The Grass is NOT Greener on the Other Side, and It Looks Great!

Changing landscapes: how one non-profit is transforming the way we view the American front yard.

It wasn’t front page news.  In March 2015, Los Angeles City Council voted on a revised ordinance that allowed residents to plant gardens in their parkways – the land between the sidewalk and curb.  For most Angelenos, the revision was either irrelevant (“Wasn’t that area already my property?”) or scratched heads (“What’s wrong with grass?”).  But for Ron Finley, a resident of the lower income South Central region of LA and founder of L.A. Green Grounds, this was a game changer.  For years, Ron had faced fines and even arrest for planting vegetables on the sidewalks to provide fresh produce for his loved ones and community.  It seemed that his passion was finally starting to bear fruit.


America’s Obsession with Lawns: A Brief History

Picture Middle America: a white picket fence, suburban single family home, a car or two, and perhaps most importantly, a meticulously trimmed green lawn.  But that wasn’t always the case.  Up until the late 19th century, few Americans had any desire for cultivating an unproductive patch of grass.

The first recorded lawns in modern European history was the tapis vert (“green carpet” in French) found in 17th and 18th century royal estates such as the Versailles gardens.  Unsurprisingly, members of upper-class society, including those in the New World such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, fancied lawns of their own.  After the Civil War, lawns became more common as American households searched west for new prosperity.  From merely a fad that paid homage to European royalty, to more than thirty million acres that cover the country today, America’s obsession with their green patch has become a default landscaping object.


Paying Up Greenbacks for the Green

Just as they were the status symbols of olden days, lawns continue to be money and time intensive to upkeep.  Lawn care is an over $40 billion industry in the U.S., requiring over 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 78 million pounds of pesticides annually.  Collectively, it is also massively water taxing – lawns use up more water than American farmers use for growing wheat or corn.  Many regions in the country such as the Southwest are unsuitable for grass, fueling companies such as Scotts Miracle-Gro ($3+ billion in 2015 revenues) to spend $45+ million in R&D to develop and to sustain new strains of grass seed.  Finally, landscapers, of which 35% of households pay to outsource this task, regularly uproot native species, pull weeds, and incessantly trim (exposing freshwater to evaporation), all to produce an inedible plant that is used for viewing pleasure.


Toxic Green Grass

All the chemicals and freshwater ultimately feed into a growing strain on the environment.  Lawn maintenance is a monoculture sport, starving the soil which then requires fertilizers containing high amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen to replenish.  These chemicals are mined and refined through energy and water intensive processes, then trucked to retail stores.  Moreover, the chemicals are often excessively applied and washed into drains, contaminating freshwater resources such as drinking water.

Growing grass is a carbon positive activity.  Chemicals aside, Americans spend over 3 billion hours a year pushing gas-powered lawnmowers, each of which emits as many pollutants per hour as 11 cars.

A Garden Grows in L.A.

Enter Ron Finley.  A native Los Angeles resident, Ron grew up in LA’s poor neighborhoods, where liquor stores, fast food, and vacant lots proliferate.  “Just like 26.5 million other Americans, I live in a food desert … I got tired of driving 45 minutes roundtrip to get an apple that wasn’t impregnated with pesticides … People are dying from curable diseases in South Central.  For instance, the obesity rate in my neighborhood is five times higher than, say, Beverly Hills, which is 10 miles away,” says Finley.

Consequently, Ron planted a food forest in front of his house on the parkway.  That land was technically owned by the city, but the resident had to maintain it.  Unbeknownst to Finley, city ordinances only permitted grass on parkways, a useless and resource draining plant for individuals like Finley.  When city officials caught wind of the garden, Finley was cited for illegal gardening.

With community support and his new group, L.A. Green Grounds, Ron petitioned successfully to change these outdated city ordinances.  With over six square miles of vacant lots (equal to 20 central parks), LA has enough land to plant 725 million tomato plants.  Groups such as Ron’s organization are trying to change the way we think about our shared resources to improve both the environment and our livelihoods.  And as climate change continues to expose dry regions such as LA to drought, pioneers such as Finley help rethink old habits and push our land usage toward a more sustainable and efficient future.


Ron Finley’s TED Talk

Research Resources:

  • Virginia Scott Jenkins.  The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession.  Smithsonian Books. 1994.


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Student comments on The Grass is NOT Greener on the Other Side, and It Looks Great!

  1. This post brings up a very interesting point about how behavior plays into our environmental impact. In creating a beautiful lawn, many Americans may not understand that there are serious local and regional environmental consequences. As mentioned in the post, excessive water consumption is a major source of carbon emissions. Often times, because the emissions are created upstream from the end user (the homeowner in this case), the link between use and a carbon footprint is not made. In Ron Finley’s case, he may be making a more significant impact to the environment than he recognized. For example, instead of driving 45 minutes to find fruit that is free of pesticides, he need only head out to his local garden. Extrapolating these savings across hundreds and thousands of individuals and communities adds up to a sizable reduction in carbon emissions and saves people money. In this case, everyone wins.

  2. Hey Lawrence, this was a super interesting blog post. I hadn’t really ever thought about the history of lawns or whether they were necessarily good for the environment. Is there something more environmentally friendly that folks could put in their yards? I know in areas with high amounts of droughts people have started looking for plant species that use a lot less water but still look nice. The fact that growing grass is a carbon positive activity is crazy to me. With the amount of focus that people are spending on getting solar panels on their roofs it seems like an even bigger opportunity to put something in their yards that will reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere without necessitating chemicals and pesticides. Maybe there’s a startup company out there already working on this?

  3. What an interesting topic! My gut reaction is to agree that growing vegetables is probably a net benefit for both the environment and nutrition access for low-income communities, but I wonder if there are unforeseen negatives to this strategy. I worry that between the chemicals used to make the road and the pollution from passing traffic, the produce grown in these locations wouldn’t be safe for human consumption. It will be interesting to see how LA navigates permissible crops as well; I would expect exceptionally tall or bushy plants like corn to be banned, given the risk that it blocks visibility for passing vehicles. Lastly, it would be good to know if there are drastic differences between grass and typical vegetable plants in terms of water needs, and fertilizer and pesticide usage. That would be difficult from an environmental perspective, but a potential opportunity for MiracleGro and other companies to maintain or even increase their market share. I would expect that some plants require even more water and fertilizer than grass does, which could pose a big issue to California given its ongoing drought.

  4. Lawrence, this is a really interesting topic! I have to say, I never thought of this as an issue – living in the densely populated city of Tokyo, I always envied American homes with a big, well kept lawn, but never thought of the negative effects it had on the environment.
    I definitely see the need to develop and commercialize eco-friendly pesticides and fertilizers, and utilizing a piece of earth for the growing of fruits and vegetables to lead a more sustainable lifestyle is great. However, we should also accept the undeniable sense of relaxation and soothing of enjoying a beautiful piece of unoccupied lawn. This may be a bit of a stretch, but I think it’s things like this that makes the experience of growing up and living in the US so precious, and is a part of what makes America the strong nation it is today. I am a strong believer of the environment playing a big part of how one is shaped, and this kind of environment, I think, breeds people with more of an open mind.

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