America’s grass isn’t really green

A look into the origins of the front lawn and its ecological impact

On the surface, grass appears to signify humanity’s embrace of the natural world in our vast cities, but upon closer inspection grass is just another example of our refusal to cooperate with the world we live in. Our widespread cultivation of grass is illogical, unnatural and wildly wasteful. 

Not native to North America, modern grass was brought by European colonists to feed their livestock. The idea of cultivating grass outside the context of raising livestock spread simply because it was a sign of status — growing a lawn was extremely difficult and costly. The spread of grass lawns in the US started in the late 19th century before the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. If you had the time and resources to either grow grass or hire someone to do it for you, you were rich. The front lawn was nothing more than a boast of wealth. 

Real estate developer William Levitt invented the uniform suburb layout, giving homeowners pamphlets with strict requirements on the care of their lawns. This was meant to further increase conformity and to pacify the masses. In Levitt’s own words, “no man who owns his house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.” 

Grass became a symbol of post-war suburban expansion and conformity, which deepened our reliance on cars and widespread highway systems and increased American reliance on material comforts. Most importantly, however, suburban expansion exacerbated economic and physical racial divides: non-white Americans weren’t allowed to buy houses in suburbs, physically separating them from white families and allowing redlining to occur, systematically keeping them in poverty. This is the front lawn’s legacy: it originated as a symbol of wealth and progressed to become conformist, segregational and a tool to suppress political activism. 

Although it has a history rooted in some of the dark foundations of US history, what is more relevant today is its ecological impact. Non-native, inedible and essentially useless, grass is the most widely irrigated crop in the country. Ironically, we no longer even use it for the one thing it was originally meant to be used for, feeding livestock.  Instead, we raise livestock in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) with grassless floors, feeding them mostly corn.

The most obvious ecological concern is the material inputs needed to support grass growth. According to Columbia University, grass accounts for 3060% of urban freshwater use. In a time where our freshwater sources are being rapidly depleted, notably the Colorado River and aquifers nationwide, this glaring waste of water is unjustifiable. Grass lawns also typically require vast amounts of nitrogen-based fertilizers, which are an ecological disaster. Manufacturing them releases about four to five tons of carbon dioxide per ton of fertilizer, according to Princeton University. Additionally, once the fertilizer is on the lawn, soil microbes break it down into nitrous oxide, a very potent greenhouse gas. The runoff of fertilizers is also a huge concern: according to Princeton University, 4060% of fertilizer ends up in waterways, causing nutrient pollution and subsequent die offs due to algae blooms. Lastly, gas lawn mowers are emission factories, representing about five percent of all annual emissions nationwide.  

Another relevant issue is the massive amounts of pesticides applied to lawns. According to the D.C. based nonprofit Beyond Pesticides, around 66% of American households use pesticides, and use them at a significantly higher concentration than agriculture (households average around 310 pounds per acre, while agriculture averages 2.7). Shorewood residents have a strong responsibility to reduce pesticide use as we live in the watershed of a beautiful and valuable freshwater source, and freshwater ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to pesticides. Collectively, those living near the Great Lakes have failed at this responsibility. A recent study published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry sheds light on the extent of pesticide pollution in Great Lake tributaries like the Milwaukee River, finding new evidence of high pesticide levels in the water year round. 

The ecological consequences of pesticide application are widespread and costly. Bees, crucial in about a third of our food production and essential to ecosystems worldwide, have been dying off in staggering numbers. This is partially due to Colony Collapse Disorder, which is caused by pesticides. When rain carries pesticides into water, aquatic ecosystems can also be disrupted. As predators consume prey lower on the food chain, the concentration of these chemicals increases, a process known as bioaccumulation. This can lead to reproductive issues in aquatic animals, and can have health impacts on humans who consume contaminated fish. Pesticides also have a plethora of health effects on humans: many are endocrine disruptors or neurotoxins, causing cancer and negative reproductive effects. Consider whether you really care enough about your little patch of grass to continue letting your families and pets roll around in cancer spray. Stopping pesticide application will benefit you and the ecosystems we rely on.

Knowing some of the environmental consequences of lawns, and understanding what grass represents within our society, hopefully you are considering ways to mitigate your impact. There are two main ways to make meaningful changes: replacing as much grass as possible in your lawn and minimizing the resources you pour into your grass. 

Replacing grass with native vegetation is a fantastic option; it is more resource-efficient as native plants are adapted to their region’s conditions, meaning they don’t need to be watered or cared for once they are established. Additionally, since pollinators have evolved in tandem with native plants, your new lawn will be much better for pollinators than non-native grass. Native grasses also tend to have deeper root systems than conventional lawns, which makes them more durable and makes your soil more resistant to erosion. You could plant more native flowers and bushes along the border of your garden, minimizing the area covered by grass, or fully replace your lawn with a native ground cover. There are countless native ground cover varieties in Wisconsin, such as Blue Grama, Buffalograss and Canada Wild Ginger. Aside from the vast array of ecological benefits, these lawn alternatives also provide a beautiful look that deviates from the traditional lawns that come with a dark history. 

If you are unwilling or unable to replace your entire grass lawn, there are plenty of ways to make your lawn more sustainable. The easiest is to not apply pesticides. Also, the common practice of No Mow May should be extended — if you want to maximize the sustainability of your grass, consider No Mow Ever (absolutely minimize the frequency that you mow). The more you mow grass, the less water it can retain, and the more you spew gas and pollutants into the air around you. This will also allow your grass to be a better habitat for pollinators. Another strategy is to replace some of your lawn space with a raised-bed vegetable garden. Why not move resources from a completely useless crop to one that can provide you with delicious, organic veggies? 

Grass is a prime example of how wildly misguided our modern society is, representing rampant wastefulness so aggressively ingrained in our culture that we must stare it in the face every time we venture outside. We drain the earth of water, spit toxic gas into the air, spray chemicals designed to kill that end up in our homes and waterways and disrupt the pollinator populations fundamental to the food systems that sustain us, all just to care for our grass. A relic of a dark time, the idealistic front lawn symbolizes the segregationist, conformist foundation of suburbs, as well as a means to pacify the masses and discourage political involvement. Consider replacing your lawn or simply reduce its ecological footprint by minimizing resource inputs. Your lawn is a burden on the natural world and cannot be justified.