As I was house-hunting this summer, I found myself perplexed by listing after listing of tidy, homogeneous turfgrass lawns. This style of landscaping isn’t my cup of tea, but it’s so prevalent that I couldn’t stop wondering about it. How did these lawns become a staple in the American suburban aesthetic? And why are they still so popular, when we know now that they’re largely ecological dead zones that do little to support urban and suburban ecosystems? With guidance from Dr. Gabrielle Berlinger at UNC Chapel Hill, I set out to explore these questions through an independent study in the American Studies department.
I collected writings from across the disciplinary spectrum, from anthropology and history to geography, environmental science, art, and design. Over the course of the semester, my conception of the lawn changed. What seemed like a fairly discrete relationship between a home resident and their outdoor space started to reveal itself as an arena for negotiating a complex set of relationships within the context of often contradictory desires. Not quite public and not quite private, the yard can be a buffer between the interior homelife and the outside world, or it can open into a venue for building community. It can serve as a stage to perform neighborly responsibility or a space to express individualistic identities; a site of food production or a fragile work of botanical art; a commitment to the stewardship of native habitat or a battleground in the war against Mother Nature.
As gratifying as it is to experience a deep blossoming of understanding, following my curiosity is not where my practice ends. The next phase of my project is to share what I’ve learned with the greater community. My goal is to combine my research and my art into a temporary outdoor installation that invites the public to join me in asking, “Does the dominant ideal of the turfgrass lawn really serve us, or can we imagine something better?” A series of planter boxes will reclaim an urban street in Dayton, Ohio with native plants, interpretive text will introduce passersby to the research, and painted mural panels will illustrate key symbiotic relationships between local plants and animals. If all goes according to plan, the installation will coincide with Earth Day 2021, encouraging readers to reflect on how their individual yard maintenance decisions can impact their local ecology.
View the entire project and research here, and view the installation mock-up here.