Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



Follow us


Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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