Dorothy’s “emerald city” might have been in the Land of Oz, but drive into any U.S. suburb and you will be greeted by an equally verdant landscape, one dominated by the American lawn. However, despite their ubiquity, there was once a time when grassy lawns were not so popular. Their rise reflects the aesthetics of suburbia and the evolving values of American consumers. But such preferences come at a price: as well as being a colossal waste of space, lawns also promote the large-scale indiscriminate use of harmful chemicals.
“Lawn,” coined in the 16th-century from Old English “launde,” is defined as an open space or glade. Popularized by British aristocracies who maintained low-cut grass through hired labor, the lawn soon became a status symbol. But it was not until the late 19th century that turf began to take root in the United States. In his book The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, published in 1870, landscape architect Frank Scott wrote that a “closely-shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban home.”1
Despite the germination of lawn aesthetics in the late 19th century, relatively few Americans had the wealth and spare time to cultivate a lawn. Before the induction of the 40-hour workweek, most people worked six days a week and observed the Sabbath on Sundays. Moreover, much of the working-class depended on their land as a food source, and often grew vegetables and raised livestock on their so-called “lawns.”1
Meanwhile, the presence of goats, pigs, cows, and horses was common in major metropolises as recently as the late 19th century. In fact, pigs were an essential component of the urban landscape; they roamed in large herds, fed on garbage and waste, and later ended up on family dinner tables. Additionally, the city and countryside formed a more holistic ecological relationship as nearby farmers trucked meat and produce into the city, while cities shipped out waste for fertilizer. Natural cycles were integrated into everyday life and many valued the efficiency of such a system. While the lack of a proper sewage system and the presence of animals posed a public health concern, many were nonetheless outraged when New York City authorities banned swine from the streets; farmers complained about the loss of good fertilizer, and the urban poor lamented the loss of a free food source.2
It wasn’t until World War II that mowed turf began to gain widespread popularity among American homeowners. While the war offered a brief reprieve from unabated growth of suburban sprawl and automobile use, green lawns nonetheless prevailed as a symbol of patriotism. Lawn seed companies such as O.M. Scott & Sons printed advertisements that tapped into national pathos: “Your lawn is the symbol of peace at home and its proper maintenance a vital factor in keeping up morale” stated one, while others directed their war-like aggression toward weeds. As one author of an article on lawn care wrote, “It’s time to take up arms against the weeds. From now on, when man and nature meet on the lawn, it’s dog eat dog.”1
By linking lawn care with patriotism, lawn companies helped to create an insatiable desire among suburban Americans for the perfect lawn—a feat near impossible to achieve. Yet, it isn’t for lack of effort. In response to California’s four year drought and ensuing water regulations, lawn spray-painting businesses have been cropping up in order to preserve the appearance of lush lawns, despite the parched reality.3 Companies such as Xtreme Green Grass of West Sacramento, California offer homeowners the service of spray-painting lawns green in order to turn dead grass into a seemingly flourishing lawn.4
As lawns became increasingly ubiquitous, the image of the perfect lawn was celebrated as a vital and pleasant adjunct to middle-class American culture. Picnics, croquet, 4th of July barbecues, and a “big backyard for the kids” are all synonymous with the American dream. But our emerald green fairy tale may have caught up with us.
From Idyllic Green to Environmental Hazard
Today, the lawn is the largest single crop in the nation, occupying approximately two percent of the surface of the continental U.S.5 Millions of Americans feel the perfectly manicured lawn is an integral part of their suburban home, but few are aware of its environmental impact.
Kentucky bluegrass, the most common lawn grass, is a native of northern Europe and is ill adapted to much of the United States’ considerably drier climate.1 Scenario models suggest that 695 to 900 liters of water per person per day is required to meet the collective domestic and commercial consumptive water use for lawn management.6
Additionally, run-off from fertilizer inputs contribute to harmful algal blooms that can alter marine ecosystems, kill marine life, contaminate drinking water, and cause human disease and even death.7 This issue is widespread, occurring from Vermont’s Lake Champlain to the Gulf of Mexico. Maryland, for example, has an estimated 1.3 million acres of planted turf, requiring 86 million pounds of fertilizer each year. The runoff from this application of chemicals is severe enough to play a part in threatening the health of many bodies of water, including the Chesapeake Bay.8
Perhaps most surprising, though, are the negative impacts of the lawnmower and other gas-powered lawn equipment. Honda, Toro, Cub Cadet, and John Deere may be household names, but the candied green and red lawnmowers marketed at town hardware stores are guilty of emitting a significant percentage of the United States’ annual pollutants.
