Lawns & Climate Change

Lawns and Climate Change: How We Can Sacrifice Vanity for Salvation

Since the advent of civilization, people have been altering their environment to accommodate their specific needs. Examples like roads, sewage, power grids, and irrigation all demonstrate the capability of engineering to problem solve. An intense amount of planning, designing, testing, and perfecting goes into ensuring that these systems we set in place function the way we need them to one hundred percent of the time. As time goes on, engineers re-imagine the way these solutions operate when new issues surface as a result of discoveries of our impact on each other and our planet. Another side of engineering that often functions with these goals of public service in mind is the aesthetics of these systems. Obviously systems like power grids and sewage pipes that are underground demand this less, but when systems that do meet the public eye are required, landscape architects are often called upon to make sure they don’t become a total eye-sore. When New York City’s population quadrupled in the early-to-mid-19th century, city planners sought to create a space for people to congregate, and Central Park was born from the collective mind of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux (Rosenzweig, Blackmar 25).

It was later in the 19th century that European and French influence on landscape architecture started to be seen more frequently in America (Jenkins 45). The green grass lawn started to take the place of produce gardens that were often found in the front of a home and much like Olmstead and Vaux did with Central Park, Americans created their lawns with beauty in mind (47). Sadly, most Americans did not have the resources or the servitude to maintain a perfectly manicured, one-and-a-half-inch tall lawn, and their lawns would frequently suffer—it was often considered easiest to just restart the lawn every year (52)! Although tools like lawnmowers and sprinklers existed, they were often unobtainable for those less wealthy. The distinction between those who could and could not afford to maintain a lawn became part of the purpose of owning a lawn—to demonstrate one’s wealth and status. To present day, this quality of owning a lawn holds. A 2018 joint report from the National Association of Landscape Professionals and the National Association of Realtors states that there is a 267% return on investment from lawn care services towards property value. Despite this huge potential for increasing property value, a side of lawn care that is often ignored is the huge environmental impact that it has.

One of the most eye-opening statistics regarding this is the fact that lawns are the most irrigated crop in the entire country and take up more square mileage than any other irrigated crop—about 40 million acres (Milesi et al). That’s 40 million acres of space dedicated to serving an individual need for increased property value and demonstration of wealth. Those 40 million acres require excessive amounts of water, synthetic fertilizers, and gas-powered equipment just to serve the vanity of the landowner. With this in mind, re-imagining the lawn is necessary to reduce the negative impact that they have on our planet and our planets co-inhabitants (namely pollinators, like bees, who are dying at alarming rates), and this reworking would have a huge potential to not just offset the impact but be beneficial in our fight to combat the climate crisis.

Water scarcity is an unspoken problem in America. When Flint, Michigan switched its source of water to the Flint River to save on municipal spending, extremely high amounts of lead in the water led to it being unsafe for use, and it took nearly six years for this problem to be solved (Keller). While this event gained significant media attention, it still took way too long for the citizens of Flint to receive access to what ought to be regarded as a right.

This is not an isolated incident. Water scarcity is defined as when a country or region has water levels less than 1,000 m3/person/year; however, many regions face even more significant struggles with levels lower than 500 m3/person/year. Multiple countries in northern Africa, the Middle East, and southern Asia, such as Egypt, India, and Saudi Arabia are all considered to be near or below the level of 1,000 m3/person/year. This level of water scarcity has a significant impact outside of the need for clean drinking water; irrigation suffers, which leads to insufficient food production and increased levels of poverty due to a lack of agriculture as a profitable means of production. Additionally, a lack of clean water does not mean people go without drinking water—they just settle for unclean water, which has been proven to have adverse health effects due to bacteria and other contaminants (Pereira et al. 2).

Increasing quality of life and the impacts of climate change force wealthy nations to increase their water usage, and as a result, water-stressed and water-scarce nations and regions suffer even more (3). As previously mentioned, lawns are the most heavily irrigated crop in America, and as they require excessive amounts of water and return nothing but vanity, they are a slap in the face to the approximately 1,200,000,000 people that live in water-stressed areas (Miháliková, Dengiz). These people would be able to combat their issues with sufficient infrastructure, but lack the means to upgrade towards that goal, partially due to the impact that water scarcity has on their economy (Pereira et al. 5). Countries that have significant wealth and resources, such as America, are very capable of aiding them in their efforts but prioritize themselves, and the American lawn is one of the simplest and least justifiable instances that demonstrates the selfishness of affluent society.

According to a 2007 report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is a 90% chance that climate change is caused by human activity. Lawnmowers, hedge trimmers, and leaf blowers are all instruments used in the maintenance of lawns, and the amount of gasoline required to power this machinery emits high levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The National Audubon Society paints an image that captures this beautifully: “Picture this familiar scene in cities and suburbs across America: Landscape crews jump out of giant eight-cylinder trucks and rev up a variety of mowers, leaf blowers, and other gas-guzzling engines—all in the name of maintaining our green yards”. According to an Environmental Protection Agency study, these small, off-road engines (SOREs) often significantly outnumber cars and account for 4 percent of CO2 emissions nationwide—just from California alone. Although lawns are often described as carbon sinks due to their ability to convert CO2 into oxygen, this benefit is offset by the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by SOREs during the maintenance of lawns, and thus the idea of a carbon sink is a myth (Son).

