more about the uniform appearance of their lawn or about the impacts our lawns have on our environment and health? I think people do care more about their health and the environment and that change can happen. I believe that the more people are educated on both the negative impacts of how we currently keep our lawns and on what better alternatives exist, people will start to adapt better approaches.
So what makes a beautiful lawn? Is it a uniform green with no imperfections or is it a living ecosystem with different plant and animal species living with us in our urban settings? I challenge you to take a look out your window and think about how your lawn impacts the environment around you. What small change could you make to positively impact your community and the natural world around you?
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