The American Front Lawn

Growing up in various intown Atlanta neighborhoods, I was accustomed to single family houses with open front yards that connected one plot to the next for the entire length of the street.  Walking down Oakdale Road, there is a sense of openness and connectivity between homes and their front yards.  If there is a fence, it is a low fence and does not obstruct the view of the yard or house from passersby.  Instead boundaries are oftentimes created through planting, either bushes, a few trees, or a line of pine needle mulch.  This holds true for almost all intown Atlanta neighborhoods.
When I left home in the southern states for college and travels that led me to South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, it became apparent that the unguarded front yards I was accustomed to were not the norm across the world.  I explored neighborhoods with streets lined by continuous patchworks of walls and fences.  The goings on of these places were shrouded in mystery, unlike the transparency of unblinded dining room windows along my hometown neighborhood streets.  It wasn’t necessarily unpleasant, rather I found it intriguing, the mystery of dramas unfolding and gardens growing behind formidable boundaries.

Neighborhood Street in Urubamba, Peru.

In Peru there were walls made from mud bricks, covered in plaster and painted bright colors.  Stiff shards of broken glass lined the tops to guard against intruders. Sturdy metal doors had to be unlocked to enter the plot.  Brilliant papery blossoms of magenta bougainvillea tumbled over and tops of papaya and mango trees peeped over the walls.

Walled Plots and Peacocks in Gaborone, Botswana.

Everywhere I went, I noticed that houses were fenced or walled out of sight.  In Johannesburg, South Africa and Gaborone, Botswana, plots are walled with electric fences atop and electric gates for entry.  Outside of affluent homes, guards keep watch over night.  Sometimes the same tactic of broken glass implemented, as I saw in Peru.

Home in Gaborone, Botswana

In Amsterdam, homes are built flush with the sidewalks, with small private gardens behind the houses.  Homes in Jordan and Israel also follow suit.  Rarely did I come across an unfenced yard or a front lawn in an urban neighborhood outside of the United States.  While I wasn’t undertaking research or a comprehensive survey, this was an observation I made many times in many places.

Tel Aviv, Israel

Atlanta may be unique in its prevalence of intown neighborhoods of single family homes with front and back yards as opposed to high density apartment complexes and condominiums.  However, the penchant for front lawns is unique to America, as I discovered after reading Michael Pollan’s essay, “Beyond Wilderness and Lawn,” in the Harvard Design Magazine Reader 6, 2008.  In this essay, Pollan points out America’s bipolar relationship to nature.  We perceive nature as sacred and not to be interfered with by humans in the wilderness, yet around our homes, we choose to dominate nature through keeping mono-crop lawns doused in pesticides.  To Pollan, there is no in-between for Americans, no space for people to interact with nature without either a sense of interference (in the wilderness) or dominance (of the front lawn).

Pollan points to Frank J Scott as the person who pushed for the American front lawn, thus edging out the garden, a place of interaction with nature.  He writes:

“[Scott] railed against fences, which he regarded as self-ish and undemocratic- one’s lawn should contribute to the collective landscape.  [He] elevated an unassuming patch of turf grass into an institution of democracy.  The American lawn becomes an egalitarian conceit, implying that there is no need, in Scott’s words, “to hedge a lovely garden against the longing eyes of the outside world” because we all occupy the same middle class” (p76).

You see, Americans didn’t invent the lawn, we only democratized it.  We borrowed it from English estates and sized it to fit American homes and unite us as a community.  Pollan writes, “It makes sense, too, that in a country whose people are unified by no single race or ethnic background or religion, the land itself- our one great common denominator- should emerge as a crucial vehicle of consensus” (p76).  This explains the presence of front lawns and absence of gardens surrounding most American homes.

While Pollan finds it depressing that America’s greatest contribution to garden design is the front lawn (according to historian Ann Leighton), he is optimistic about the prospect of gardens replacing lawns; we will come around to a middle ground in our relationship with nature.  As an environmentalist keen on food issues, Pollan suggests that Americans get busy interacting with nature by growing food at home if we want to exist on this planet much longer.  He writes:

“to think environmentally is to find reasons to garden.  Growing one’s food is the best way to assure its purity.  Composting, which should be numbered among the acts of gardening, is an excellent way to lighten a household’s burden on the local landfill.  And gardens can reduce our dependence on distant sources not only of food but also of energy, technology, and even entertainment.”

Front Yard Produce Garden in Georgia.

We continue to exist on a precipitous ledge in relation with nature and our habits of consumption.  Inspiration comes from people who use awareness and intelligence to create solutions to abate our environmental crisis.  Pollan shows us, that like the American front lawn, gardening can take its place as a democratic activity- anyone can do it.

Avid Gardeners Ol Doc Wilson and Ruthie Wilson in Ruthie's Victory Garden, Palmetto, Georgia.

It isn’t surprising that Americans, the most wasteful population on the planet, choose to grow grass in the natural areas surrounding our homes.  Indeed, we are “getting it,” some more quickly than others, that humans and ecological biodiversity are undergoing damage and loss that we cannot recuperate.  Growing food and composting in our home gardens can actually alleviate this situation to some degree.  Simple.  Imagine if you strolled through your neighborhood to see more produce being grown than what is available at the grocery store.  Imagine front yards chock full of plum and apple trees, beds of dark leafy greens, onions, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and herbs.  Trellises of grapes over benches for relaxing, surrounded by beds of rosemary, mint, dill, and lavender.  Now that would be an enjoyable place to live!

2 Responses to “The American Front Lawn”
  1. paige says:

    this is just wonderful

  2. Erin Young says:

    A delicious piece bringing perspective to the pervasive nature of mono-cropping in the urban context.

    It is also interesting to note that personal/communal food production also does much for personal, and communal, empowerment. In moving away from broken food production systems, and through grounded and practical efforts as individuals, we can grow as groups with true common-unity.

    Kudos 🙂

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