A study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), found that, as of 2011, the number of units of gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment (GLGE) in the U.S. was estimated at 120,978,220. These GLGE non-road emissions contribute five percent of the country’s annual air pollution. Ultimately, the EPA found that GLGE is a major source of toxic carcinogenic emissions, which can lead to negative health impacts including cardiovascular disease, stroke, respiratory disease, cancer, neurological conditions, premature death, and effects on fertility and prenatal development.9
Beyond air pollution, GLGE is a prominent source of noise pollution. The average lawnmower produces 85 to 90 decibels for the operator and can be heard over a quarter-mile away.10 The EPA warns that noise levels at 85 decibels or above can be harmful to hearing. Such noise can cause loss of hearing, increased blood pressure, insomnia, increased heart rate, cardiovascular diseases, and changes in brain chemistry to those exposed to it for long periods of time.11
The Four-Legged Mower
Despite these environmental and health concerns, Americans continue to be devoted to their lawns. However, a counterculture movement reflective of the 19th century is slowly emerging in suburbia. Clotheslines are creeping back into neighborhoods, and the local food movement is trending. Most surprisingly, livestock is making a comeback in urban areas, with goats in particular emerging as a partial solution to lawn care and invasive species control. Companies such as Eco-goats and Rent-a-Goat, for example, offer goat rental services as a means to clear land of unwanted vegetation, reduce fire danger, mow lawns, and remove invasive species.12
Domesticated from the wild goat (Capra aegagrus) 10,000 years ago at the edge of the Fertile Crescent, humans have benefited from goats’ wool, milk, and meat.13 However, in more recent history, goats have earned a bad name. Introduced to countries and islands worldwide, feral goats have wrought ecological havoc on native flora and fauna. In fact, many goat eradication efforts have taken place, including on the islands of Lana’I (Hawaii), San Clementine (California), Pinta (Galapagos), and Raoul (New Zealand).14
And yet the very traits that have made them an environmental disaster make them a viable replacement for the lawnmower. Their success as a feral animal has been made possible by their physiological traits, including low metabolism, efficient digestion system, low water requirements, high reproductive rate, and general diet.14 These make them ideal as lawn and garden-care animals.
Advertised as “eco-friendly,” goats munch on weeds, invasive plants, and grasses without emitting the same noxious fumes as lawn power tools.12 One study confirmed goats’ effectiveness in invasive species control by examining their impact on the multiflora rose plant. Researchers found that goats grazing in a paddock depleted the biovolume of the multiflora rose plant by 38.7 percent in 68 days. In contrast, the control paddock had a 56.7 percent increase in biovolume.15
In addition to limiting emissions, goat-waste deposits naturally fertilize lawns, allowing homeowners who rent goats to forgo harmful chemical fertilizers. Meanwhile, their munching habits and occasional bleats don’t add to motor noise pollution that plague urban areas.12
However, goats’ most beneficial impact on a landscape may not be ecological so much as cultural. Eric MacDonald, associate professor of environmental design history at the University of Georgia, is the project coordinator of the Tanyard Creek Chew Crew, a student-led initiative that utilizes prescribed grazing for landscape management on campus. From an ecological perspective, the project has been quite successful; the goats, which graze for five to six weeks every fall and spring, have done good work controlling the kudzu and paper mulberry in the riparian zone MacDonald’s team has targeted. Nonetheless, it is the social consequence that has captured MacDonald’s attention. “Some of the areas that are most heavily degraded by invasive species are generally areas that people have no strong connection to,” he explains. “The idea that was interesting to me about using goats was not just about whether it was ecologically effective, but whether we could build culture and sense of place around these particular landscapes.”16
As it turns out, they could. “Goats are pleasing, an attractive addition to the landscape and bringing a sense of culture…to a location people would otherwise just walk by,” says MacDonald. So for now, the goats will stay on Georgia’s campus, munching away at the woody vegetation between the dormitories and the outskirts of town.16
Nonetheless, the benefits of goats are not endless. When probed about the drawbacks of goats, Brian Knox, founder of Eco-Goats, says that they are not a “magic bullet.” “[Goats] don’t make things go away magically and they’re not picky so they can and will eat desirable vegetation…you can do a lot of damage with goats if they’re in the wrong spot,” says Knox. Not to mention that fact that goats are also not cheap. “Goats are always more fun, but they’re not more economical,” says Knox. “If you can run a machine on the land, then it’s infinitely cheaper than using goats.”17
That isn’t to say Knox hasn’t been milking goats for all that they’re worth. In 2013 his own herd wandered around the headstones at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C. where they took on poison ivy and English ivy—two plants that are jeopardizing the health of the cemetery’s trees and the integrity of the tombstones.18
Legally, regulations are often set in place that prohibit “diseased or unfit animals,” or animals that are “likely to cause delay in traffic” in cities. Nonetheless, the goats were cleared to roam within set cemetery boundaries due to Knox’s background as a certified forester and after collaboration with the Department of Public Health.18 The experiment was deemed a success, and goats were welcomed back to the Congressional Cemetery in August 2015.
