Lawns: A Status Symbol or an Opportunity to Protect the Environment?

2022-08-04

 |  Biodiversity/Conservation

As you walk through your local neighborhood, community park, or across the golf course this summer, one perplexing similarity amongst urban green spaces worldwide is the well-maintained patches of luscious green grass that blanket the ground: lawns. The practice of lawn maintenance has been embedded into the lives of many across the globe, but have you ever stopped and wondered why?

A Brief History of Lawns

Historically, the concept of a lawn began in Europe during the Middle Ages, where vast areas surrounding castles were hand cut using scythes, serving the purpose of protection against approaching intruders. In contrast, other landowners used their space as grazable land for livestock. Over time, those with wealth and power began to use these well-maintained spaces for leisure through different sports such as lawn bowling, tennis, or extravagant gardens. This is where the concept of a well-maintained lawn turned into a symbol of social status that still exists today.

In North America, the land was largely unaltered as it was used by indigenous peoples for hunting and gathering. As colonists settled, they brought livestock, grasses, and seeds that then cultivated the land in Canada. Similar to Europe at this point in history, grasses were used for agricultural or leisure/sporting events. By the late 1800s, technological advancements led to the first push lawn mower, which was soon powered. The use of lawns was still reserved for those who had the wealth and time to care for them. This would soon change.The presence of lawns boomed in the post-WW2 era when the growing middle class gained greater economic benefits such as access to affordable housing, personal transportation, and leisure. This led to a major socio-cultural shift, reflected by increased sales of lawn mowers, pesticides, and newspaper articles focusing on lawn or garden tips and tricks. This created a strong social significance and lawn maintenance was normalized in our daily lives. Today, many municipalities have rules and regulations surrounding lawn maintenance. In the United States, lawns are considered the largest irrigated crop with the primary purpose of aesthetics.

Unseen Histories Unsplash 

How does lawn care impact the environment?

From a lawn maintenance perspective, the ideal conditions for a lawn include a monoculture of a non-native grass species that is kept well maintained, cut low to the ground, and maintained with pesticides to prevent pests and unwanted weeds. In contrast, this type of lawn maintenance results in an ecosystem that is unproductive and has very clear negative impacts on invertebrate and plant diversity, soil degradation, and pollution of the environment.

One study by Watson et al. (2019) discussed the loss of plant diversity results in the loss of pollinating insects, which results in a trophic cascade where the dynamic interactions in food webs are disrupted and thus negatively impact all the organisms in that ecosystem. In addition to the loss of diversity, intensive lawn maintenance practices also cause impacts on soil. Watson et al. (2019) found that intensive lawn maintenance practices with reduced soil enrichment resulted in higher soil temperatures and moisture loss, all leading to the overall degradation and resilience of urban soils.Lawn maintenance often requires enormous amounts of resources including water, being a very important resource at risk with the growing pressures of climate change and the increased prevalence of droughts and wildfires. Maintenance practices increase toxins in the environment through the use of fossil fuels used to power lawn mowers or other lawn tools producing harmful emissions, while chemicals used in pesticides or fertilizers leach into waterways. In Canada, approximately 150 million liters of gasoline are used for lawn maintenance each year. Not only are these negative impacts on the environment, but they are also major economic expenditures for landowners or municipalities.

Joe Schelling  IUCN

An example of how our actions are influencing biodiversity hits home this year, impacting a nationally iconic butterfly across the Americas. As of July 21st, 2022, one of the world’s most recognizable butterflies, the Monarch butterfly, is now classified as an endangered species that is at risk of extinction. This is largely a result of habitat destruction that reduces the availability of native milkweed species that act as the host plant, serving as a shelter and essential food source, thus playing a vital role in the Monarch butterfly’s life cycle. 

Challenging Current Lawn Practices

Now that there is an understanding of how lawns have become normalized and the environmental impacts they have, it is essential to advocate for positive change. One positive movement titled ‘No Mow May’ encourages homeowners to refrain from mowing their lawns during May to allow for spring flowering plants to flourish, providing shelter and the first nutrients for awakening pollinators. This is only a start. Check out some of the following options to promote sustainable practices in your personal or local green space:

  • Utilize CANPLANT where you can find native plant species that you can incorporate in your garden or for lawn-alternative plant species. You can even use this website tool to identify native plants in Canada.
  • Consider looking into the Wildlife-friendly Habitat Certification through the Canadian Wildlife Federation. This is beneficial to wildlife including migratory birds and butterflies, but it also generates awareness in your local community.
  • Create an edible landscape! Find out your plant hardiness zone and research fruits, vegetables, herbs, and more that are best suited for growing in your area. 
  • Explore low-maintenance and low-resource intensive landscape techniques such as xeriscaping or meadowscaping to transform your personal or local green spaces. 

Did you know that there are approximately 6.2 million lawns in Canada, making up approximately 52,600 hectares of land? By breaking down the historical and ecological links surrounding lawns, the societal perspectives and practices need to be more accountable and sustainable, changing at an individual landowner level all the way to landscape architecture. A shift toward nature-based solutions would contribute to the battle against biodiversity loss and create more sustainable urban environments and communities for the future.

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