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650: Lawns

In Medieval France and Britain, an important security feature for any castle – almost more important than a moat or strong stone wall – was a wide-open, closely-cut swath of grassland that made it difficult for anyone to sneak up to the castle walls.

In the villages around those castles, the community commons, shared meadows or grazing space in the village, were where livestock owned by everyone in the community grazed.

In other words, lawns were working lawns, that had specific uses that benefited the survival of the residents. By the 18th century, the idea of a cultivated lawn began to show up in landscaping. Versailles had a small tapis vert — or green carpet — grown for the aesthetic addition to the gardens.

When settlers first came to the United States, their livestock began to starve in the winter, because the year-round grazing grasses in Europe simply didn’t exist in the United States. So they started to ask for grass seed in their supplies. Eventually, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson started installing lawns in their estates, and lawns became a symbol of American success. Americans aren’t the only ones in the world with a lawn obsession — the UK and Germany are two big examples — but much to our fashion, have taken it to a ridiculous extreme.

In  2015, a study by NASA found that Americans’ lawns covered an area three times larger than any irrigated crop in the U.S. And a vast majority of that grass is irrigated or watered by the ever-diminishing resource of drinkable water.

There have been pushes to reduce the amount of effort, money, and resources put in to these patches of green, with pay-for-grass systems where cities pay homeowners to replace grass with xeriscaping or more native plants. And as people move into denser living situations, lawns are losing ground (quite literally). But even with these reductions, the wealth signaling done by lawns is still a strong one, and much-debated. Lawns do help prevent runoff, and often increase property values a surprising amount. So what would you decide to do?