Menus Subscribe Search

Quick Studies


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Is There a Solution to America’s Obsession With Lawn Care?

• March 12, 2014 • 9:00 AM

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Irrigation and fertilization use varies across and even within cities. Sustainable management plans must rely on a more targeted approach.

Because almost every neighborhood in the U.S. hosts a series of nearly identical patches of greenery, the prevailing assumption among urban ecologists has been that lawn care behavior is similar across the nation.

But in a new study on lawn care habits published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a research group funded by the National Science Foundation notes that no one has actually bothered to test whether irrigation and fertilization practices are uniform. “To date, the social and natural sciences literatures on lawncare have tested for the homogeneity of biophysical outcomes from lawncare practices, assuming – not testing – an underlying homogeneity of lawncare practices,” the authors write.

The American obsession with lawns has fueled a $40 billion industry, and excessive use of water and fertilizers “has emerged as a major concern for carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water flows,” the authors note. (According to The Week: “The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one third of all water from public sources goes toward landscaping—most of it on grass.”) In hopes of informing recommendations for more sustainable practices, the research group recently attempted to gauge just how homogenous lawn care habits are with a survey of 9,480 residents in Boston, Baltimore, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

Is it smarter to just outlaw new lawns altogether, especially given that they’re just cosmetic overkill?

The results indicated that nearly 80 percent of the respondents irrigated their grass, and 64 percent used fertilizer. But the researchers conclude that there’s “limited evidence for complete homogenization,” meaning differences were apparent both across and even within different cities. The utopian lawn practices long bandied by pushy neighbors have not been as widely adopted as thought.

Los Angeles and Miami, for instance, have similar rates of lawn fertilization, but fertilization within each respective city varies according to population density (urban, suburban, rural). Los Angeles and Phoenix had similar rates of irrigation, but variance within those cities can be explained by socioeconomics.

Designing sustainable plans going forward will necessitate a more micro-targeted approach. “The results suggest that a one-size-fits-all policy for trying to persuade U.S. residents to manage their lawns less intensively will not work,” lead author Colin Polsky, an associate professor of geography at Clark University, wrote in an email. “Such a policy needs to be grounded in the factors influencing the behaviors, which … vary with climate and social, economic, and demographic characteristics of households.”

Is it smarter to just outlaw new lawns altogether, especially given that they’re just cosmetic overkill? Polsky believes that approach has been workable in drier climates, like Las Vegas, but might be unnecessary in wetter ones.

Peter Groffman, a microbial ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and a co-author, was more opposed to a ban, pointing to lawn values like “cooling in the summer and heating in the winter, biodiversity, soil carbon and nitrogen retention, stormwater infiltration, aesthetics, [and] outdoor recreation,” he wrote. “So people are certainly deriving benefits from their lawns and any policy to outlaw lawns or to mandate particular types of lawns needs to consider the full suite of costs and benefits.”

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

More From Ryan Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.

September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.

September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.

September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.

September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.

September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.

September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.

September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.

September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.

September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.

September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.

September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.

September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.

September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.

September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.

September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.

September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.

September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.

September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.

September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.

Follow us

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.