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BROWN IS THE NEW GREEN

It’s time to give up the great American institution of the front lawn

Logan Mack, right, races his father George with a toy lawnmower as the two manicure the family’s front lawn Tuesday Aug. 4, 2009 in Laramie, Wyo. (AP Photo/Laramie Boomerang, Andy Carpenean
AP Photo/Laramie Boomerang, Andy Carpenean
The end of an era?
  • Gwynn Guilford
By Gwynn Guilford

Reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

Los Angeles and 25 other southern California cities are paying their residents up to $6,000 to dig up their lawns and put in fake turf and woodchips—part of a bid to help meet the state’s mandatory reduction in water use issued in April. That comes out to about $2 per square foot of lawn replaced.

It’s easy to see why: During California’s summer dry season, 50-80% of residential water consumption comes from lawn care and other outdoor uses, reports the Los Angeles Times.

So far, the lawn replacement program has proven wildly popular. Since governor Jerry Brown’s executive order to cut urban water use, weekly lawn replacement applications more than tripled. The new plan adds another $350 million for rebates granted by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), which serves about 19 million people. Residents exhausted the original $100-million budget earlier this month.

AP Photo/Gregory Bull
A San Diego resident going the succulent route.

Municipal governments are enthusiastic too. On top of the MWD rebate, the Los Angeles water department is giving residents another $1.75 per square foot.

Fake turf is not the only alternative to grass. Replacement plants include drought-tolerant succulents, native shrubs and perennials, and even edible gardens (this gallery features some Los Angeles examples). Woodchips and decorative rocks are among the options for those ditching decorative plantlife altogether.

In southern California, at least, this could spell the end of the iconic American front lawn. The country’s lawn-care obsession finds its roots in the mass production of affordable mechanical mowers in the late 1800s, followed by the pioneering of ornamental turfgrass throughout the 1950s. But it was during the post-World War II period that the front lawn became fused with the idea of the “American dream.” The GI Bill’s home-purchase subsidies caused an explosion in (white) home ownership, and suburban enclaves sprouted up across the country.

Flickr user Ninian Reid (image has been cropped)
Living the American dream.

As these primly manicured emerald expanses swept the national landscape, they also became a symbol of both civic responsibility and class. In The Great Gatsby, for instance, the narrator’s unkempt lawn was a “scar on the face of suburbia,” as Michael Pollan put it in his 1989 essay criticizing the tyranny of the American lawn.

These days, front lawns cost Americans $40 billion a year to maintain, and are spread over about 50,000 square miles—the land area equivalent of the entire state of Alabama.

This vast swath of ornamentally maintained land is generally bad for the environment. A lawnmower generates more greenhouse gas emissions per hour than 11 cars, according to the Environmental Protection Agency; nitrous oxide emitted by fertilizer has 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, and lingers in the atmosphere for as long as 120 years. Swept into waterways, those fertilizers strip the water of oxygen, causing algal blooms and “dead zones” that kill freshwater and marine life.

Then, of course, there’s water use. Americans consume around 9 billion gallons of water a day on average on outdoor use—most of it watering their lawns. That’s more water than families use for showering and laundry combined. As populations rise, water needs will only get more taxing in many states:

US Environmental Protection Agency
Change in water usage vs. 2005.

Already, California is not the only drought-struck state. New York is experiencing the driest May since 1903:

NOAA/National Weather Service

Californians like to boast that they set America’s trends. Here’s hoping their woodchips-and-succulents landscaping chic catches on across the country.

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