Law and the Authoritarian Aesthetic of the American Lawn
Asmara M. Tekle
In his book Second Nature (Delta, 1992), Michael Pollan writes that at a certain moment in his childhood on Long Island, his dad decided to stop mowing the family’s suburban front lawn and let it grow to meadow. This decision to let the lawn get shaggy proved fateful and ominous, evoking stares, isolation and angry drive-bys reminiscent of the Klan in the 1950s.
In a final gesture of peace-making, the neighborhood sent an emissary, seemingly the last neighbor still talking to the family, to lay out the community’s concerns over this defacement of the collective herbaceous landscape and to talk some sense into Pollan’s father. In lieu of reciprocating, Mr. Pollan escalated the landscape war by mowing his initials, “SMP,” into the front lawn. Soon after, the family exiled itself from the neighborhood in search of less authoritarian dictates concerning the front lawn.
II. The Lawn’s Voice
We Americans take great pride in our twenty million acres of residential lawn, as counted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.1 Dubbed the Industrial Lawn by the Yale School of Architecture, this area is more often than not a lush, uncluttered expanse of weed- and pest-free, crew-cut green that requires large amounts of water, petroleum, chemicals and capital to maintain its sterile perfection, irrespective of climate or locale.2
The front lawn, however, is so much more than perfectly manicured grass. It is a visual and metaphorical repository of the American Dream—a home in a suburban neighborhood fronted by neatly trimmed emerald green carpets. In addition, the lawn subtly telegraphs to the neighborhood and broader public the status and condition of its dwelling’s inhabitants. For instance, if the lawn suddenly grows shaggy after having been maintained consistently, neighbors begin to wonder whether something has gone awry in the household. Is someone, particularly the male of the household, ill or dead? Is there a divorce or separation? Has the family moved out or fallen on hard economic times?
The front lawn also arguably communicates the socioeconomic class, race and ethnicity, or even level of patriotism, of the dwelling’s inhabitants—or at least fuels assumptions. For instance, an old mattress or refrigerator, junked car or a pair of pink plastic flamingos on the front lawn conveys a distinct message about the socioeconomic class of the dwelling’s inhabitants. On the other hand, an uncluttered expanse of green, on which the only ornamentation is one or two tastefully placed trees or a bed of flowers adjacent to the dwelling, communicates yet another message of the residents’ status.
The presence of an American flag on the front lawn may convey to the neighbors and broader public a deep sense of patriotism or military service. Moreover, the front lawn may transmit the ethnicity and race of the home’s inhabitants in any number of ways. For example, given the offensive historical precedents, it would be unusual for a family descended from enslaved Africans to have a lawn jockey on the front lawn. By contrast, sculptural icons of Catholic saints may be found regularly on the lawns of families with Italian Catholic roots.
The upkeep of the front lawn may further unwittingly and unfairly signal the commitment of the dwelling’s inhabitants to two highly cherished values passed down from America’s Puritan forebears—industry and cleanliness. It’s not uncommon to judge neighbors with front yards filled with beer cans, litter or meadow as slovenly and lazy, and we may think smugly to ourselves, “Just imagine what the inside of the house looks like.” By the same token, we may perceive neighbors with front lawns that are neatly edged, cut and clutter-free as hardworking and clean. We say to ourselves, “Now, that’s a house I’d like to be invited into.”
Fritz Haeg, Edible Estate Regional Prototype Garden #6: Baltimore, Maryland, 2008; commissioned by The Contemporary Museum Baltimore; Ridgely residence after; courtesy the artist; photo by Leslie Furlong
Consciously or not, the upkeep of the front lawn often becomes a measure of the inhabitants’ morals. It’s no wonder, then, that if one strays too far from the Industrial Lawn precept, one risks becoming a social cast out, as evidenced in the tight grimaces, flicks of the hand, or averted glances by neighbors when encountering offenders of the front lawn social norm. The other choice is to banish oneself from the community, as did the Pollans when they uprooted the family for self-imposed exile. Really, who knew the lawn could get this deep?
III. Regulating the Lawn
We know a nice front lawn when we see it. It is the Industrial Lawn ideal—uniformly green, neatly trimmed, uncluttered, and weed and pest free. The diverse messages transmitted by the front lawn are simply measures of how much it conforms to or diverges from the Industrial Lawn, the yardstick against which American front lawns are measured.
Arguably, the law has codified the Industrial Lawn ideal, underscoring its authoritarian aesthetic. For instance, in a great many jurisdictions in the United States, formal law, otherwise known as local public ordinances and private land use deed restrictions, regulates the length of grass or “weeds” in the front lawn. Chances are if the front lawn measures more than six inches in height, a violation from the public weed inspector or the homeowners association is soon to follow. Oftentimes, these grass or weed height ordinances do not make exceptions for alternative landscapes such as wildflowers.
Similarly, to a great extent these two bodies of formal law regulate what may be placed on the front lawn, punishing the placement of mattresses, cars, refrigerators, lawn clippings, cement or gravel, or compost with fines in favor of a clutter-free expanse of green between the public right of way and the private dwelling. Indeed, the setback or building line, a relatively modern legal and urban planning device in public and private legal code, is arguably where the modern suburban-style front lawn is conceived.3
The body of informal law or social norms is likely the most punitive to those who dare stray too far from the Industrial Lawn norm. Giving new meaning to the term “turf wars,” we neighbors can be far tougher on violators of the Industrial Lawn ideal than private homeowners associations or public weed inspectors. As demonstrated by the Pollan example, violators are subject not to fines but to stares, gossip, isolation and even exile. This punishment can be severe and stressful. Though one’s home, inclusive of the lawn, is viewed as one’s escape from the pressures of the external world, many neighborhoods are confined communities from which there is little escape. In this case, it becomes difficult to escape one’s escape.
