Drought: Is there a way to have sustainability and a lawn?

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In Phoenix neighborhoods, strolling families and dog walkers play a game: real or fake? Artificial lawns are so convincing it may take plucking and sniffing to discern if it is living flora or cunning plastic. 

In Los Angeles, the game is more like an office pool – guess how long it will take homeowners who’ve ripped out lawns in favor of native plants to reverse course and replant water-guzzling sod.

Why We Wrote This

Perhaps nothing challenges the homeowner’s aesthetic as much as the question of whether grass lawns are over – socially unacceptable. Striking a balance through innovation is a first step in figuring out the place of the lawn in American culture.

Lawns – the most expansive irrigated crop in America – have become crucibles of conscience, one more way individuals struggle to balance freedom and responsibility in the cultural tug of wars. The stakes in such matters aren’t trivial, as reflected in climate maps of the United States this season – even now in autumn they’re color-coded “abnormally dry” to “extreme” and “exceptional” drought. 

So is the lawn headed for extinction?

One researcher, Jim Baird at the University of California, Riverside, has developed grass strains requiring 50% less water and suggests lawns can be sustainable.  

But as temperatures rise and droughts drive water bills higher, homeowner commitment to lawns teeters. Motivated less by shame than a government subsidy, Los Alamitos, California, resident Bill Nottingham earlier this year resolved, “Let’s do the right thing and rip out the lawn.”    

In some Phoenix neighborhoods, strolling families and dog walkers can be seen playing a game: real or fake? 

Guessing at this used to be laughably easy. Now artificial lawns are so convincing that it may take plucking and sniffing a wispy blade to discern if the lush green carpet outside a home is living flora or cunning plastic. Even dogs get confused. The snootier ones turn up their noses. 

In Los Angeles, the neighborhood game is more like an office pool, the goal of which is to guess how many months it will take homeowners who have ripped out their lawns in favor of government-subsidized native shrubs or cactus to reverse course and replant water-guzzling sod when they decide to sell or get a new cornhole set.

Why We Wrote This

Perhaps nothing challenges the homeowner’s aesthetic as much as the question of whether grass lawns are over – socially unacceptable. Striking a balance through innovation is a first step in figuring out the place of the lawn in American culture.

The stakes in such matters are far from trivial, as reflected in the yellow, orange, and dark plum shades splashed across climate maps of the United States this season – hues meant not to suggest autumn leaves but color-coding for “abnormally dry” to “extreme” and “exceptional” drought. 

Lawns have become crucibles of conscience, one more way individuals struggle to maintain a balance between freedom and responsibility in the nation’s cultural tug of wars. Even in places such as Ohio or New Hampshire, where lawns already hibernate under inches or feet of snow, a glimpse of a mower in the garage can stir traumatic memories of springtime’s judgmental stares:  



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