Why you should care

It’s you or the grass.

California is thirsty, parched, near bone-dry, with no end in sight to its four-year drought. The governor is forcing water-guzzling towns to turn back their hoses, with some cuts as high as 36 percent. The idea is that gardening isn’t a basic human right. That idea is correct. But are we going far enough?

The answer is no, we’re not. Forget your version of the American dream house — let’s abolish grass lawns. Not just in California but all over the country. These are drastic times, with space and resources squeezed to the last drop, and there’s not enough to go around to quench your vanity in the form of a lawn, especially those useless front lawns. Yes, useless. If you think your special grass carpet isn’t making us all pay dearly, get this: Of the approximately 320 gallons of water that an average household uses every day, 15 percent goes to lawns and gardens, which adds up to about 9 billion gallons per day throughout the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Maintaining the lawn is “simply trying to sustain what we know isn’t sustainable,” says Matthias Ruth, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University.

What we need is a wholesale change in attitudes and behavior, he says. Like getting rid of the lawn altogether. It might sound preposterous, but we’re hardly the only ones thinking along these lines. In Northern California, American Canyon has banned front lawns for new houses. Similar attempts have been made in Iowa. And the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is offering $3.75 per square foot of lawn replaced by low-water landscape: succulents, native plants, gravel, etc. There is a debate over its inclusion of artificial turf.

To those who complain that such alternatives are not aesthetically pleasing, we respond: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, the American grass lawn is an invention. The idea was imported from Europe, where the climate is milder and friendlier to grasses, and wasn’t popularized in the U.S. until the 1800s. For that, you can thank Frederick Law Olmsted. He’s better known for planning massive public spaces (like Central Park), but Olmsted also designed one of the first planned suburban communities outside Chicago and mandated that the houses be pushed back 30 feet from the street and filled with, you guessed it, grass. Voilà: An aristocratic English tradition became a democratized symbol of the American dream.

To be sure, grass has advantages. It works as a natural air conditioner and purifier and helps prevent soil erosion, according to the Lawn Institute, which promotes the use of lawns. And there are problems with some of the alternatives to grass lawns, like the artificial stuff — it’s sometimes made with plastics and chemicals that could be harmful in the long term, says Jason Corburn, director of the Center for Global Healthy Cities at the University of California, Berkeley. We can’t just replace one important environmental and health issue with another,” he says.

We agree. And until scientists come up with a synthetic version of turf that’s good for the earth and good for us, we must insist on mulch, pine needles, rock gardens, succulents and the like. It’s not easy being green. Sometimes it requires you to go brown.

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