By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

Chapelboro 2050 Part II: A Farewell to Lawns

By Jeff Danner Posted January 16, 2012 at 12:06 am

If you have been reading my blogs you will know that I expect a reduction in the amount of available energy per person to be the dominant factor in world events in coming decades. As energy becomes scarcer and, therefore, more expensive, I expect many of the energy-inefficient parts of our daily lives to fade away, including the consumption of beef, the SUV, and 3000 square foot homes. One of the biggest differences I think you will see in Chapelboro in 2050 will be the near disappearance of the lawn.
 
The term “lawn” has it’s origins in communal grazing areas from medieval villages, which were more like meadows. Prior to the late 1800’s, only estates and churches had patches of grass which looked something like what you would see in my neighborhood today. The growth of the petroleum industry in the early 1900’s brought with it tractors and lawn mowers which allowed people to maintain large grassy areas without using a scythe or a goat.
 
With the rise of suburbia in the United States after World War II, the popularity of the lawn exploded such that today we have approximately 45 million acres of prime real estate devoted to growing our grass. Lawns are tremendous consumers of resources. In the U.S., the combined use of pesticides and herbicides on lawns exceeds 100 million pounds per year. In addition, fertilizers spread on lawns are a significant source of pollution for our waterways. The statistic I find most alarming is that we use over 50% of our municipal water to irrigate our landscapes.
 
The upkeep of our lawns generally requires the use of at least one, if not more, small gas powered devices. Little engines, like those in lawnmowers and leaf blowers, never get hot enough to promote complete combustion of the gasoline. This results in the emission of fragments of partially burned gasoline with are major contributors to smog. These little devices also pollute our neighborhoods with noise and grind up our time.
 
And what do get for all of this investment of resources? Not much if you ask me. My neighborhood is covered with grass whose fastidious upkeep is mandated by the homeowners’ association. But when I look around, I don’t see many people out using and enjoying their yards. We simply pass by them in our cars as we enter our garages. Considered objectively, devoting all of this time, energy, and money into these patches of grass is a silly custom.
 
By 2050, I expect that resource constraints will render these seldom-used, resource-demanding swaths of green to the dustbin of history. In the mean time, we can all start to make some improvements in our lawn management. Here are my top 5 recommendations:
 
  1. Don’t water your grass. The grasses that grow in our climate simply go dormant and turn brown in the hot and dry months of July and August and then green back up with the rains and cooler temperatures of September.   Is it really necessary that our grass be green all summer?
  2. Reduce the percentage of your yard which is covered by grass. Even within the constraints of the more rigid homeowners’ association agreement, you can create natural areas with flowers, non-manicured grasses, bushes and trees which provide habitats for bees, birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.
  3. Collect rain water from your roof to water your bushes and flowers.
  4. Limit your use of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. When you do use them, follow the instructions to prevent excess application and limit the amount that lands on impermeable surfaces which will get washed into the closest storm drain.
  5. Plant a vegetable garden. Food can’t get any more local than your back yard.
 
Local government can help as well. We should not allow homeowners’ associations to make landscaping requirements so restrictive that grass is the only practical option. We should move toward not allowing drinking water to be used for irrigation. This should be coupled with easing restrictions on the use of gray water for landscaping (gray water is the waste water from your house from sources other than the toilet). I would also recommend that Chapel Hill cancel its leaf collection program. If your yard is big enough to accumulate leaves, then it’s big enough to rake the leaves in a pile and let them turn in to compost.
 
By 2050, life in Chapelboro will be strongly influenced by energy efficiency. The drone of the lawn mower engine will be a distant memory and our yards will have flowers, bushes, herbs, trees, and a garden. Sound pleasant? No need to wait, let’s get started now.
 
Have a comment or question? Log in below or send me an e-mail at commonscience@chapelboro.com.
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