Rethink Your Lawn!: Major Takeaways for Design Anthropology

Week 1

The Roots of the American Lawn

The turf lawn as we know it today is foreign to the North American continent; the aesthetic was imported to wealthy U.S. estates after becoming popular in Britain and France. Advancements in technology and building policy eventually allowed middle-class families to adopt the aesthetic, which was encouraged by social groups like the Garden Club of America, popularized by a new pastime called golf, and made feasible by research from the US Department of Agriculture.

Week 2

The Rise of the American Turf Lawn

In 2006, Americans spent about $40 billion on lawn maintenance, enacting a high price on our environmental health. This destructive fetishization of the lawn is a relatively recent development popularized by suburban housing developments looking for a cheap way to finish their building projects in the post-war era… and passing the true costs onto the American consumer.

Week 3

Art and Anthropology

What is the overlap between art and anthropology? Readings this week talk about the potential for cross-pollination between the disciplines, which both feature an immersive, creative, and transformative approach to building knowledge. What’s more, an anthropological cultural sensitivity can enrich an art practice, while an artistic orientation toward experimentation and ephemerality can open an anthropological practice to new possibilities.

Week 4

People’s Relationships with their Outdoor Space

Multiple studies suggest that when people are engaged with their lawn or garden over the long-term, they develop an emotional attachment to the space, often accompanied by enhanced social relationships, mental and physical health benefits, and a deeper connection to the natural world. Gardens can serve as a place for people to practice self-sufficiency and emotional maturity while expressing their values, identity, and commitment to their community. Clearly, an outdoor residential space can be a powerful influence on someone’s quality of life.

Week 5

Chemicals and Consumerism

American homeowners don’t make their lawn decisions in a vacuum, they’re connected to their neighbors in a moral economy that positions the traditional upkeep of their lawns as a way to support their neighborhood and contribute to the community. Chemical formulator companies are locked into a financial cycle that requires aggressive sales tactics and an expanding market in order to remain profitable, and therefore the companies cannot be depended upon to act in the best interest of anyone but themselves. Understanding the factors influencing people’s lawncare decisions can help problem solvers imagine healthier paradigms of lawn care that still meet consumers’ needs.

Week 6

Seeing Space

The lawn and the plants in it are not perceived by homeowners objectively or in a vacuum but through multiple layers of moral and symbolic understanding. Like most elements of a dominant culture, these understandings are often tacit and unexamined. They rest on dichotomies of good and bad that aren’t informed by any inherent qualities of the environment, but by competitive capitalist ways of relating to nature and other people. If people examined their beliefs through this lens, would they still find them valuable?

Week 7

Drivers of Environmental Choices

Urban and suburban landscapes are decided by two general categories of stakeholders: top-down governmental policy-makers and individual homeowners and residents. These two categories are influenced by different factors; while public parks are likely more rigid in their adherence to a certain homogenous aesthetic, individual landscaping decisions are highly variable and dependent on the socioeconomic, cultural, and emotional variability of the residents. The emotional relationships that people have with their lawns also varies, with some people happily pursuing eco-friendly gardens, some maintaining monoculture lawns, and some stuck between the two without the resources to manage their yard the way they want to. Could the expertise of experienced lawn maintainers and gardeners somehow be leveraged to help those struggling to make a successful connection with their outdoor space?

Week 8

Art and Design Anthropology 2

The methodology of art and design anthropology is variable and necessarily flexible, as initial project plans run into real-world limitations during implementation. Creative solutions to unforeseen problems may require shifts in emphasis or reimagining the project parameters in light of available resources. A growing number of anthropologists are applying their human-oriented critical thinking and observational skills to facilitate the iterative process of design. Some see a possible role of anthropology as not just observing existing culture, but helping to define it, and anthropologists should be especially conscious of their influences and bias in these cases.

Week 9

People’s Relationships with their Outdoor Space 2

Since World War 2, the American relationship with the lawn has been characterized by an antagonistic, almost militaristic aggression against the natural suburban environments that were never adapted to host a monocultural turf lawn. But some researchers like William E. Doolittle seem to think that an affinity for plants is hardwired into our brains. Maybe there’s room for renegotiating the national narrative between Us and Lawn.

Week 10

Yard Decoration and Public Performance

Though concrete geese and flashy holiday decorations may sometimes seem kitschy or silly, they may serve a deeper purpose. A closer look at someone’s choices of folk art often reveals not just a fondness for a particular aesthetic, but a desire to express their personality, open lines of communication, and build a sense of place and community in their neighborhood.

Week 11

Yards, Meanings, and Fitting In

This set of surveys frames the ways that humans’ interpretations of their yards are overwhelmingly anthropocentric, focusing on questions of fitting in with the rest of the neighborhood, negotiating the yard as a public space, and seeing the yard in terms of human action rather than natural ecological cycles. Some people may be motivated by the needs of the ecosystem, but every human is motivated by what others think of them.

Week 12

Thinking Lawn Politics and Policy

Readings this week present a challenge to the eco-friendly lawn paradigm. Are xeriscaped lawns doomed to reproduce the performances of inequality of the turf lawn, or are there ways to include considerations of social justice in the conversation? Here we explore the ways that the lawn can become a space of inclusion… or greater separation.

Week 13

Lessons in Museum Exhibition Design

It’s one thing to present a bunch of information on public display, but it’s another thing to get people to care about it. Readings this week promote the museum exhibit as an opportunity for visitors to experience learning as transformative to both their understanding of the world and their own self-perception. In order to tap into this, it’s important to meet potential visitors where they are and highlight how new information applies to their everyday life.