Love Your Lawn? Let It Grow.

And grow and grow and grow

By Ashia Ajani

February 22, 2020

Field of dandelions with big puffy seed heads all ready to explode

Photo by SunnyChica | iStock

Urban lawns make up a little less than 2 percent of the ground cover in the United States, and yet the ecological impacts of that pristine green European-imported turfgrass are enormous. It's the most irrigated crop in America and requires significant pesticide input (and produces equally significant pesticide runoff), and lawnmowers are pollutants themselves. A perfectly green lawn is a monoculture, and large swaths of land dedicated to the cultivation of one crop means less plant variation and a whole lot more labor to maintain a semblance of health. 

Meanwhile, not mowing your lawn—or that city park—as frequently increases biodiversity, reduces pest species, and decreases overall lawn management costs. That’s according to a meta-analysis of lawn data collected across Europe and North America by researchers from the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivieres and published last December. 

Frequent mowing also contributes to increased ragweed production,” says Dr. Chris Watson, the lead author. “Ragweed allergies are especially common in Quebec, and if people continue this kind of lawn mowing, it’s going to get a lot worse and cost people a lot more.” 

These findings are just the newest entry in a long list of ecological research that favors rethinking the urban lawn. Watson was inspired to do the survey by research done by two colleagues at the University of Quebec, professors Raphael Proulx and Leonie Carignan-Guillemette, into why all the grass in the city was dying and how to prevent this from happening again.

The team found that the killer was a one-two punch of a very dry summer one year followed by a peak in the cyclical population of white grubs the following year. "Kind of like getting sick when you’ve been under a lot of work stress, and there is a bug going around," according to Watson. "The poor grasses just couldn’t take it." Letting the grass grow longer would have helped it retain water, resist grub infestation, and generally be more prepared to handle the hotter summers caused by climate change.

Multiple studies, be they about lawn maintenance, health, or their overall cultural significance, have exposed the lawn lie. So why do North America and Europe still have an obsession with lawns? “It’s hard to get people to change their minds about habitual things,” Watson said with a laugh. “It’s one of the reasons we share our research and are in partnership with the city of Trois-Rivieres government.”

“We’re lucky,” Watson added. “Trois-Rivieres is very supportive of this kind of research and provides a lot of in-kind support. It has also been our industrial partner to apply for external grants. But the government is unlikely to make those large-scale decisions without public pressure. Changing public opinion and undoing the social stigma of having a more ‘unkempt’ lawn is necessary too.”

In collaboration with Watson and his colleagues, the Trois-Rivieres government plans to “socialize” the idea of less frequent law maintenance with residents (including placards on study sites and notices in the local paper and newsletters) prior to placing some of the ideas in action in 2021. (Trois-Rivieres has not, however, changed mowing standards for landscaping of public spaces—the project only applies to private lawns.)

For many, says Watson, lawns are a reflection of themselves and the quality of the neighborhood. For some, it’s about habit and decompression. Cities in Europe and North America have annual, sometimes monthly lawn competitions between residents, largely to incentivize beautification and maintain property values.

“People are very reluctant to change their beliefs, even when given evidence that doesn’t exactly fit their worldview,” says Dr. Andreas Kappes, a social psychologist based at the City University of London, when asked about the persistence of lawns despite scientific evidence about the harm they cause. Kappes researches how humans choose what they want to believe and what strategies can be used to change their minds.

In a paper published in Nature Neuroscience, Dr. Kappes and colleagues investigated confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new information that discounts established beliefs as inaccurate, at the neurochemical level. This kind of stubbornness manifests itself deep within the brain, says Kappes, “so you have to find the common ground to get people to agree with you that this is a necessary change.”

“Let’s say you’re trying to get people to mow their lawns less, suggests Kappes. “For example, people in the UK love bees! We’re obsessed with saving the bees. Instead of framing this as climate change mitigation, maybe you tell people this is about helping bees.”

Financial incentives also have some effect. California and Minnesota are providing monetary incentives for residents who replace their lawns with native plants or bee-friendly shrubbery. In California, residents can be rebated up to $2 per square foot of removed turf lawn. However, states like Ohio and New Jersey are still fining residents for ripping up their manicured lawns. In Cincinnati, residents can receive a citation of up to $500 for failure to mow.

“People see long grass and think, ‘Wow, what will that do to my real estate value?’" Dr. Kappes added. “The first thing if you want to remain influential is you’ve got to understand what the interests of the other people in the neighborhood are and build on that.” 

With respect to government influence, Kappes and Watson are both torn.

“Changing the beauty perspective is really hard,” Watson noted. “But we’re hoping that the economic incentives will help decision-makers reframe their views of urban greenspace management.”

“It’s almost like a philosophical question of what the government should do,” said Kappes. “It feels very un-American to have the government telling us we can’t keep cutting our grass. But it’s really tough to be a single person trying to convince everyone else. You get singled out as ‘the lazy one.’ Short cut grass signals something about you: It shows the outside world that you’re dependable, hardworking, virtuous, whatever. Can we reframe wildness as a form of virtuousness?”