Clark researchers investigate our fascination with lawns

What does the pursuit of the perfect yard say about us?
September 28, 2017

In the spring of 1999, Paul Robbins feared he would become what he most dreaded: a “lawn person.”

He had just bought a house in Columbus, Ohio, complete with a spread of turfgrass. One day, his neighbor leaned over the backyard fence, pointed to the purple-flowered ivy threatening to overtake Robbins’ lawn and proclaimed, “You should clean up that Creeping Charlie.”

Paul Robbins standing on green grass
Jokingly called "the godfather of lawns," author
and researcher Paul Robbins, M.S.'94, Ph.D.'96,
began studying native grasses while a student
at Clark University. He's now director of the
Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison, (Photo by
Bryce Richter/University of Wisconsin-Madison)

In the nights that followed, Robbins lay awake thinking about his patchy lawn and his neighbor’s comment. He felt swayed by the slew of lawn maintenance company flyers hitting his mailbox promising lush, green grass. Yet he was torn. As a professor of geography at The Ohio State University and an avowed environmentalist, how could he even consider using chemicals to protect his grass from the much-dreaded Glechoma hederacea?

That experience prompted Robbins, who earned master’s (1994) and doctoral (1996) degrees from Clark’s Graduate School of Geography, to examine the country’s “lawn culture” in his 2007 book, “Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are.”

Robbins’ work focused on a $70 billion lawn-care industry that relies on homeowners’ fears and anxieties about the state of their yards.

“My biggest finding was that people who use lawn chemicals are more likely than people who don’t use them to say those chemicals are bad for water quality and children and neighborhoods,” he says. “They know what they’re doing, and they feel crummy about it.”

Robbins became, as one colleague joked, “the godfather of lawns.” Every spring, national media ask him to weigh in on lawns and the conflicts they generate, like homeowners associations suing residents over lawn upkeep, or neighbors battling neighbors about unkempt yards.

The seeds of Robbins’ research were sown at Clark, where he became so fascinated by grasses as a doctoral student that he hung dried samples of every variety of native Massachusetts grass above his desk.

Now director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he understands geographers’ continuing fascination with lawns.

“They’re interested in ordinary landscapes and what’s hidden beneath them,” he says. “What’s the story that the landscape is telling? What’s hidden, what’s conscious, and what’s historical?”

• • 

Several Clark geographers see America’s widespread conversion of natural landscape to manicured lawns as an unhealthy mix of environmental risk and emotional entanglement. And the obsession is growing. An oft-cited analysis of NASA’s satellite and aerial imagery shows lawns cover over three times more surface area than corn, making lawns the United States’ largest irrigated “crop.”

Dexter Locke sitting on grass
Lawns are "the dominant human habitat
in the United States, and if we don’t get a
grip on that, we’re going to be in trouble,”
Dexter Locke, Ph.D. '17, says.

“It’s the dominant human habitat in the United States, and if we don’t get a grip on that, we’re going to be in trouble,” says Dexter Locke, Ph.D. ’17, whose doctoral research with Clark professors Rinku Roy Chowdhury, Ph.D. ’03, and Colin Polsky (now at Florida Atlantic University) resulted in his dissertation on lawns. “If you think about the mowing and the irrigation and the fertilization and pesticide application, it’s continental-scale environmental impact.”

The stereotypical American lawn — that velvety carpet of turfgrass — grew out of the 1950s suburban housing boom. Even today, newly created residential yards and lawns are encroaching on forests, fields and even deserts. Despite the costs and challenges of establishing lawns in inhospitable places, most Americans still pine for neat, green, weed-free landscapes, according to researchers.

“There is still a surprising commitment to the lawn,” Roy Chowdhury says. “I don’t think we’re anywhere close to getting away from it.”

From 1982 to 1997 in the U.S., the amount of land turned into urban areas — mostly suburbs and “exurbs,” those pockets of high-end housing that pop up amid forests and farmland — grew nearly 50 percent to comprise over 540,000 square miles, approximately equal to Texas, California and Colorado combined.

Much of Clark’s research on lawns has been funded by the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) and Macrosystems Biology programs, which have supported work in Baltimore, Boston, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Portrait of Rinku Roy Chowdhury
“There is still a surprising
commitment to the lawn,” says
Rinku Roy Chowdhury, Ph.D. ’03,
associate professor of geography,
whose research has been funded
by the National Science
Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological
Research (LTER) and Macrosystems
Biology programs.

“Lawns are part of the American ideology of a residential landscape,” says Deborah Martin, professor and director of the Graduate School of Geography at Clark, whose research focuses in part on “place identity.” She says researchers are trying to understand emerging urban ecological issues, especially at the “urban-suburban interface.”

• • 

Roy Chowdhury and Polsky’s four-year study investigated whether America’s urban landscape is becoming homogenized by people’s fascination with the weed-free, evergreen lawn. They and their colleagues interviewed homeowners and collected social and ecological information, which was integrated into detailed geographic information system datasets.

Among other findings, researchers discovered that water and fertilizer use across the six cities is surprisingly similar. In pursuit of the verdant lawn, people in the wettest place (Miami) watered their lawns almost as much as those in the driest (Phoenix). Meanwhile, Americans also fertilized their lawns at similar rates: generally between 52 and 71 percent of homeowners across the country fertilized once a year.

