The absurdity of lawn enforcement
And the enduring nature of its cultural baggage
I once had a friend from university who expressed disdain for dogs.
“They are complete bastardizations of wolves. Look what we humans have done to this noble species” he would retort whenever a small yappy dog was in sight.
While I do not share their disdain for dogs, I do know the feeling because I have the same sort of disdain for lawns. They are boring, weak, useless, and in addition they require constant care and attention. Just absolute freeloaders of the urban realm.
On a slightly less outrageous tone, the widespread use of uniform grass as a default softscape material in our urban streets and parks irks me. I am not against a well-placed lawn, but some of it is incredibly dysfunctional, so much so that it needs replacement every single year. So why do we keep on building things like this in Toronto?
As with all thoughts that gnaw on me, I decided to dig into the history of lawn culture to see what fun stuff I could find on its continued enduring presence in the psyche of North American culture.
The very, very short and unverified history of lawns
Proto-lawns started out as a naturally-occurring phenomenon on Earth. All you needed was grass and animals to graze on them.
Mentioned in the likely oldest book in Japan on gardening, “Sakuteiki” (1159) describes harvesting sod from established grazing grounds in Japan and relocated to be closer to people’s homes, shrines, businesses
In Europe where castles and fortifications existed on the top of hills for better sightlines of approaching enemies, cutting down trees and keeping the grass low was a matter of practicality and survival.
Over time as sieges ceased to happen, the turf transitioned from practical to a recreational function. There are references of lawn bowling, cricket, and golf in the 1300 and onwards.
The word “lawn” “is a cognate of Welsh llan which is derived from the Common Brittonic word landa (Old French: lande) that originally meant heath, barren land, or clearing. (Wikipedia)
The image of the picturesque English garden started taking form around the 1700s when rich land owners would design elaborate gardens surrounding their estates that would take a lot of manpower to maintain. Having a meticulous lawn became a symbol of wealth. It either required much livestock to graze, or had to be cut by hand with a scythe, both a byproduct of being wealthy.
The sales pitch for lawns in North America
The lawn, the way we see them appear in North American urbanism, has deep roots in suburban culture.
The prevalent idea that the best decorative gardening is simply an imitation of pleasing natural scenery, is partially incorrect. If an imitation of Nature were the only aim, if she were simply to be left alone, or repeated, then a prairie, a wild forest, an oak-opening, a jungle, or a rocky scene, would only need to be inclosed to seem a perfect example of landscape gardening. All these forms of Nature have their peculiar beauties, and yet these very beauties, when brought into connection with our dwellings, are as incongruous as the picturesqueness of savage human life in streets or parlours.
– Victorian Gardens: The art of beautifying suburban home grounds, by Frank J. Scott (1870)
Written as a self-help book for the woefully unsophisticated keeper of a “small grounds” aka the suburban home owner, the book Victorian Gardens: The art of beautifying suburban home grounds outlines the moral duty of man to channel the spirit of all that made civilization superior by, amongst other things, tending to their lawns. Visions of rural pasture were generously used in the design of parks like Central Park in NYC. These pastoral-themed urban dioramas quickly became the symbol of man’s mastery of harnessed nature vis-à-vis the industrious urban spectacle. Within the belief that man-made structures were always fighting the entropic nature of, well, nature, landscape gardening as popularized by Central Park was heralded as a middle-ground of harmony. Lawns make up nearly half of Central Park’s 860-ish acres of land that it covers. Maintaining lawns, a rather coveted landscape feature, in ones own yard became a proxy for mastery of cultured life and household.
And within this context, the book was conceived.
We believe this kind of half-country, half-town life, is the happy medium, and the realizable ideal for the great majority of well-to-do Americans… A suburban home, therefore, meets the wants of refined and cultured people more than any other.
The book is a true product of its age, born out of a rising popularity in suburban homes that were sold as blank canvases for any man’s dream for harmony. The suburban home is the cultural halfway point between the crowded urban areas and countryside estates. Full of zingers like the “town-sick business man who longs for a rural home” and “a smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban home”, the book paints a desire for suburban culture which conveniently combines country comforts and city convenience in one package, with the lawn as its highly prized wrapper that only the well-to-do could afford to properly maintain.
Manure, Mow and Maintain
The last line is worth keeping in mind, because lawns are absolute nuisances to maintain. Maintenance tips for lawns in the 1870s remind me of how we design roads today for the largest of vehicles possible:
The advice to plant so as to leave sufficient breadth to swing a scythe wherever there is any lawn at all, is none the less useful, though the admirable little hand-mowing machines take the place of a scythe; for a piece of lawn in a place where a scythe cannot be swung, is not worth maintaining.
