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Is it time to decolonise our lawns?

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Tracey Creed

Published December 29 2022

Where I live, we have two patches of lawn, a small grass patch within our rented property where we discourage mowing and weeds and pretty flowers grow abundantly, attracting bees and another, road-facing and utterly useless. As renters, the needs of the grass become our own, though there are people who no longer care to conform, to waste resources on such a pointless pursuit.

Considering Aotearoa will see another significant marine heatwave this summer, it is probably best to leave the water—Earth’s most precious resource for sustaining life, for that purpose. A lawn does take a lot of time, work, and effort to keep alive, to maintain verdant and under control. If people were less bothered, we could have gardens, flowers and bees. We just have to make it happen. These photographs were taken within a short walking distance of where I live. Some people have started.

Today, the ubiquitous urban green space in Aotearoa is considered an enduring symbol of colonisation and the appropriation of Indigenous land and culture, and within that, maintaining lawns is fueling our climate and biodiversity crises. Most lawns are non-native invasive grass species—perhaps the water and fertiliser required to care for foreign grasses may be most damaging. I saw recently on the news that the council will reduce lawn maintenance as a cost-cutting exercise. That is at least one policy I can get behind.

The lawns come from the property ownership mentality that we can own property. As confirmed by Abraham Levitt's efforts in his exercise in conformity, the goal is to attain a patch of green grass of a singular type with no weeds attached to your home. It should be no more than an inch and a half tall and neatly edged. This implied you would be willing to care for it. Lawns are expensive. They must be cultivated, watered, mowed and repaired. Every backyard became a private park, a mark of homeownership, status and respectability.

Changing a landscape to make it suitable for a different incoming culture is a vital part of colonisation and that is precisely how lawns here in Aotearoa, Australia, Canada and the United States came to be. Lawn represents a considerable part of settler culture. You see that river there? We can dam that. We can organise that water. We can make that water work for us. It’s essentially the same mindset. I can reorganise this landscape, flatten it, plant lawn, find a non-indigenous species of plant, of grass, and completely extract anything that’s not homogenous, that doesn’t fit and control it. What is a lawn but a statement of control over nature? A backyard with a lawn is like a classroom for colonialism and environmental hostility. For decades Americans, and I would argue, equally, here in Aotearoa, have consumed more energy, more everything, built bigger houses, and driven more. Tāmaki Makaurau is a city obsessed with making more roads for private vehicles and lawns.

If you are yet to watch The End of Suburbia—a 52-minute documentary on peak oil, I highly recommend you do. For many, there will be some strange sense of comfort in understanding our suburbia is manufactured. This short film discusses the theory, evidence, and implications of peak oil within the context of the American suburbs, eventually questioning whether modern suburbia is sustainable. This piece published in Scientific American provides a history of America’s changing suburban landscape—how lawns in Canada and the United States came to be. Lawns would not reach middle-class North America until the late 19th century— well after the Civil War. Manicured lawns were very much associated with wealth, becoming popular partly because immigrants imported the European traditions of manicured lawns which had evolved from providing grazing patches for animals.

The rise of invasive, imported lawn meant a decline in the biodiversity relied on by Indigenous people. But those unknown plants, the weeds enter through the land. They have their own stories and are as wonderful as any other plants. Arguably, in our urban areas, it [the lawn] is the largest ecosystem. That is an issue because a mono-crop of grass—essentially most lawn, is vulnerable to disease and drought and can act as an ecological desert. We are not stuck with our yards as they are, and it is not difficult to decolonise, to diversify lawn.

Most ecologists would suggest minimising how much you maintain your patch of lawn—mow it less, and if you own your property, each year replace some or all of the current grasses with Indigenous species. In the broader news context, bees are dying at an alarming rate, and glyphosates have ravaged soils. The message is clear: let the natural flora spring up and increase the beneficial insects like pollinators. Considering community pressure, legislative policy, and the value people place on property, this is, perhaps, easier said than done. It does not mean we should not try.

But inevitably, people want something new and interesting. A diverse and healthy lawn still requires maintenance; it just looks different. The lawn is seen as a way for people to convey that they have their property and, by extension, their personal affairs in order. What if, instead, the traditional lawn was viewed as ugly and that long native grasses, wildflowers and rows of chard—productive patches were desirable? Then we will also begin to promote positive change for our ecosystems. Because where there is life, there is hope. In the words of Arundhati Roy. "The system will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling…their ideas, their version of history, their wars…their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We may be many, and they be few; another world is not only possible. She is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

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