Week 12: Thinking Lawn Politics and Policy

“Digging in: lawn dissidents, performing sustainability, and landscapes of privilege” by Amy Lebowitz and Dan Trudeau, 2016

Lebowitz and Trudeau use the term “lawn dissident” to refer to people who forgo the traditional turf lawn aesthetic in favor of a more eco-friendly “xeriscaped” lawn. They push back against the growing positive reputation of sustainable landscaping, pointing out ways that the green movement can reinforce class-based inequities and act as a stage for homeowners to perform a white, privileged identity.

The authors point out that the common concept of “sustainability” has its roots in the 1987 United Nations’ Brundtland Report. The report “famously conceptualized sustainability as consisting of three interlocking dimensions: economy, equity, and environment,” but the now popular idea of sustainability in the United States focuses almost exclusively on the environment while businesses capitalize on the “green” movement to sell more products and contribute to wealth inequality (Lebowitz and Trudeau 709). The authors equate installing a xeriscaped lawn with pursuing the identity of an “elite ‘green’ consumer” (712).

Though for lawn dissidents “sustainability is narrowly constructed around concerns of environmental citizenship,” the study found evidence of a widespread, informal sharing economy wherein people would share food, time, tools, knowledge with their friends, neighbors, and strangers (723).

The paper ends with recommendations for incorporating social justice into the green landscaping movement, suggesting:

  • organizing community events where residents can share skills, swap food and plants, or otherwise meet their needs outside of the capitalist system
  • promote the blending of outdoor spaces by allowing kids to play on your lawn, or installing a bench on their lawn near the sidewalk for passersby
  • setting a standard of neighborhood inclusivity by making sure any lawn signs are written in multiple languages

I found this article to be a little hypercritical of the lawn managers studied, as it criticizes lawn dissidents for unwittingly participating in performative capitalism while downplaying their ecological commitments and widespread sharing habits.

“Xeriscape people and the cultural politics of turfgrass transformation” by Daanish Mustafa, Thomas A Smucker, Franklin Ginn, Rebecca Johns, and Shanon Connely, 2010

Words used in focus testing to describe xeriscaped lawns include “interesting, artistic, ordered chaos, and native plants” as well as “lazy owner, unkempt, messy, overgrown, too wild, and disordered” (610-611).

When Mustafa et al use education level as a proxy for what they call “cultural capital,” they find that “efforts undertaken to xeriscape and transform one’s turfgrass lawn correlate with greater cultural capital” (Mustafa et al 606). Many of the people with xeriscaped lawns expressed feeling a responsibility toward the environment (conceived of on a global scale), which the authors claim is a “disciplined cultural accomplishment” that overcomes the common middle-class habitus of conforming to the dominant (national scale) turf lawn aesthetic (608). In fact, during focus group testing, more people preferred the xeriscaped yard than the turf lawn.

Words used in focus testing to describe turfgrass lawns include “clean looking, nicely colored and landscaped, neat, Alice in Wonderland, street appeal, nice for a party, and ‘typical America'” as well as “very monotonous, manicured with chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers, too formal, too sterile, consumes too much water, unimaginative, needs more landscaping, expensive for upkeep, waste of space, and not natural” (611-612).

At the same time, this article also points out the equity disparities inherent in the xeriscaping movement. Although many people in the study (around 70%) didn’t feel loyal to the turfgrass lawn, they cited the necessary time commitment and financial investment as barriers to them pursuing a xeriscaped yard (607). This conversion is therefore not available to all homeowners, establishing it as a marker of privilege. Moreover, when asked to comment on the lawn photos from lower-income neighborhoods, homeowners responded with criticism.

Words used in focus testing to describe lower-income, low-input lawns include “sad, ‘an empty canvas ready for some life,’ ugly, barren, unkempt, no one cares, natural in the negative, and ‘all uncared for and unattractive'” (612).

Ironically, the authors found that people with this low-input style of yard were more likely to use their yard to host social events with friends than people with highly developed lawnscapes (who saw their style of lawn management as pro-social).

As an interesting side note, Mustafa et al noted that they had a hard time conducting their research because so many people were afraid to talk to them, a problem much more severe than they had run into in South Asia or Africa. They suggest that the lawn in the United States reveals potent underlying fears that Americans have about strangers, security, wildlife, and boundaries. Many people who responded negatively to the xeriscaped lawn cited overgrown vegetation as a security hazard or an invitation to spiders and snakes, or expressed a need to constantly exert control over nature. Through this lens, the lawn begins to look like a demilitarized zone that some homeowners use to buffer themselves from the world outside their front door.

“Biodiversity in my (back)yard: towards a framework for citizen engagement in exploring biodiversity and ecosystem services in residential gardens” by Carijn Beumer and Pim Martens, 2015

This article’s focus was forming a framework for analyzing the sustainability of an urban yard with ecological factors and cultural factors in mind. Much of the article entailed a deeper dive into statistics than I was looking for for my project, but the chart they developed of their framework is a helpful visual representation of the complex factors that all play into the way people manage their lawns.


I spent more time than usual on this week’s readings, as I found them more provocative than most. I had never encountered criticisms of the eco-friendly landscaping movement before, and it took me a while to really appreciate how they fit into the story of the American lawn. I’m so glad that I included these in my readings because they’ve helped me to not only consider the differing levels of control that homeowners have over their landscapes, but to imagine new ways that homeowners can conceive of their yards as community spaces. I feel like my project is now informed by heightened levels of sensitivity to questions of access and privilege, and my interpretive texts can include ideas for budget-friendly, community-involved landscaping updates.