Pollinators like bees are dying rapidly, and the use of available land for spaces like lawns severely limits their sources of food, fueling their demise. Honey bees are the single most important crop pollinator and are essential for the prosperity of farmers worldwide, and consequently the production of food (Suryanarayanan et al. 2). Alarmingly, nearly 40% of honey bee colonies did not survive the winter of 2019, which is the greatest loss since tracking began nearly 15 years ago (Neilson). Among other reasons, key causes of this were a lack of habitat and weakened immune systems due to pesticides—which are often used in domestic lawns and gardens. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the bee population has been in constant decline for nearly three decades, and as pollinators are responsible for nearly one of every three bites of food we take, this has intense implications for the impact society will face if this trend continues. The tie between pollinators dying and lawns is undeniable, and the existence of lawns as we know them has become less and less justifiable. To erase the negative impact on our environment without heavily infringing on the American philosophy of liberty and rights to property, other options must be explored.
In 2008, the Landscape Institute issued a position statement that acknowledges the importance and potential of landscape architecture in combating climate change. Their key assertion is as follows: “The Landscape Institute calls for the work of landscape architects to be recognized as critical in the fight against climate change. To this end, far greater appreciation is needed of the holistic approach that landscape architecture represents and its fundamental importance in securing our sustainable future. Our vision is of a world that has adapted to climate change and where further changes are mitigated.” In essence, recognizing the impact that landscape architecture (i.e. lawns) has on climate change is crucial, and an effort must be made towards creating more sustainable practices in their field (no pun intended).

In her book Eco-yards: Simple Steps to Earth-Friendly Landscapes, Laureen Rama provides the reader with what the title suggests: simple steps to creating a sustainable lawn that has a positive impact on the Earth, which she refers to as an “eco-yard”. Rama describes eco-yards as “a landscape… with a full, rich ecosystem that is healthy and alive. At the very least, an eco-yard causes no harm in its presence… at [its] best, an eco-yard enhances and restores the natural environment.” There are five key aspects of an eco-yard: a full ecosystem, diversity of plant and animal life, co-creation with nature, a variety of designs, and sustainability. In my opinion, the two most important features are co-creation and sustainability. Oftentimes, if not always, the impact on our environment caused by lawns is due to the necessity of controlling nature rather than working with it. The eco-yard aims to create not just a display of nature’s beauty, but also a functional home for pollinators, plants, animals, and micro-organisms.
The importance of pollinators has already been discussed, but another essential aspect of the livelihood of nature and thus humans are micro-organisms (Rama 21). Also known as microbes, these microscopic beings hold a symbiotic relationship with plants: plants release foods for them to eat, and the microbes make essential soil nutrients available to the plants. Chemical pesticides kill these microbes and thus harm the plants as well (23). The animals that pesticides aim to deter are essential to a sustainable, self-regulating ecosystem, and microbes are essential to the life of plants and (as plants are involved in one way or another in almost all food production) human life.
A sustainable alternative to pesticides that helps plants remain healthy even in the face of pests is compost. Compost will help promote the livelihood of the essential microbes needed for healthy plant life, and healthy plants will remain perennial—meaning they will live during the winter and re-bloom every year. To summarize: an eco-yard is a self-sustaining ecosystem that serves as an alternative to a heavily maintained lawn or garden that usually consists of hardy grasses that require little water or maintenance, perennial flower beds (which can be quite gorgeous for those concerned about the appearance of an eco-yard), and other potential homes for important animals and insects that find their niche in your garden (27). To quote Rama one last time, “In an eco-yard, the desirable plants and insects keep the undesirable ones in check.” If a carbon sink were to truly exist, it would likely find its shape in the form of the eco-yard, free of all of the damaging effects of heavy lawn maintenance.

Despite their beauty and seemingly natural existence, lawns and their maintenance pose an unnecessary threat to our planet. Demanding water in the face of widespread water scarcity, the death of pollinators, and excessive burning of fossil fuels are all unavoidable consequences of the current existence of our beloved lawns. If we were to successfully reform the way we approach lawns to incorporate more eco-friendly tactics, not only would people be able to keep their lawns, but they would also be helping save our planet from the impending climate crisis. Eco-yards are an incredible place for gardeners and the likes to start, and understanding the impact our actions have on our environment is a must. A compromise must be made if we are to mitigate our effect on the climate, as our current approach is far from sustainable, and vanity must be sacrificed in the face of impending doom.

Works Cited
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IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K and Reisinger, A. (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 104 pp.
Jenkins, Virginia Scott. The Lawn: a History of an American Obsession. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.
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National Association of Realtors. 2018 Remodeling Impact Report: Outdoor Features. National Association of Realtors Research Department. 2018.
Neilson, Susie. “More Bad Buzz For Bees: Record Number Of Honeybee Colonies Died Last Winter.” NPR, NPR, 19 June 2019,
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Rosenzweig, Roy, and Elizabeth Blackmar. The Park and the People: a History of Central Park. Cornell University Press, 1998.
Son, Jiahn. “Lawn Maintenance and Climate Change – PSCI.” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, 12 May 2020,
Suryanarayanan S., Kleinman, D.L., Gratton, C., Toth, A., Guedot, C. Groves, R., Piechowski, J. Moore, B., Hagedorn, D., Kauth, D., Swan, H., Celley, M. Collaboration Matters: Honey Bee Health as a Transdisciplinary Model for Understanding Real-World Complexity. Advance Access. 10 October 2018.
Williamson, N., Lovell, J. Landscape Architecture and the Challenge of Climate Change. Landscape Institute. 2008.