IV. The “Majoritarian Authoritarian” Aesthetic of the Industrial Lawn
Formal law, and the informal body of law known as social norms, has codified the Industrial Lawn ideal as the singular acceptable aesthetic governing the landscape fronting the American home. This codification, to the exclusion of dissident or countercultural landscapes that may conform more closely to the inhabitants’ sense of individual expression or environmental values, effectively renders the Industrial Lawn an essentially authoritarian aesthetic in the United States. Even when paved over with concrete, covered with cars or grown over with wildflowers, its absence is clear.
Greg Stimac, Concord, Vermont (Mowing the Lawn), 2006; 22 x 30 inches; archival inkjet; courtesy the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Chicago
Greg Stimac, Concord Twp. Ohio (Mowing the Lawn), 2006; 22 x 30 inches; archival inkjet; courtesy the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Chicago
Yet, while the Industrial Lawn ideal is authoritarian in the sense that its image is fixed in our minds and in our law, no one individual or authority upholds its power. Instead, it is we the people—locally, in our neighborhoods, and nationally, in our twenty million acres of lawn—that defend its existence to the virtual exclusion of less-costly and more environmentally friendly alternative landscapes.
That we must answer to the authoritarian dictates of the collective’s penchant for the Industrial Lawn, or otherwise pay a heavy social price, renders this landscape “majoritarian authoritarian.” The majoritarian authoritarianism of the Industrial Lawn, however, provides a studied contrast to our culture’s and our law’s preference for the individual over the majority.
For instance, individuals the world over immigrate to the United States because our culture permits the individual to live in relative freedom from government, religious institutions and an oppressive majority. Furthermore, the individual is featured front and center in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Protected and enshrined in this document are the individual’s right to say what she wants, to practice her religion and to be free from the state’s intrusion on her person or her property, irrespective largely of the majority’s thoughts on the matter and except if the government has a really good reason. However, when it comes to the space fronting the dwelling, we check our individuality at the sidewalk and surrender meekly to the majority’s preferences for the Industrial Lawn. As the example of the Pollan family shows, the normative costs of individual expression are simply too high for many of us to bear.
Pun intended, the roots of the Industrial Lawn’s authoritarian hold on our law and psyche lie in a landmark book published in 1841, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted for North America. The author, Andrew Jackson Downing, one of America’s greatest landscape architects, popularized the democratization of grand lawns fronting the English manor for the American masses. Downing argued that the aesthetics of an endless stream of subdivided lawn was park-like and beautiful. Yet, the long expanse of uncluttered and largely unfenced green commonly seen in many American neighborhoods also has a powerful visual effect of knitting together a community, defining its boundaries and borders, and declaring a united front to the broader public that “We are One.”
Irrespective of its roots, however, the front lawn is at bottom a nineteenth-century landscape and arguably incompatible with the demands and culture of life in the twenty-first century. The telephone, also a nineteenth-century convention, is instructive. While we still use it, we have reinvented it in recent years to accommodate email, Facebook, tweets and texts and our round-the-clock modern lifestyles. Similarly, given the environmental and expressive costs of the Industrial Lawn, it seems long past time to reinvent this now-obsolescent innovation into something more adapted to the needs of the current century.
VI. The New Lawn and Law
What might this twenty-first-century residential landscape and the law regulating it look like? The short answer is that the landscape will be local, and the law regulating it unconfined to just the Industrial Lawn ideal. Law will reflect landscape choice.
In terms of the types of landscapes, the long answer depends on what landscape makes sense for the region’s climate or terrain, or the individual’s environmental values or personal taste. In areas near waterways such as the Chesapeake Bay, residents may give up the fight for a lawn and install a mini-wetland instead, thereby providing valuable habitat and cleaning pollutants. In desert regions in the American West, it may make more sense to plant drought-tolerant native plants or practice xeriscaping, thereby conserving precious water.
Other possible reinventions of the front lawn space include wildflowers, edible or working landscapes composed of gardens and/or fruit trees, neatly arranged compost piles or a lower impact lawn that does not use as many product pollutants. In this diversity of spatial expression, there also may be room for a chicken coop or two, providing residents with a source of local protein in an era when many of us are encouraged to eat locally. These and other options are appearing increasingly throughout the country, though not yet as widely as possible. And yet, still others may hold fast to the Industrial Lawn. That’s perfectly acceptable in a country that upholds individual expression. But in the twenty-first century, it is perhaps long past time also to embrace a diversity of residential landscapes in lieu of demanding stubborn fealty to a single one.
1. “Greenacres: Landscaping with Native Plants,” U.S. EPA, last updated on 11/02/2010, http://www.epa.gov/greenacres/wildones/handbk/wo8.html.
2. F. Herbert Bormann, Diane Balmori and Gordon T. Geballe, Redesigning the American Lawn, 2nd Ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 48–51. From the preface: “This book represents a collaboration between the faculty and students of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the School of Art and Architecture at Yale University. ‘The American Lawn,’ a graduate seminar was offered at Yale University during the spring semester of 1991.”
3. Ibid., 22–23. Citing Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 58–59.