Sustainability Rant, Part III: Death of the Lawn

Click here for the first article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part I: Canaries in Camouflage.

Click here for the second article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part II: The Renegade Generation

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Here’s one great thing about Millennials: they don’t want to live in traditional suburbs. The sterile, cookie-cutter, vinyl-sided planned developments filling the space immediately surrounding cities are arguably among the most poisonous, least productive, wholly-uninspried landscapes on the planet. Suburban landscaping says little more than “at least I’m not concrete.”

Cities themselves, however, are generally too expensive to offer Millennials the space they’ll need to raise the families that, though they’re doing it later than their parents, they still very much want to have. And so this generation will move to the area outside the cities, and reinvent them completely. In fact it’s already begun; next time you’re driving through the closest-in suburbs of a major city, take a good hard look at the kind of development taking place. Real estate developers are finding higher demand and profits in mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods where all necessary amenities are located within walking distance of the residential units, lawns are replaced with common areas, room are smaller, hallways shorter, and bathrooms/kitchens more chic than grand.

This applies, of course, mostly to new development. There are countless suburbs of the old “white picket fence” model that will wind up coming on the market sooner or later, and it’s in these wasteful spaces that the Millennial’s appetite for change and transformation could revolutionize the way we live… and especially the way we eat.

Next time you’re taking a walk through a suburban neighborhood, take a look at all the lawns. The medians. The park and recreation areas. While you’re looking at them, think about this: a mature permaculture food forest can produce six million food calories on an acre, in a year. That’s the equivalent of 4,000 lbs of beef and enough food to feed eight people for an entire year. Assuming I’m off by half since we’re not raising any animals in the suburbs, that’s still enough to feed four people for a year.

Now imagine your typical suburban development with a 200 units sporting 0.2 acre lawns. That’s 40 acres without counting all the medians, common areas, and woodlots – and it’s enough space to easily provide a free organic lunch every single day to each and every person in the neighborhood. Imagine the amount of money households would save! The average worker spends about $2,000 a year on lunch. Doubling this figure to account for most suburban households having two workers (but leaving the estimate conservative since we’re not accounting for children) means the food forest would save the entire 200 household neighborhood close to $1 million annually. That’s going to be important as adult Millennials are predicted to enjoy lower inflation-adjusted incomes than their parents.

The environmental and aesthetic benefits are manifold. Food forests are polycultures that don’t have to be mowed, weeded, or artificially fertilized. Car-averse Millennials could narrow the roads in the neighborhood to encourage bicycles and more space for planting. Less impervious surface area coupled with a multi-story food forest means less runoff, flooding, and pollution. Finally, tree guilds are quite beautiful as they rely on a dozen or more different species planted together. The boring tree-mulch-grass trio common in suburbs today would be replaced by guilds of apples, comfrey, lupins, clover, daffodils, dill, fennel, chives, and chicory growing on every non-concrete surface in the neighborhood.

These benefits also wind up in your pocketbook as your HOA doesn’t have to spend money on lawnmowing, trimming, pruning, mulching, and annual ornamentals. The runoff reduction, if the food forest model were adopted among enough neighborhoods, would curtail runoff to the point where stormwater taxes could be halved, the costs of treating water quartered, and the price of environmental cleanup transferred to the corporations and factory farms doing most of the polluting.

You get all this just by changing the way we “decorate” the suburbs, and the seeds of that change are already being planted. Many universities and regional parks are already adopting the concept of “edible landscapes,” and it’s only a matter of time before a critical mass of individuals decides that it’s silly not to grow food right where they live. And there’s no reason this revolution couldn’t happen in workspaces either, as office parks suffer the same uninspired landscaping as most suburbs. Office food forests could save employees money and save the employer lost productivity as workers no longer need to take time to drive to lunch. Supporting all this could be an entire new industry of farming-as-a-service rising from the ashes of the landscaping industry, as the latter trades in its lawnmowers and hedge trimmers for greenhouses and harvesting tools.

The possibilities of this new model of sustainable food production are positively endless.

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Part IV of this series will be released on December 23, 2013.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

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