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Don’t mess with Americans’ lawns

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, April 22, 1999

Original publication date April 22nd, 1999
I went bike-riding this past weekend. The weather was mild and people were working in their yards. The smell of fertilizer and fresh-cut grass filled the air. All of a sudden it hit me: Focus group-driven political leaders who increasingly rail against suburbs, “sprawl” and automobiles may be in for a rough time. The same for real estate lawyers, land use planners and “green” developers who sponsor seminars and community meetings to advocate the “new urbanism” and “transportation oriented development” (called TOD) – including light rail to anywhere at any cost. Reason: The quest for the perfect lawn – and in America 50 million households have lawns.

Think about it. New urbanists want Americans to abandon their affection for the suburbs and trade their cars for a light rail pass. Policy wonks can argue the pros and cons of these views all day long, but most people won’t be listening. Reason: Americans cherish their lawns. On any given weekend millions of men and women and teenage kids are taking care of the lawn – mowing, trimming, edging, weeding, fertilizing – and tending the flower beds. As garden writer Warren Schultz says in his new book, A Man’s Turf: The Perfect Lawn, there is an “obsession” with the lawn: “How green is it? How thick is it? How well-mown and weed-free is it? These are the questions that try men’s souls.”

The lawn, after all, is part of Americana. According to some landscape historians, the beautiful grounds surrounding Mount Vernon make George Washington the father of the American lawn. So those who want to take away the lawn are messing with a legacy of our Founding Father. Lawn care also brings to mind other great names: John Deere, Toro, Vigoro, Weed Eater, Rain King, ChemLawn.

Lawn care invokes history: Think of the local flea market where you can buy old “reel” lawn mowers and sickles and scythes, once used to cut really tall grass. Lawn care permeates the post-modern garage filled with power mowers, trimmers, tillers, leaf blowers and kinder, gentler fertilizers.

Reformers tried to use technology to lure us away from grass in 1965, when Astroturf was substituted for grass seed at the Houston Astrodome. It didn’t work. By 1995, real grass had replaced the virtual reality in most places, and new baseball and football stadiums all use real grass and lawn mowers. Now reformers are trying to defeat cars and grass with public policy and the coercive power of government.

However, most normal people like a nice yard with some grass and flowers. Notwithstanding the chinch bugs, mole crickets and microscopic fungi, people like to fuss with the lawn – and to show it off. A well-kept lawn, after all, is a sign of neighborliness: It shows a willingness to conform to community standards. It signals civic responsibility, upward mobility and a spirit of competition. Lawn care satisfies a deep spiritual need to control and to belong, a need that can never be met by sharing an elevator or attending “facilitated” meetings of condo associations formed for high-density dwellers of fashionable lofts or downtown high-rises. But most people can’t have a lawn if they don’t live in the ‘burbs and you can’t live in the ‘burbs without driving a car.

So, those concerned about the growing political power of TOD and the “new urbanists” should relax a little. When advocates of more public subsidies for light rail that is not used and compact “human settlements” where cars are parked a block from the home begin to tax and regulate the suburbanite who is simply seeking the perfect lawn – green all year, weed-free and smooth as a pool table – they will awaken a sleeping giant. That’s when the fun begins.

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