Lawns take up more space than Cambodia, or why we need ordinances

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Lawns take up more space than Cambodia, or why we need ordinances

A short bike ride away from my house, on a narrow road named after a tree, is a vacant lot covered with grass. I don't know who owns this lot (at least 3,000 sq. metres of land) and I have never seen anyone mowing the grass. But when I cycle by the lot I look for the dandelions to see whether or not the mowers are due.

The owners know it’s time to mow the lawn when they see these wildflowers. So when I pass by again a few days later, the dandelions are gone and the grass is cropped down to the ground. No one uses this lot for recreational purposes, which would be a good reason to mow the lawn if you were the owner. The house across the street is not aligned with the lot, so we cannot say that the owners mow the grass to give themselves a pleasant view from their kitchen window (if the people across the street are indeed the owners). I asked an official in my municipality if lot owners are obliged to mow their lawns. “Not that I know of,” she said.

This enormous lot, then, is nothing more than a commodified unit of land on the cadastral map, a title deed in someone’s vault. Grass in the bank.

I was reminded of someone who goes by the name of John Locke while reading Nick Hayes’s The Book of Trespass, a work that has earned a place on our best-books shelf. How can anyone claim a piece of land as their own? John Locke asked, and why should the rest of us (neighbours, fellow tribesmen, etc.) believe such claims?

Locke’s answer (his theory of property rights) is interesting: You can call yourself the owner of the land if you grow something there, be it cauliflowers, poppies or pheasants. You can claim ownership, Locke says, if you regularly coppice the trees growing there or plant apple trees to make cider.

Locke’s classic justification of property rights — one of the cornerstones of an edifice of Western law — is no longer suitable for our times. But it’s telling that the man who spent years of his life thinking about these things could find no other justification for the concept of land ownership. Locke, no proto-socialist, would be appalled and shocked at the idea of a commodified unit of land whose only purpose is to give peace of mind to its fortunate owners.

I asked Google a question a few months back for which it had no ready answer: What is the total land area worldwide that is given over to grass cultivation? In other words, what percentage of the world’s terrestrial surface is covered with grass, or “lawns” (suburban lawns, town greens, investment lots, golf courses, etc.)? These lawns, by the way, need maintenance, and that means greenhouse gas emissions, tons of emissions per year.

Undeterred by the initial search results, I kept hunting and gathering for data on lawns (or turf grasses) and what I found astonished me. To my knowledge, only four countries have peer-reviewed estimates or partial estimates of the total land area that is given over to turf-grass cultivation. These countries are the United States, Sweden, France and the U.K. There is a number for Australia, but I don't find it credible.

That we only have lawn-cover estimates for the countries mentioned above tells you to what extent our global lawn-cover area or “lawnscape” is invisible to policymakers at all levels of government. It’s like the Sea of Azov to the geographically challenged, only five times bigger. Or perhaps twenty times bigger.

Lacking country-specific studies (and public interest in the subject), we can only guess how large this green patch has become. Adding up the numbers we do have, however, the total land area of this close-cropped lawnscape (187,669 km²) would exceed the total land area of Cambodia (181,035 km²), or roughly the land area of Portugal two times over. (References below.)  

187,669 km² of the Earth’s terrestrial surface given over to non-edible grass cultivation or lawns. Imagine that for a moment. And this leaves out dozens of countries that have experienced substantial urban and suburban growth in recent decades, including China with its booming urban centers, where large public lawns are the latest fad. And drought-prone Spain, where researchers linked the growing popularity of turf grasses to rising domestic water consumption. (You don't need a Ph.D. in hydrology and water management to figure that one out.)

It leaves out Mexico, where homeowners love their lawns, and Chile, where suburban lawns are very popular according to a professor I spoke to who is studying the issue. It leaves out the lawns of Germany (I sent emails and received courteous replies, but no one, to my knowledge, has a national estimate) and those of Brazil and Argentina, enormous countries with their share of suburban development.

Policymakers in Flanders have been thinking about the environment recently and drafted a plan to keep tractor mowers away from road verges as much as possible. This means Belgium will become an even more beautiful country than it already is. And that’s just the aesthetic dividend. But what about these vacant-lot lawns, which seem to abound in our parts of the world? I’ve seen them in the Netherlands, France and Belgium.

