Your Lawn Has a Dirty Little Secret: It's Not as "Green" as You Think

People love their lawns, but a sweeping new study shows they may not love the world back.

A lush, green lawn has embedded itself as an urban status symbol of abundance and success. People can’t get enough of it — there are candles devoted to the scent of freshly cut grass. But it’s time to reset our 18th century perspective on lawns for something more environmentally minded.

Professor Maria Ignatieva of the University of Western Australia and Marcus Hedblom of Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences explain this week in an article in the journal Science how the picture-perfect green lawns people have learned to love are not sustainable investments for the environment.

“People love their lawns,” Maria Ignatieva says in an interview with the Science Magazine podcast about the research. “They think it provides a lot of services.” The resume of a lawn sounds promising: it can produce oxygen, sequester carbon, reduce soil erosion and water runoff, and increase water infiltration (the process of water returning to soil in the ground). Environmentally, having a lawn certainly beats a slab of concrete, but the price we pay to maintain lawns indicates that maybe we should retract those bragging rights.

An alternative grass-free (tapestry) lawn boasts native plants in the Ultuna Campus of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden.

Maria Ignatieva

As any ambitious homeowner will discover, lawns need to be mowed all the time. Lawnmowers guzzle gas while emitting pollutants, and heavy use of fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides contaminate groundwater. Lawns themselves chug water, taking up 75 percent of household water consumption in drier parts of the US.

“It’s actually the largest irrigated non-food crop,” says Ignatieva. Put together, lawns cover 23 percent of city space around the world, an area larger than England and Spain combined.

“The positive effect of carbon sequestration is very nice on the carbon footprint, but we actually found it to be negated by greenhouse gas management,” says Ignatieva. In other words, in process itself of caring for lawns outweigh the benefits of the ecosystem we shape.

And the ecosystem of traditional lawns isn’t earning any biodiversity prizes anytime soon. Lawns are driven by the aesthetic of blended uniformity (and a finicky neighbor whose immaculate yard reminds you exactly how much you should cut your grass). Of the approximately 12,000 species of grass, we use the same combinations from 4-5 species and deem the rest weeds. Plus, lawn grass often becomes invasive, disrupting local ecosystems and squashing biodiversity. Green space isn’t limited to grass either — for example, Californians may prefer drought-tolerant succulents.

The Gardens of Versailles.

Ignatieva isn’t completely anti-lawn, but she points out that we have many other options. The smooth, blended lawn aesthetic is a holdover from high-society status symbols of man flexing power over nature, as seen at the palace of Versailles outside Paris and in Victorian England. High-maintenance lawns have carried into present day, but research from the United Kingdom and Sweden reveal that people want more diverse greenspaces.

England, Sweden, and France are pioneering efforts to change lawn mentality and increase biodiversity, but so far, Germany is the most progressive in lawn philosophy. In Berlin’s Gleisdreick Park and Südgelände Nature Park, pockets of lawn were left to “go wild” as spontaneous vegetation.

Gleisdreieck park in Germany, and its wild lawn.

Ignatieva sees education as the first step for widespread lawn reform.

“Education of different levels from the planners and politicians [is important] because everyone’s talking about sustainability and biodiversity,” says Ignatiev.

“They’re cliche words, but actually nobody knows what it’s all about and how to achieve it.” Through exposure to the actual effects of lawns and seeing the possibility of what they could be, Ignatieva hopes that mass media can help push urban dwellers to consider, “How to allow nature next door to our houses. How to see nature, not lawn nature, real nature.”

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