The American Obsession with Lawns

Gimme Green

Eric Flagg and Isaac Brown (2007)

Film Review

Americans are more obsessed with lawns than any other nationality. Lawns are a comparatively new innovation associated with the boom in home ownership the US experienced in the mid-twentieth century. They were virtually unknown in 1900, when 75% of Americans rented their homes. In 2007 when this film was made, US wilderness was being converted to lawn at a rate of 5,000 acres per day.

In many cases, lawns are a middle class luxury imposed by local authorities determined to preserve neighborhood “property values.” In the film, a homeowner who has created a bird habitat out of trees and shrubs is ordered to cut them down.

Americans spend $40 billion a year maintaining their 41 million acres of lawn. The largest irrigated crop in the US, lawns consume 30,000 tons of pesticide yearly. And contrary to manufacturer claims, 17 of the 30 most commonly used pesticides end up in drinking water. Fifteen of them are possible or probable carcinogens. Children in families that use pesticides on their lawns have a 6.5 times greater risk of leukemia.

The water wasted on lawn maintenance is equally concerning. Forty to sixty percent of household water goes to landscaping, an average of 200 gallons per American per day.

Severe drought conditions are forcing California and the Southwest to rethink their lawn addition. In 1999, Las Vegas instituted a turf-rebate program that paid homeowners up to $1.50 per square foot to rip out their lawns. At present, the city bans grass front yards in new developments. Alternatives explored in the documentary are artificial (plastic turf) or natural desert landscapes.

My personal preference, climate permitting, is to convert lawns to edible landscape. My property was entirely lawn and ornamental shrubs when I first moved in. In eight years, I have replaced nearly all of it with fruit trees, perennial herbs and runner beans and vegetables.