Published on Thursday, July 9, 2009 by The Ottawa Citizen (Canada)

Farewell to the Lawn

by Leonard Stern

Social conformity just happens. We do things because they've always been done that way. How we live is shaped by a zillion unwritten rules and regulations. To ignore these inherited protocols is to run the risk of being labelled eccentric.

For Henry and Vera Jones, their refusal to conform amounts to downright anti-social behaviour, at least according to the strict codes of conduct in suburbia. The Joneses, as the Citizen reported this week, outed themselves as social radicals by publicly rejecting the ideal of a manicured lawn.

The couple have a big backyard in Constance Bay and some months ago decided to hell with watering, fertilizing, cutting and weeding. Henry is a former Fisheries and Oceans scientist who has some understanding of ecology, so he and Vera decided to create a natural green space in lieu of a lawn. They would let the grass grow, plant an assortment of butterfly-friendly plants and allow a mini-meadow to emerge.

The neighbours were not impressed. Someone complained to the city's bylaw officials, who then sent the Joneses a letter threatening to come down there and cut the grass if the couple didn't do it themselves. Unmowed lawns in Constance Bay will not be tolerated. The resistance must be put down. Order will be re-established.

The neighbours deny that this is about anyone's refusal to conform. They say the Jones garden is attracting too many insects and critters to the area and thus diminishing the ability of others to enjoy their own properties. Still, it's clear that the Joneses are in equal trouble for breaching a strict code of suburban etiquette. "It looks just awful," said one disapproving neighbour.

The central irony of suburbia is that we give the streets names like Meadow Grove and Orchard Drive while ensuring that all traces of meadows and orchards are erased. The appearance of an actual meadow is an act of rebellion.

More than a decade ago, the Canadian cultural critic Robert Fulford observed that the suburban lawn had become an instrument of public shaming and social control.

"[A] dandelion's appearance on a lawn indicates that Sloth has taken up residence in paradise and is about to spread evil in every direction," he wrote. Weeds demonstrate a "weakness of the soul," announcing to the world that "the owner of the house refuses to respect the neighbourhood's right to peace, order and good government."

They say that clothes express the man, but in fact it's the lawn that does. A large expanse of flat, weedless grass in front of your house conveys a bunch of social messages. It suggests discipline, an ability to tame the natural world. As Fulford says, lawns express an "imperialist personality."

The most interesting aspect of big green lawns, especially front lawns, is that they are unused pieces of property. Sure, the children might play on the grass while you wash the car in the driveway, but a lawn is generally a place devoid of activity. Lawns are not living space.

The Canadian-trained architect Rufina Wu has said that the lawn represents "an extreme devaluation of space." The artifice of suburban lawns requires a considerable investment of resources -- an investment in something that has mainly aesthetic value.

Lawns are examples of conspicuous consumption, and like other such symbols have status attached to them. The more wasteful your lifestyle, the more money you are seen to have.

Maintaining a large velvety front lawn is not as excessive as keeping a private jet or killing an elephant for its tusks, but it is a symbol of waste nonetheless.

Urban planners have begun to wonder whether the fetish for big green lawns is sustainable.

The lawn came about as an accessory to a particular style of living, namely, the detached single-family house. But single-family houses, and the sprawling suburbs they produced, where life revolves around the automobile, are becoming obsolete, owing to the scarcity and high cost of energy.

The need to build denser and more efficient communities could spell the end of the road for the big green lawn. The environmentalist impulse behind denser communities and smart living has already interfered with lawn culture, in the form of pesticide bans. Without chemicals, the effort required to maintain the equivalent of a putting green on your property becomes much harder.

For some homeowners, the cost of doing so, as measured in time and money, outweighs the benefit. Henry and Vera Jones seem to have arrived at that conclusion.

As we become more sensitive to how we live, it'll be interesting to see whether perfect lawns begin to acquire reverse status. The large manicured lawn could soon transform from a symbol of good taste and discipline into one of personal irresponsibility, a bit like owning a Hummer.

Right now the Joneses are being derided as non-conformist troublemakers. Someday, they might be hailed as trendsetters.

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