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Backyards Of The Future

Jonathan Zasloff watched "The Backyardigans" with his four-year-old and is now wondering whether communal backyards might make sense in some suburban areas:

Whenever anyone wants to increase density, increase housing stock, etc., people scream because, among other things, this is seen as destroying the single-family neighborhood. But the Backyardigans shows that this doesn't have to be true.

You can easily have single-family neighborhoods with greatly increased density, and the walkability and transit accessibility that comes from that, if you reduce lawn size and share some of that open space. No, this isn't an apartment building: all the kids (animals?) live in single-family, detached homes. ...

So why don't more neighborhoods have this? Because in most suburbs, it's illegal: you can't share a lawn—there are setback requirements, fencing requirements, lot size requirements, etc. Developers won't build what they can't entitle. And so we assume that single-family neighborhoods mean far lower density, and transit accessibility, than we should.

Not everyone wants to share a yard, of course, for a whole slew of reasons, but I do wonder if, with the rise in gas prices, we'll start to see more experimenting along these lines. Anyway, this reminds me to link to Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker essay on the cultural history of lawns. In Britain, lawns were originally seen as a status symbol, a preserve of the rich; nowadays, in many suburban neighborhoods, they're seen as a necessity, a patch of green to be trimmed and watered and doused in chemicals no matter how often you use it, because it demonstrates your commitment to the local community. (In Orem, Utah, one 70-year-old woman was even arrested recently when she fell afoul of local "weed laws" by letting her grass go brown.)

Among other things, Kolbert traces the rise of the anti-lawn movement, whose case centers mainly on the absurd quantities of chemicals, fertilizer, and water that go into yard upkeep. One recent NASA study found that America's lawns and golf courses take up, all told, an area the size of New York State—many lawns are plopped down in areas where turf grass wasn't ever meant to grow, and it takes 200 gallons of water per person per day to irrigate all those thirsty green patches. Worse still, many of the herbicides used in lawn care end up running off into streams, lakes, and, eventually, drinking water.

So it's no surprise that some people have begun rethinking the American lawn, swapping out turf grass for native trees, wild meadow, "moss gardens," or even vegetable patches—one author estimates that the average yard could yield hundreds of pounds of fruits and vegetables each year. Some suburbanites have started to do this, but they're still a minority—Kolbert notes that, among other obstacles, developers find that spreading around grass seed is still the easiest way to put in a new landscape. Mainly, though, lawns are what they are because that's the tradition, and it's hard to see that changing radically anytime soon.

--Bradford Plumer