“We do see a homogenization of certain yard management practices at some scales, but cities are also kind of distinct,” Roy Chowdhury says. “Often, that has to do with the history of individual cities and how urban development proceeded in them. Environmental factors and social processes such as neighborhood peer pressure also shape how our residential landscapes evolve.”

Economics, race, income, family size and age also determine how people interact with their yards, and how different social neighborhoods come to have particular kinds of tree or vegetative cover. For instance, many researchers point out that low-income urban areas tend to lack amenities such as parks, greenspace and tree cover, exposing them to “heat island” effects.

Can we reform the lawn?Undergraduate and graduate students working as part of Clark University’s Human-Environment Regional Observatory (HERO) Program interview homeowners in the suburbs north of Boston to uncover how people relate to their yards and lawns — and those of their neighbors.

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According to Roy Chowdhury, homeowners and residents also face neighborhood peer pressure, covenant codes and restrictions, homeowner association rules, municipal zoning ordinances and irrigation regulations, such as those facing drought-plagued Massachusetts last summer and fall. Often, lessening the environmental impact of lawns comes to depend on the mix of pressures to maintain homogenous turfgrass, and of aspirations and support to create more ecologically diverse spaces.

“Your geography matters. Who you are, where you are located, and whom you connect with matters,” she says. “Not all municipalities or neighborhoods are particularly friendly to wild, unruly spaces in urban yards, especially front yards.”

In a new National Science Foundation-funded study, Roy Chowdhury and her colleagues are investigating the future of residential landscapes, and the forces that shape homeowners’ decisions to maintain or change their yards and lawns. Linked to this, they are exploring how new actors and networks, such as tree-planting groups, neighborhood gardening councils or municipal ordinances, may support ecologically friendly alternatives to residential lawns.

“Juxtaposed against such promising alternatives are the homogenized landscapes that may stem from the types of plants and turfgrass available at big-box stores,” Roy Chowdhury says. “So much of what we’re seeing could be ‘Home Depot-scapes.’”

• • 

Portrait photo of Gil Pontius
As part of a long-term study, Geography
Professor Gil Pontius and his students
have mapped out the encroachment of
lawns on the Plum Island ecosystem in

Clark Geography Professor Gil Pontius has been involved in a long-term study of the Plum Island ecosystem, encompassing the Parker and Ipswich river watersheds north of Boston. Professors Pontius and Polsky worked with undergraduate and graduate students in Clark’s Human-Environment Regional Observatory (HERO) Program from 2007 to 2012 to convert aerial images to fine-resolution maps for 26 towns in the 710-square-mile area.

“With these maps,” Pontius explains, “you can see the individual residential properties and distinguish front yard from backyard, and forest and trees from lawn and grass.”

The maps show that lawn cover ranges from about 2 percent of the land in Essex to nearly 12 percent in Peabody. “These towns are regularly having to institute watering bans in the summertime, and one of the primary reasons the aquifers are running dry is because people use so much water to maintain their lawns,” Pontius says.

Lawns create a harder surface than forests, he explains. When rain hits a lawn, it doesn’t puddle and slowly sink into the earth, developing a rich habitat and a deep underground aquifer. Instead, it immediately rushes into storm drains and downstream.

“So what you tend to get are floods in the springtime, and they’ve had terrible floods in Ipswich,” Pontius says.

Deborah Martin standing on campus green
When conducting research and
interviewing homeowners on Plum Island,
Geography Professor Deborah Martin and
her students discovered that not all parts
of the lawn are treated equally.

But do homeowners continue to adhere to the culture of lawns? And if they do, why? Under Martin and Polsky’s direction, HERO students talked to homeowners in the Plum Island area about their attitudes toward their lawns and the measures they take to care for them (see below).

The students found that you can’t look at a yard or a lawn uniformly; it has “districts,” Martin explains. “A yard is a more complex biophysical entity than just the lawn. There is the part that someone very carefully tends because it’s a garden— a vegetable garden or a flower garden — but it’s managed and conceptualized differently from the grass.”

Clark researchers also have found that many homeowners tend their lawns and yards based on what they perceive their neighbors want. “People feel like they’re bad citizens if they don’t have a lawn that looks like a golf course,” Pontius says. “But in actuality, there are people who are very proud to have their lawn look more like wilderness than a golf course, especially in the backyard.”

• • •

Locke explores this conundrum in his dissertation. He developed the “Landscape Mullet Hypothesis,” which, like the hairstyle of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus in the 1990s, sports “business in the front and party in the back.”

Does a homeowner treat the backyard differently, he wondered, if the neighbors can’t see it? Do front yards in most neighborhoods look similar, while backyards better express people’s individuality?

Locke’s original research across the country has uncovered that in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City there are on average 10 to 20 percent more intentionally planted species of vegetation thriving in backyards versus front yards. But the number of species found in just the lawns — not the entire yard — is essentially the same from front to backyard. These findings lend credence to his Landscape Mullet Hypothesis, he says.

They also connect, in some ways, to what Robbins found in his research.

“Deep down, a lot of people don’t really want a lawn,” Robbins says. “They want to mix it in with vegetable gardens; they want flowers and butterflies.”

In other words, rather than water, fertilize and mow the grass, they’d rather host a party.

This article was published in the summer 2017 Clark magazine