Yes, don’t even bother planting grass where the diameter of a scythe cannot be swung. This practical piece of advice exposes the sort of coded language that was embedded in places of privilege like the original burbs. This is no place for half measures! One’s inability to maintain grass—to have time to mow it at least once a week, and to water and feed ones lawn with only the best of manure for a healthy rich green carpet—became (and still is!) equivalent to a failing of character. The appearance of calm and collectedness as a homeowner, which can naturally occur through relaxation, is here achieved through lavish resource expenditure or gritted teeth or both. I fantasize policy wonks and engineers of the day drinking the kool-aid of the moral imperative of neat lawns, while they write up policies to enshrine such ideas in by-laws…
The state of suburban values, >100 years later
Which brings me to the current state of affairs, where at work I find myself occasionally instructed to consult the DIPS for design reference of a typical residential road. What the heck is DIPS you say? Oh, it’s Toronto code language for
Development Infrastructure Policy and Standards.
And it sounds about as exciting as it is to read. Yet, it has a hugely important role of providing the standard for all future residential street designs within the City of Toronto. This document from 2005 partially answers my question of why we keep on rolling out the same tired designs for public sidewalk design with lawns separating sidewalks from roadway and private property. This design pattern is enshrined in the instructions that contractors have to follow when building public roads. I have not the time to dig deeper into the history of DIPS to see where they drew inspiration from, but because it was a product of standardizing how residential streets ought to look like in Toronto, and because Toronto’s surface area consists of over 60% single family homes built with an eye towards the suburban aesthetic, I am taking grand liberties to assume that this design modelled the best ideas from the quintessential Torontonian suburb, lawns and all.
How this turns out in dense neighbourhoods like the one I live in is illustrated by the first photo you saw above. Dead grass, year after year. Winters are no joke here in Toronto, so don’t be surprised when heavy vehicles meant to plow sidewalks also gouge the sod on corners of high traffic.
Not only is the design of these urban sidewalks quite inadequate for heavily-trafficked areas, they invite extreme efforts to protect the poor grass from use which just ends up being more of a pedestrian obstruction and another kind of visual eyesore:
This fence has been up for a year now, and the grass has still not recovered fully. How much must we endure collectively to protect this fragile, one-dimensional piece of infrastructure?
Glimpses of a possible lawn-free future
It really need not be this way, as bioswale projects from Seattle prove:
Or what about this dream project that replaced all lawn with pollinator-friendly plants?
In fact, perhaps things are about to change in Toronto as well, because they do have a pilot program called Green Streets which already look a ton better than the current DIPS. However, the final results of the pilot are in and there’s still no word on how the learnings from this will improve DIPS. Because in Toronto, everything has to be studied again and again, at least until many million dollars and years have been spent to consider the issue.
What if we did the opposite, but to the same effect?
An interesting tactic you can implement here is the "anti-pilot." When you run a pilot program, you test something with a group of users to get feedback. With an anti-pilot, you remove the feature and see if anyone notices. If you don't get a lot of complaints, it's a strong indicator that the feature wasn't adding as much value as you may have thought. (Tweet on quote from Sam Coros)
Could we simply phase out lawns in DIPS and see if anyone even notices? Pssst: if you’re from the City of Toronto, feel free to steal this idea!!
Our lingering obsession with lawns comes from a mentality of virtue-signalling between the suburban middle class in the 1800s and earlier, and it’s nonsensical that we’ve carried this empty symbol for so long. Lawns are great in some applications but are also biodiversity-deficient and damaging as distilled water is to our bodies. Lawns are akin to fragile dog breeds that are sadly known for poor health and constitution. Poorly-kept lawns are a failure not on the part of the groundskeeper but on the policy maker who made it part of the city-wide standard. They are inherently a subtractive element of our urban realms, contributing little to nothing to the livability of the place, quality of life of residents, and durability of the infrastructure.
But, tomorrow is another day, and the suburban street design standard of DIPS is enforced even in new projects anno 2022. I continue to have to draw them, as well as endure their many faults and defects in my neighbourhood, though I hope things change soon.
Thank you for reading all the way through my rant on lawns! What’s your urban environmental pet peeve that you wish your city just fix already?
Give this letter a ❤️ if you enjoyed it (and do share the letter with friends who may appreciate it too!)
Until next time, stay safe and stay curious.
PS; There’s also something to be said about the resistance that suburban home owners have to their neighbours converting their lawns to pollinator gardens, meadows, or even vegetable patches. Opposers take their fight to the city, where laws are written that unkempt lawns must immediately be dealt with. Luckily some people win these fights over the lawn zealots, but I wonder about all the unpublished examples where homeowners were bullied into keeping their lawns for the sake of appearances.