Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Time Cost of a Lawn

Inspired by a Washington Post story posted today titled Deere John: It's Been A Good Ride - Lawn Behemoths Are Going Out to Pasture, the impact of the presence of the lawn on our time, money, and the environment is seen as another key factor in the shift to the new society of the 21st century.

What is the lawn for? The front lawn, primarily, is a space to walk through. It does not house people, equipment, or serve a purpose for transport, services, or aesthetics in most cases - although that is subjective and untrue for many people based on a cultural bias created in the 1950s "Beaver Cleaver" ideal of suburban utopia and continually sold to us by massive industries of lawn care and cheap real estate development. In light of this, the side lawns of a home (if they exist) carry these same traits to an extreme and don't even serve the front lawn purpose of walk through space.

The back lawn is the suburban consumer's answer to recreational space that is usually served by public park land in an urban setting. In a time of excess, the suburbanite can own their own little park on their property and not need to bother with other people and their needs infringing on their private fiefdom. Attractive to those who highly value privacy. However, in a time of changing social values, the lack of other human activity and shared space that we all seek in other ways (restaurants, promenades, and other social spaces) make this less attractive and expensive to own and care for.

This all brings us back to one of the biggest factors affecting the "shift": Time. Time to mow, trim, fertilize, and manicure. Time wasted driving great distances through the sprawl largely caused by wasteful uses of space. Time is the resource that will be our obsession to acquire, preserve, and effectively use in the internet age and we are already seeing the younger generation choosing time as their priority over possessions, prestige and other opportunities. And this doesn't even take into consideration what environmental concerns are doing to people's motivations.

For those who argue lawns are an important contributor to the removal of greenhouse gases and the cooling effect of greenery on our ambient air, a massive movement to create rooftop gardens and other green spaces in urban areas more than compensates for the loss of lawns in our urban areas. This movement could gain some steam in New Brunswick cities as it is currently not a trend in our province.

Lawns create distance and are largely responsible for sprawl. On every property that contains a front and back lawn, several other families or other uses could be housed. On a suburban street that might house 20 homes (20 families), the distance from one end of the street to the other created by individual lawns requires greater distance for other services such as plumbing, electrical, roads, and sidewalks to traverse. This same distance in a neighbourhood without lawns could house many more families and cost the community far less.

According to the Bookings Institution, the average annual cost to service a new family of four (police, fire, highway, schools, sewer) is $88.27 in more urban Shelby County, KY, but a whopping $1,222.39 in sprawling Pendleton County, KY.

Some interesting perspectives on the lawn:

Thursday, July 3, 2008

With the Decline of the Automobile Comes the Decline of the Suburb?

The Globe and Mail was the most recent North American media source to publish evidence of decline of suburbs as rising fuel costs mount.

In Today's suburbs, tomorrow's slums? the Globe reports that "Some warn the cost of gasoline will make the most sprawling U.S. suburbs so unattractive that housing values there will collapse, forcing many people to abandon their homes for urban areas better served by public transit and leaving only squatters, criminals and those who can't afford to leave the outskirts."

While New Brunswick is not regarded as a suburban mecca, we are one of the most rural provinces in the nation and many travel great distances to work on a daily basis. To date our community leaders do not yet see the coming demand for more dense development, better public transit, and services to support a tighter community. Automobile infrastructure is still heavily invested in, gas price reductions an obsession, and sprawl continues uncontrolled.

While the decline of our suburbs is likely over the next few years, it is more likely that home heating will create greater pressure for life changes in New Brunswick. However, unproductive, wasteful commutes will provide frustrations for the incoming working generation that don't want to pay this daily dues and high gas prices may just be the icing on the cake that sends them to the city and away from the suburbs that raised them.