Ultimately, Knox thinks goats are a “wonderful tool in the toolbox” when used correctly. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re cute to boot. When he does jobs in residential areas, Knox says most of the time everyone is “just tickled to see the goats.”17
So while goats may be just a fringe lawn-tool, they are growing in popularity and have been employed by numerous landowners, from residential homeowners to Google and Yahoo.19 The sight of goats browsing front yards and corporate gardens will spur conversation and at least get people thinking about other possible ways of managing and using urban green space.
A Possible Future
America’s relationship with the natural world has changed and evolved throughout history. Indeed, it was not too long ago that Thomas Jefferson pictured a quiet agrarian society. But instead of vegetables and livestock, the United States has long since farmed a different kind of crop: the American lawn.
Companies capitalizing on America’s consumer culture and patriotic values have responded to political and economic realities by selling the “perfect lawn” as a symbol of status, peace, and patriotism. However, a closer look at history shows that landowners’ values are subject to change. History tells us that productivity once trumped aesthetics. Home gardens used to produce food. City menageries had feral pigs that served as both a waste disposal service and a valuable food source. And horses were used for transportation while their manure was shipped out to nearby farms. In short, our addiction to impractical swaths of grass may just be an embarrassing blip within the history of human land use.
In his influential essay The Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronon argues that Americans have fetishized wilderness, in the process devaluing other landscapes. Instead, we should learn to treat all corners of the Earth with equal care—from the “seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts,” to the “cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk.”20
Goats just may prove to be the hook that gets American homeowners to rethink their environmental ethic within the midst of spray painted lawns. By reintroducing livestock back into our urban environments, whether it be backyard chickens or rented goat lawnmowers, we can begin to remember a more ecologically sustainable way of living.
- Steinberg, T. American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn (W.W. Norton, New York, 2006).
- Steinberg, T. Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (Oxford University Press, New York, 2002).
- Cheng, L, M. Hoerling, and A. AghaKouchak. How has human-induced climate change affected California drought risk? Journal of Climate 29(1), 111–120 (2016).
- Xtreme Green. Xtreme Green Grass [online] (2015) http://www.xtremegreengrass.com/.
- Milesia, C et al. A strategy for mapping and modeling the ecological effects of lawns. The International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing [online] (2015) http://www.isprs.org/proceedings/XXXVI/8-W27/milesi.pdf.
- A Strategy for Mapping and Modeling the Ecological Effects of US Lawns. The International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing [online] (2015) https://www.isprs.org/proceedings/XXXVI/8-W27/milesi.pdf.
- National Ocean Service. Harmful algal blooms. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [online] (January 20, 2016) http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/hab/.
- Urban fertilizers & the Chesapeake Bay: an opportunity for major pollution reduction. Environment Maryland Research and Policy Center [online] (March 28, 2011) http://www.environmentmaryland.org/reports/mde/urban-fertilizers-chesapeake-bay.
- Banks, J. and R. McConnell. National emissions from lawn and garden equipment. Environmental Protection Agency [online] (2011) http://www3.epa.gov/ttn/chief/conference/ei21/session10/banks.pdf.
- Chepesiuk, R. Decibel hell: the effects of living in a noisy world. Environmental Health Perspectives 113(1), A34–A41 (2005).
- Noise Pollution Clearinghouse. Quiet lawns: creating the “perfect” landscape without polluting the soundscape. NPC [online] (2015) http://www.nonoise.org/library/qz7/QuietLawns05.pdf.
- Rent a Goat. Benefits [online] (2015) http://rentagoat.com/benefits/.
- Roots, C. Domestication (Greenwood, Westport, CT, 2007).
- Campbell, K. and J. Donlan. Feral goat eradications on islands. Conservation Biology 19(5), 1362–1374 (2005).
- Kleppel, G., S. Caggiano, A. O’Conner, and E. McGowan. Conservation goat grazing for invasive species in the Hudson Valley [online] (2010) https://www.glynwood.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Conservation-Goat-Grazing-Report.pdf.
- MacDonald, E. Tanyard Creek Chew Crew (personal communication, 2016).
- Knox, B. Eco-Goats (personal communication, 2016).
- Kramer, M. The kids are alright: goats that double as lawnmowers. National Geographic [online] (2013) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/08/130808-goats-lawnmowers-environment-cemetery-congressional-washington-dc/.
- McCarthy, C. Things to make you happy: Google employs goats. CNET [online] (2009) http://www.cnet.com/news/things-to-make-you-happy-google-employs-goats/.
- Cronon, W. in The Great New Wilderness Debate (eds Callicott, J & Nelson, M) (University of Georgia Press, Athens GA, 1998): 89.