Big Green Waste

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Turf Grass Welcome Mat
mC:t    2015.07.03    #makecalgarytalk


Why do we all have lawns?


Or, at the very least, an estimated 80%[1] of Albertan homeowners do. This question is not particularly new. We have been asking it for at least two decades, in various iterations, in our print and TV media, both locally and nationally[2]. And yet, we still all have lawns, and the trend for lawn ownership seems to be steadily rising. Between 2001 and 2006, Statistics Canada shows an estimated 24% increase in the amount of land that we devote to growing turf grass [3], to be transplanted onto residential lawns, beside sidewalks, and on street medians. For such a prevalent part of our residential and suburban landscape, what value do we actually get from it?


Tableaux Vivants


Lawns are costly, time- and labour-intensive, and go largely unused for the majority of the year.  They represent at least half of the land that single family homeowners own – at least 55%, according to Calgary’s zoning laws for RC-1 lots[4]. We mow them, on average, twice a month for half of the year, and we double our consumption of water – clean, drinkable, sanitized water – for that same half of the year. The majority of these lawns are also covered in fertilizer and chemicals, in order to make sure they remain free from any other species, undisturbed by animal or insect life while they grow. In return for all of this hard work, we essentially get an outdoor rug – it looks nice, and people can walk on it to get to our houses. We don’t eat it, we don’t play on it particularly often, so why are we so attached to grass?


The English Picturesque may be largely to blame for our love of lawns. The movement convinced Britons that there was beauty and value in the landscapes of their country, which they could only truly understand through a thorough understanding of painting and art. A whole generation of landscape architects and professional gardeners began to change the fields of upper class estates into “tableaux vivants”[5], rather than the enclosures and pastures of previous eras. The lower classes, wanting to improve their status and emulate the nation’s richest, began to adopt similar fashions in gardening, at a somewhat reduced scale. It was in this period that lawns became more than pastoral fields, and became the strictly ornamental patches we are familiar with today [6] . It is safe to say that Calgarians are more than a step removed from this tradition, in terms of their home ownership.The vast majority of new suburban developments in the city do not design their turf grass based on the “painterly eye” and “tableaux vivants” espoused by the Picturesque movement.


Modern Picturesque
A modern Picturesque alternative?


Rather, what we see sitting in front of the vast majority of our homes is result of the eventual commodification of both of the picturesque ideal. In order to become available to a larger majority, the gardens of the English countryside have been scaled back, and simplified to fit the means, the effort, and the technical expertise of the average individual. Turf grass can be maintained without the help of an experienced farmer or groundskeeper, and with very little agricultural labour from anyone. In aggressively scaling back the English estates that serve as the distant models of our modest lawns, we have also lost any of the meaning or utility associated with them. Why not, then, acknowledge that neither of these models really makes sense as a starting point for suburban landscaping, and, instead, try to understand what would work better?


productive front garden spaces?
An individual alternative – a mixture of herbs, shrubbery, grasses, and small trees.


A steady stream of articles, TV and News sources, and government studies that have suggested alternatives to the traditional turf grass lawn. Almost everyone, from Michelle Obama to CTV news to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, has made suggestions as to better alternatives to turf grass lawns. I will not endeavor to go into excessive detail about these alternatives, since they have already been written about profusely [7]. More importantly, they only go as far as offering alternative products to turf grass, which really do not go far beyond replacing one species with another. Instead, I would like to ask; what are we trying to achieve by obsessively cultivating grass?


A communal alternative to turf grass?
A communal alternative to turf grass?


By asking what we want grass for in the first place, we can begin to understand what we really need out of the land that we own, and from the communities that we build. Instead of continuing to copy the 1950s suburban patterns of development, maybe we can begin to understand, in the year 2015 and beyond, what we want the land that we own to do for us. Do we all need our own individual lawns, or can we be just as happy aggregating the same amount of space as a larger, communally-shared lawn, large and flexible enough for the entire community to enjoy together? Designing at a community level, rather than at an individual one, creates the opportunity for larger, more impactful interventions, and the potential to give a whole community something greater than anything that one individual could do on their own property. With the vast majority of new suburban developments being built by a single developer, rather than a mass of individual interests building on single plots of land, a more community-oriented strategy is entirely possible.



Next: Coming soon…
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[1] Statistics Canada, Households and the Environment Survey 2006. “Households with a Lawn or Garden, 2006.” Statistics Canada. June 24, 2015.
[2] See footnote [7]
[3] Statistics Canada, 2007, EnviroStats, volume 1, number 2, “Canadian lawns and gardens: Where are they the ‘greenest’?,” catalogue number 16-002-XWE.

[4] Calgary Land Use Bylaw. 1P2007, Part 5, Division 3, 393.

[5] Marshall, David. “The Problem of the Picturesque” Eighteenth-Century Studies 35:3 (2002): 413-437

[6] Miall, David S. “Representing the Picturesque: William Gilpin and the Laws of Nature”. ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 12 (2005): 75-93

[7] A few of the many articles that offer turf grass alternatives:

Harris, Susan. “Low Maintenance Alternatives to Lawns” Fine Gardening 132.  Retrieved June 24, 2015.

Lehmusvirta, Linda. “Get off the Grass: Say Goodbye to Weekly Mowing Duties With these Eco-friendly Grass Alternatives” Rodale’s Organiclife. March 4, 2011. Retrieved June 24, 2015.

Whysall, Steve. “Lawn Alternatives: the Great Grass Switchover” The Vanvouver Sun. April 11, 2013. Retrieved June 24, 2015.

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