Menus Subscribe Search

Quick Studies

lawncare1

(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 PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 1 • 4:00 PM

The Gaps in Federal Law That Are Making It Easy for Lenders to Sue Soldiers

Courts are required to appoint attorneys for service members if they are sued and can’t appear. But the law says little about what those lawyers must do. Some companies have taken advantage.


August 1 • 2:22 PM

Warmer Parenting Makes Antisocial Toddlers More Empathetic

Loving care may be the best antidote to callous behavior in young children.


August 1 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Health Insurance Exchange Remains Surprisingly Active

New federal data, obtained by ProPublica under the Freedom of Information Act, shows nearly one million insurance transactions since mid-April.



August 1 • 6:00 AM

The Idea of Racial Hierarchy Remains Entrenched in Americans’ Psyches

New research finds white faces are most closely associated with positive thoughts and feelings.


August 1 • 4:00 AM

How and Why Does the Social Become Biological?

To get closer to an answer, it’s helpful to look at two things we’ve taught ourselves over time: reading and math.



July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Warmer Parenting Makes Antisocial Toddlers More Empathetic

Loving care may be the best antidote to callous behavior in young children.

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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