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 financial sinkhole under the foundations of city and county budgets. The problem is insidious, as money is spent all across the government budget in an effort to counter the negative side-effects of landscape choices at the department-level. Bad landscaping practices cause downstream problems in so many different ways that department heads are rarely able to see the true cause of their budgetary problem. For instance, Roads and Drainage departments see higher rates of flooding issues because cement, lawns, and eroding topsoil at public parks are creating vast slip-n-slides that lead straight to the already overtaxed sewage systems. Many urban areas have increasing rates of storm damage from falling trees, a problem that finds its roots in sprawling development patterns, degraded topsoil and ground cover, as well as the use, and subsequent over-watering, of ornamental and non-native trees that produce too shallow roots for weathering heavy storms.


Over time, non-native and over-manicured public spaces become ecological dead zones, degraded and sickly, needing to be replanted every 7-10 years. [10] Worse than that, in many cases they’re never replanted; they just go feral and scrubby, or wilt away until their just patchy grass and scrub bushes.


These spaces cost money to build, money to maintain, money to replace, create headaches all across city and county budgets, and ultimately aren’t even very good at being greenspaces. As the meme goes, “You had one job!” They force governments onto a treadmill of spending that just digs them deeper and deeper in the hole, making communities poorer, and making it harder to provide services in other areas.


  • DID YOU KNOW? Conventionally maintained lawns use up to 200 gallons of fresh, drinking-quality water per person per day to stay green. [14]


A more abundant path

At this time in history, humanity faces a multi-headed hydra of ecological, financial, and social problems, all of which seem to be coming to head at the same time. Climate change, biodiversity loss, rising authoritarianism, plastic and air pollution, rising inequality, these are just a few of the issues clambering for our attention. It can be very hard to know how an individual, or even a small community of individuals, are supposed to make much of an impact when the problems are so huge and interconnected.


It’s a lot. But there is hope. And more than hope, there are reasons to be optimistic.


You see, the way to address multi-layered problems is with multi-layered solutions, or at least solutions that solve more than one thing at once. In permaculture circles, it’s called stacking functions, making sure that everything you do does more than one thing. In this way, our systems should be designed such that they’re mimicking nature. In the natural world, virtually everything serves multiple purposes at once. Birds eat seeds and poop them out far away, allowing the plant to travel distances, while providing the seed a nice little coating of nutrients for growing. The bird then becomes a meal for a hawk, and it’s remains become food for worms, who feed still more birds while also building healthy soil for the plants.


So, if we were to design our public spaces like nature, what might that look like? What if our libraries, schools, parks, and community centers could be surrounded by landscapes that solved several problems at once? That were not only beautiful spaces that elicited pride in the community, but also:


  • Increased food security

  • Created green jobs

  • Provided K-12 STEAM education

  • And increased community engagement?


What if our public spaces were the path to a more abundant future? A customizable local solution to multiple problems that had roles for everyone? What if we could switch the equation, and turn government landscaping expenditures from a bottomless money pit to a value center of sustainable, popular, and effective environmental and social programs that feed people, build biodiversity and healthy soil, and grow green jobs? What if that $30b could be turned into $70b+ in economic and social value for local communities?



Works Cited

  1. Adler, Ben. (2022, June 22). Leaf blowers, lawn mowers and fertilizer: How lawns contribute to climate change. Yahoo News. https://news.yahoo.com/leaf-blowers-lawn-mowers-and-fertilizer-how-lawns-contribute-to-climate-change-190726545.html

  2. Lawn History. Planet Natural Research Center. https://www.planetnatural.com/organic-lawn-care-101/history/

  3. Gilded Age. History Stories. https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/gilded-age

  4. Evas, Farrell. (2022, February 17). How the Perfect Lawn Became a Symbol of the American Dream. History Stories. https://www.history.com/news/lawn-mower-grass-american-dream

  5. (2022, June 23). IBISWorld. Landscaping Services in the US - Market Size 2002–2028. https://www.ibisworld.com/industry-statistics/market-size/landscaping-services-united-states/

  6. National Association of Landscape Professionals. Landscape Industry Statistics. https://www.landscapeprofessionals.org/LP/About/Industry-Statistics/LP/Media/landscape-industry-statistics.aspx#:~:text=The%20industry%20employs%20more%20than,average%20between%202016%20and%202021

  7. EPA. Course Outline and Key Points for Particle Pollution. https://www.epa.gov/pmcourse/course-outline-and-key-points-particle-pollution

  8. Milman, Oliver. (2022, January 5). ​​Tree-mendous news: noisy gas-powered leaf blowers banned in Washington DC. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jan/05/gas-leaf-blowers-banned-washington-dc

  9. https://wec.ifas.ufl.edu/extension/gc/harmony/landscaping/nativeandexotic.htm

  10. Root, Tik. (2021, June 30). Ditching grass could help your backyard thrive. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2021/06/30/climate-friendly-backyard/

  11. Berg, Nate. (2021, 28 October). This $105 billion design industry is built on the backs of underpaid labor. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90690895/this-105-billion-design-industry-is-built-on-the-backs-of-underpaid-labor

  12. Ingraham, Christopher. (2015, 4 August). Lawns are a Soul Crushing Timesuck and Most of Us Would Be Better Off Without Them. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/08/04/lawns-are-a-soul-crushing-timesuck-and-most-of-us-would-be-better-off-without-them/

  13. (2017). Lawn and Garden Pesticides. Beyond Pesticides. https://www.beyondpesticides.org/assets/media/documents/bp-fact-lawnpesticides.081817.pdf

  14. (2005, November 8). Ecological Impacts of Lawns. NASA, Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/Lawn/lawn3.php

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