Eat Half Your Lawn!
The lawns we see through our windshields and from the window as we land at an urban airport were born, as a landscape element, after World War Two. My early experience was pushing a wooden handled mower for business men in Levittown, Long Island, after school. Today I get passed on my way to work by medium-sized trucks pulling trailers with three or four ride-on mowers and an equal number of day laborers.
As I'm writing this, transforming lawns to food production is exploding in Europe and America. And its potential may still be underrated. Is this attractive goal doable? Not easily. It will require community, metropolitan and national, business and citizen associations working with municipal, state and national governments. And there are benefits for all.
NASA in 2007 identified 23 million acres of lawn in the United States. The second-place cultivated crop is corn at seven million. Lawn requires more water, fertilizer and weed and insect treatment per acre than corn or any other major crop. It is the single greatest polluter of our creeks, ponds, rivers and bays.
For the purpose of this short article I am referring to lawn as: Front-side-back residential lawn; university, government and institution lawn; corporate offices and office park lawns, golf course greens, and portions of schoolyards, city parks, and amusement parks.
Yesterday I experienced both the National Mall (from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial), and our neighborhood baseball diamond. They are serving national and community purposes. No change recommended here. And I do endorse vegetables on the White House south/back lawn.
I contributed to the book "Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes" (CPUL) a couple of years ago. This urban planning/design principle opens the possibility of my title: "Eat Half Your Lawn".
CPUL means that we can green our cities and metropolitan areas at no cost to government. The benefits include:
- Maintaining and improving the landscape,
- Urban Carbon Farming, sequestering carbon dioxide,
- Restoring the soil and conserving water,
- Reducing the urban heat island effect and its contribution to global warming,
- Reducing air pollution borne sicknesses, particularly to children suffering from ozone,
- Reducing fossil fuel consumption,
- Producing fresh, local, healthy food,
- Building the "Main Street" economy through production of diverse crops.
Returning to NASA, in 2004 they determined that the three percent of the USA that is within streetlights has ten times the environmental productive capacity per acre as the 29 percent which was being farmed at that time. Some of that has to do with the concentration of population and streetlights close to our ocean shores, lakes and rivers where the best soil and access to water exist in warmer climates. Fortunately, this land is also closer to market.
As we are all agreed, United Nations to Sacramento and the White House, reducing carbon dioxide is important and urban carbon farming, by replacing some lawn with a diversity of plant material, is a top effective carbon sequestering method. Converting a lawn to food production reduces the global warming and polluting factors of agriculture including shipping, storage, packaging and waste. And most authorities find that the quality of our diet improves.
A key factor in this practice is reducing the consumption per food calorie of fossil fuels, so-called food miles. Studies find that our current global food system uses seven to 14 fossil fuel calories for every food calorie that you consume at your dinner table or at McDonalds.
After graduation from Long Island Agriculture and Technical Institute (LAITI) I started my own landscape design and construction business. A key principle was "lawn as a rug not a carpet". A circular, oval or rectangular greensward framed by flowers, vegetables, shrubs, trellises and small trees. Here I define a carpet as a wall-to-wall floor cover and a rug as an ornamental woven, shaped material surrounded by wood or other floor material. This practice, adopted as a principle, can be applied to a good deal of our urban open space.
"Eat Half Your Lawn" does not mean introducing a rural farm landscape into the city. It means having a more diversified landscape which is productive. Good practice can be studied in many urban places worldwide including, at the beginning of the alphabet, Belgium, Cuba and Denmark.
There is clearly more business to be generated than there is in today's "lawn care". Citizen associations can be motivated by the health and environment for living benefits. Governments will use it as a tool to meet climate change goals and to reduce costs of health care, maintaining idle land and infrastructure, and managing waste. The City Beautiful competition may be regenerated.
Government can support the new productive urban landscape by providing the small and middle farmers with storage, processing and marketing facilities at an incentive price. Schools, libraries, hospitals, playgrounds and churches could be assisted in establishing model gardens. A key implementation program will be government paying for carbon sequestering. Each and every crop will need to be rated and tracked--think "Google Earth". An annual payment could be made in cash or credit against taxes.
A lesser, and less popular, incentive would be setting a specific measure for the maximum percentage of lawn per site, which if exceeded will generate a measured tax levy.
The professions of city planning, landscape architecture, architecture, forestry and agriculture will all have a dynamic role to play and fees to earn.
Many groups world-wide are already engaged, from 'Smart Growth' planners (green) to Farmers Markets (local food). With the global food-energy-climate nexus crisis, this is a good time to ratchet up the agenda: "Eat Half Your Lawn" transforming over ten million acres from mowed grass to other productive plants, lettuce to chestnuts. This goal can be a major element in our passing a healthy planet on to our grandchildren.
1. American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn; 2002, Ted Steinberg
2. Carbon Farming, http://www.cityfarmer.org/deskSmit.html#desk
3. Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes, Andre Viljeon et al 2006, London Univ. Publications
4. Design for Human Ecosystems, [236 +] John T. Lyle, 1985, Van Nostrand
5. Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, 2006, Lesley Stern
6. Farming in Nature's Image, [133 +] Judith D. Soule & Jon Piper 1992, Island Press
7. Food Not Lawns, 2005. H. C. Flores
8. NASA Goes looking for U.S. Lawns from Space, 2007, http://dirt.asla.org/
9. Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development, John T. Lyle, 1994, [102 +] John Wiley
10. Second Nature; 1991, Michael Pollan
Eat Half Your Lawn
Principles for Agriculture/Food Security
Cantaloupe Capital of the World and Urban Agriculture in 2009
Multi-Cropping: Producing two or more crops/products in the same space as one