Lawns – highly managed monocultures of turf grasses – seem to most people but the most ardent environmentalist to be a relatively benign phenomenon. However lawns are highly political landscapes, tied to the emergence of capitalism and settler colonialism. Lawns, as opposed to biodiverse meadows, prairies, and pastures, emerged only about 500 years ago as the preferred landscape for some European aristocracy. Lawns first emerged in France in the 1500s as formal, managed gardens – very distinct from commonly-managed land which tended to consist of meadows for livestock grazing or forests for foraging (Robbins, 2007)
The rise of lawns began to grow dramatically among British aristocracy throughout the process of the enclosure of the commons, which gave them access to both expropriated land and to people desperate to sell their labour. In order to maintain a manicured monoculture of turf grass on large tracts of property, intensive human labour was required. The widespread displacement of peasants helped to provide the British ruling class with a steady group of labourers to hire as gardeners and groundskeepers. Paul Robbins points out in his influential book Lawn People that, “From its inception…the lawn was an elite political character and an economic investment…initially tied to the privilege of the aristocracy and the expropriation of property”
The development of the lawn in North America was also explicitly tied to the colonial project. For some wealthy North American settlers mimicking the manor lawns popular amongst British aristocracy provided an important symbol of their wealth and power. However, the story of lawns in North America is also deeply connected to the rise of settler agriculture – initially in terms of clearing vast amounts of forests for farms and later, in terms of destroying the perennial, polycultural eco-systems of the vast grasslands. The turf grasses found in modern lawns are, in fact, one of the most invasive plants in North America. Modern turf grasses have very little in common with the native perennial grasses that filled the pre-invasion landscape of western and central North America. The North American landscape, pre-invasion, was actively maintained in various ways by Indigenous communities, including the use of periodic burning and through the interdependent relationships between people, Buffalo, and perennial prairie grasses. The destruction of the vast perennial prairies and the clearing of forests in North America for settler farming was directly tied to the forced and brutal removal of Indigenous people from the land and an attempt to destroy centuries and millennia of farming, gardening, and land caretaking practices (Crosby, 1986).
The first picture depicts thousands of buffalo skulls. Destroying the buffalo was a key strategy in the attempted genocide of the Indigenous People of the prairies. The second picture depicts the pastured cattle that replaced the buffalo.
Lawns and social control
How did it happen that lawns – a symbol of the wealth of rich landowners – became something that many workers in urban areas also aspired to have? Private lawns for anyone other than the wealthiest was not possible until the 20th century due to limited access to land and limited ability to pay for the required labour. After World War II, the rapid increase in pesticides and artificial fertilizers production and use – intimately tied to the industrial military complex – combined with the rapid development of new suburbs on the fringes of cities. The development of lawns in 20th century North America is inextricably tied to the development of industrial agriculture. Suburban developments with their characteristic lawns displaced farm land – initially it may have been mixed used small farmers who faced pressures from both urban sprawl and industrial agriculture. Increasingly suburban development of cities involves one monoculture (turf grass) replacing with another monoculture (corn or soybeans).
Lawns of turf grass and fields of corn/soy are similar types of ecosystems: monocultures with very little ecological benefit requiring extensive amounts of fertilizer and pesticide input and the use of intensive human labour or, increasingly, machinery. Both lawns and industrial agriculture use labour that is precarious, low-paid, and racialized. Robbins points out that “The expansion of the lawn in the 20th century is only part of an ongoing legacy of grassland transformation since 1492” (2007, 24)
Lawns, Robbins goes on to argue, create a certain kind of citizen who he terms Lawn People – “residents of lawn neighbourhoods, relatively well-educated, high income communities with expensive homes”. Lawns are deeply integrated into the collective psyche of North Americans, tied to personal identify as well as to complicated ideas about and structures of class, ethnicity, and gender. As Robbins (2007) points out, “Wealthier, largely white residents of the urban fringe are more likely to spend more time tending to the lawn or paying for its management and to invest more mental and emotional energy negotiating the complex desires and anxieties that are tied to lawn care”
Lawns seem to create residents that are concerned with property values and neighbourhood conformity, to the extent that they will engage in harmful practices including the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers, even if they have vulnerable family members such as children and pets.
Robbins found that lawn chemical users were more ‘neighbourly’ – defined by how many of their neighbour’s names they know and how much they know about neighbourhood activities. However, I would argue that in communities dominated by white, affluent people, these behaviours might have less to do with being ‘neighbourly’ than with policing the neighbourhood and, in doing so, the behaviours and practices of neighbours. Robbins seems to touch upon this idea, albeit briefly, when he states that “yard management is not simply an individual activity, but it is instead carried out for social purposes: the production and protection of neighbourhoods”.
Far from being benign, the lawn remains a powerful symbol of class domination, racism, and colonialism. Understanding the socioeconomic role of the lawn means that solutions to the problems it causes cannot be found in private backyards. As a classed and moralized landscape, and it is more powerfully contested as part of a multi-ethnic, working-class struggle over public spaces through urban agriculture movements and other forms of urban commoning.
A community garden on public land in London, ON (l); A food-based front yard (r)
*a version of this article was presented as a paper at the Society for Socialist Studies annual meeting in 2017*
Crosby, A. (1986). Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900. Cambridge University Press
Robbins, P. (2007). Lawn people: How grasses, weeds, and chemicals make us who we are. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.