The dark side of modern landscaping

Noble beginnings

America is covered in lawns. So much so that there are almost 50 million acres [1] of turf from sea to shining sea. It may seem natural to us now, but our love affair with lawns is a relatively new phenomenon.

During the Middle Ages, European aristocrats were always looking for new ways to show off how rich they were. Sure, they’d built large castles and estates, commissioned cathedrals and other public buildings, and controlled vast armies of peasants but inside they were filled with a deep yearning for something even more pointlessly ostentatious. So, they began installing grassy landscapes around their castles and villas and estates as a display of nobility and wealth [2]. You see, only the truly wealthy could spend that much coin to maintain such a useless space. The well-kept lawn became an important status symbol. Like private indoor bowling alleys now, huge lawns were an enormous waste of money that got used a couple times a year.

  • DID YOU KNOW? Grass is the single largest irrigated "crop" in America. [12] There are over 50m acres of lawn in the US, serviced by over 600k landscaping companies. What are we getting for all this work?

Lawns get rationalized

Flash forward a few hundred years and what had started as a bunch of rich dudes showing off became the landscape du jour for the rational galaxy brains of the Enlightenment. After all, to 18th century elites, nature was viewed as nothing more than a resource to be exploited by humans. Large, well-maintained lawns dotted with rigid and formal landscaping became the height of sophistication among town planners, landscape designers, and wealthy benefactors from Europe to the new colonies in America. Nothing was sexier than the natural world sliced and diced into the geometric shapes and even lines of the rationalist order.

New boss same as the old boss

While the Robber Barons of the 19th century got rich largely by prying monopolies and industries from the 18th century elites, they still maintained the old tradition of wasting as much money and labor as they could on ornamental landscapes. From Andrew Carnegie to Commodore Vanderbilt, the railroad and oil tycoons of the Gilded Age built massive estates surrounded by acres and acres of lawn. To make matters worse, they also spent gobs of money building public institutions like libraries and parks, all built to mimic their preferred style of grass and hedge and rose and stone. [3]

So, as suburbs started to pop up at the beginning of the 20th century, the middle classes latched onto this age-old aristocratic fad as the perfect way to show their neighbors they knew how to give their yards the royal treatment. [4]

The Chemical Age

The thing about well-maintained lawns, is that they only really work if they’re well-maintained. And if you’re just a middle-class working stiff and not a hyper-wealthy aristocrat, that maintenance most likely falls to you. As Americans got busier and distractions like TV pried more and more attention away from other pastimes, these well-maintained lawns started to become less-well-maintained lawns.

Enter lawn care companies, with their impressive teams of workers lugging around gas-powered equipment, tankers of herbicides and green spray-paint, and an eye-watering array of solutions to trick plants into doing the exact opposite of what they want to do. For a while this seemed like the perfect solution. Middle class workers could pay landscaping companies a small monthly fee to pump their yards full of chemicals and blow leaves and debris into yard bags, and not only would their neighbors love them, but they didn’t even have to lift a finger. As the chemical company DuPont used to say, it was “better living through chemistry.”

  • DID YOU KNOW? Of the 30 commonly-used lawn pesticides, 13 are probable carcinogens, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, and 26 with liver/kidney damage. 17 of these pesticides have been detected in our groundwater supplies. [13]

A Goliath emerges

Since the 1970’s, the landscaping and lawn care industry has grown into a $128.8b behemoth,[5] with over 600k companies[6] vying to mow and blow all 50 million acres of American lawn. It employs millions of people and has become as ubiquitous in the US as its culinary counterpart, the fast food joint. Landscaping and lawn care is a juggernaut, chugging across America’s golf courses and apartment buildings and corporate developments and yards and leaving a growing, but hidden suite of ecological and societal problems in its wake.

There is nothing uniquely bad about the landscaping industry. Like all corners of the modern economy, businesses are always looking for a way to do something for as cheap as possible and charge as much as possible, pocketing the difference and externalizing as many costs as they can to “society.” In this way, landscapers are as rational as any other business owners. People need to make a living, and homeowners and organizations are willing to pay $128.8b per year to do it the old-fashioned way. Why rock the boat when it’s chugging along so nicely?

No free lunch

Unfortunately, all those costs being passed off to “society,” have become quite costly indeed. From expensive water requirements and rising gasoline prices, to poisoned streams and degraded top soil, modern landscaping has grown into one of the leading causes of ecological destruction in the United States.[1] Modern landscaping causes, or contributes to, a host of persistent headaches for local governments and residents alike.

And on top of all that, these landscapes–and the gas-powered equipment required to maintain them–aren’t even particularly enjoyable, beautiful, or beneficial to the community. In most cases, they’re merely the bare minimum to be called “greenspace.” The utter non-functionality of these spaces largely goes unsaid, mostly because most of us have lived in and around these types of public spaces for so long that we’ve been trained to see them as the “proper” way to do landscaping. We’ve become immune to how non-functional and wasteful they are.

  • DID YOU KNOW? Modern public landscapes cause or contribute to a bunch of ecological and financial issues:

  • Atmospheric pollution, including greenhouse gasses [1]

  • Flooding issues and polluted waterways [1]

  • Soil erosion

  • Underemployment and working poverty [11]

  • Increased rates of asthma and other cardiovascular diseases due to high amounts of pollutants emitted [7]

  • Noise pollution [8]

  • And an alarming rate of biodiversity loss [9]

Poor landscapes, poor communities

And all these costs add up, acting like a big finan