Geography of Lawns

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When you look outside, what do you see? Some of us trees or a road, but what most of us have in common are our lawns. Lawns are the pride and joy of many residents of the United States; in fact, having an unruly lawn can get you in trouble in some neighborhoods!

Lawns now make up the biggest use of land in the United States. Corn comes right behind grass as the second most grown ‘crop’ in the country. One-fifth of the land in the US is used for agriculture, and there is nearly 50,000 square miles of lawn being grown. Where did this obsession with our lawns come from?

Back in the 17th century lawns were the sole property of the rich and famous. Only they could afford to own land that was going to be used for entertainment and leisure rather than food or animals. The lawnmower was invented in 1830 and put to bed the practice of having many servants out on hands and knees, painstakingly hand cutting the grass to perfection.

Researchers estimate that more surface area in the United States is devoted to lawns than to individual irrigated crops such as corn or wheat. This map uses shades of green to indicate the fraction of the U.S. land surface area covered by lawns, including residential, industrial, and recreational. (Map courtesy Cristina Milesi, 2005.)
Researchers estimated that more surface area in the United States is devoted to lawns than to individual irrigated crops such as corn or wheat. This map uses shades of green to indicate the fraction of the U.S. land surface area covered by lawns, including residential, industrial, and recreational. (Map courtesy Cristina Milesi, 2005.)

Having a lawn became more attainable after the lawnmower was invented, as it no longer took a team of servants to take care of a small space of greenery. There was an increase in green space as people gained access to their own personal lawns and gardens, and improvements in agricultural technology allowed them the time to grow and care for this new private space.

Most lawns, according to the study referenced below, are carbon sinks; by recycling grass clippings and leaving them to decompose on the lawn, the U.S. lawn area could store up to 16.7 teragrams of carbon each year.  Present day lawns may be a bigger strain on the environment than we realize, however. Watering lawns can cause underground aquifers to be depleted, exacerbating existing drought issues in dry areas. Even small lawn surfaces pose environmental concerns which include the use of non-native grass and other plant species.

The great American lawn takeover has happened yet but attitudes towards large swaths of lawn are changing. Western states are moving towards water restrictions and encouraging residents to plant native species when planning their landscape.

More:

  • Looking for Lawns. (2005).  NASA Earth Observatory.
  • Milesi, C., S.W. Running, C.D. Elvidge, J.B. Dietz, B.T. Tuttle, R.R. Nemani. (2005) Mapping and modeling the biogeochemical cycling of turf grasses in the United States. Environmental Management 36(3), 426-438.

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