Golfers will defend their clubs to the last man, and that’s fine. But maybe we can persuade a few of them to rewild everything around their fairways and greens and knock down a few fences. Public lawns in city parks, Capability Brown landscapes, sports fields and other such lawns are part of the human village and are here to stay.

If these lawns are net emitters of CO2 as a result of all that mowing or, in the best case scenario, carbon neutral —well, they are still worth it because we need these spaces of leisure. (We don't “need” more golf courses, but we’ll leave this subject for another day.) The Cambodia of grass cannot shrink all that much, no matter how many ordinances we throw at it. But do our leaders have to say about those plots of land like the one described above? Investment lots held over the long term that are used for absolutely nothing, mowed with tractors as soon as the strange little flowers start to grow.

Shouldn't these commodified units of land provide a few ecosystem services for everyone instead of disservices? At least while the owners and their grandchildren decide whether they want to sell or keep the land in the family for the next 200 years? If Dutch farmers plant wildflowers on the margins of their crop fields, why can’t empty-lot owners all over Europe do the same with their unused or underused land? Wildflowers, ponds, trees, shrubs, bee houses, life? And why not try volunteer pilot projects with private garden lawns too? This, surely, is not much to ask of landowners.   

Vacant-lot ordinances might not shrink the Cambodia of grass all that much, one guesses, maybe forty or fifty thousand square meters worldwide (a wild guess at this point, considering all the missing data mentioned above), but fifty thousand sq. meters is approximately the land area of Slovakia. If a climate techno-fixer tells you this is just a pixel on our world map, and that it really doesn't matter, show him the last picture Voyager 2 took before it sailed away into interstellar space. It’s a picture of a white pixel called Earth, a place filled with tiny yellow pixels we call dandelions. And they matter.

Citations to back up the 181,035 km figure?

In the U.S. lawns take up an estimated 163,800 km2 of land, which is roughly the total land area of Belgium five times over. This total includes sports fields and the estimated 9,635 golf courses in the United States. But American suburban gardens take up the lion’s share of the land under turf grass cultivation.

The British have an estimated 5,218 km² of residential gardens. Not all this land is given over to lawns as this total includes trees, shrubs, flowerbeds and the occasional rewilded British garden. But if you consider all those country houses with their Capability Brown landscapes, city parks, golf courses, etc., the area under turf grass cultivation in the UK grows significantly.

The French, devotees of the American Industrial Lawn, have an estimated 16,062 km2 planted with pure mono culture turf grass, an area slightly smaller than Wallonia. This is an oft-cited bloggers’ number that “has not been updated”, according to an official with the French Interprofessional Organization for Seeds and Plants. So French lawns might occupy more space than we think.

Besides the numbers cited above, we have a partial estimate for Sweden (2,589 km2, not including rural lawns), an incomplete one for Australia, and that’s about it. (This being an age of “climate and biodiversity awareness”, this strikes me as odd.) Other lawn-loving countries and regions, including Flanders, might have estimates for total lawn cover. If they do, I didn't find them.

The Eurostat office that studies these things bundles together “lawns” and “pleasure gardens” with “quarries”, “tracks” and “infertile land or rock” to make up a mixed-bag category known as “Other Land”, a minor category in land-use maps and not very helpful for our purposes. Our best satellites can help us calculate “leaf-cover area”, etc.; but lawns, scattered grains of sand on the map, are hard to categorize and measure. Researchers write complex algorithms to try to make sense of the satellite data that is available.

Emissions as a result of lawn maintenance is something quite a few people have written about, a good place to start is a U.S. EPA report that looked at “Emissions from Lawn and Garden Equipment” over a number of years. More on turf grasses as net carbon emitters.

The impact of lawns on wildlife diversity are mixed. Some bird species, like European blackbirds, use lawns to their advantage. Other bird species and animals want to have nothing to do with them. A healthy garden is a mix of these habitats: wildflower meadow, mini woodland, recreational lawn.

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