Now grass lawns are pretty to look at, and nice to walk and sit on. But just because lawns are traditional does not mean that they are always a good idea. Honestly, I think most people have lawns these days because their neighbors have lawns. While lawns are traditional, they can also cause a host of unfortunate environmental problems that invisibly affect our quality of life.
Lawn maintainence uses a lot of harmful chemicals. Many pesticides kill beneficial insects as well as pests. Further, pesticides can also affect human health. To give one example, atrazine is a very common herbicide linked to a number of reproductive and fertility problems in animals ranging from frogs and mice to humans. Such chemicals often wash into drinking water supplies as well. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from lawn fertilizer often pollutes nearby lakes and streams after heavy rains.
Lawns require a lot of water. In dry regions like California and the Southwest, lawns are a wasteful use of limited water supplies.
Lawns replace native landscapes without providing ecosystem services. Lawns don’t support the number and diversity of plant and animal species found in natural spaces.
In many cases, we could replace lawns to create spaces that are healthier for people as well as the local ecosystem. People could grow food by replacing lawns with gardens. If the soil has high concentrations of toxins, certain kinds of plants are able to clean the soil by accumulating those toxins in their leaves and stems. Or, we could use lawns as mini-pasture for a goat, sheep, or cow.
Now, some of these ideas may not be as pretty as a manicured lawn.
Historically, only the wealthy could afford expanses of ornamental grass. Before the invention of lawn mowers, lawn maintenance required a lot of human labor in addition to excess land. For these reasons, lawns are a status symbol. Lawns used to be a form of conspicuous consumption, like owning a Rolex watch or a Louis Vuitton bag. But that’s not true anymore as most homeowners have a lawn these days. I think it makes sense to consider alternatives to lawns that are more beneficial to local ecosystems and human health.