« Freakonomics Radio

289. How Stupid Is Our Obsession With Lawns?

2017-06-01 | 🔗
Nearly two percent of America is grassy green. Sure, lawns are beautiful and useful and they smell great. But are the costs — financial, environmental and otherwise — worth the benefits?
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If you'd like to listen to free economic radio without ads the place to do. That is sticker premium five dollars a month and you can get a free month trial by going to stick your premium dot com and use a promo code freak. You also get access to all our bonus. Episodes and you'll be supporting our show to that sticker premium, dot, com, promo code, freak thanks where I live in the great northeast of the United States Spring, is finally gone. Full bloom and summers right around the corner when you get outside its beautiful, the trees, the flowers and, of course, the lawns.
Who doesn't love a good lawn. It looks good smells good feels good for a lot of people. A lawn is the perfect form of nature, even though, let's be honest, the ones we like don't actually occur in nature, even though the process of producing such a lawn is full of the most unnatural activity. Even though this unnatural slice of nature requires Oh many inputs, water, the fertilizer that we'd killers, the mowers trimmers, we flowers. How are all this machinery, the fuel to power, the trucks to transport, the people who run the machinery all in pursuit of the perfect lawn. I'm happy
from W and Y see studios. This is for economics, radio podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here's your house Stephen Dogma Give me briefly she can a history of the lawn. If you go, look at the Oxford English dictionary and try to find the word long. You'll see that to date from the sixteenth century, from old English, for an open space
What was called the Glade ten Steinberg is a history and law, professor at case Western reserve. I am the author of several books, including American Green, the obsessive quest of perfect lawn and these lawns, as it were, that existed back in sixteen seventeenth, eighteenth century England were typically found on estates. Now talk about how America got into lawns and the degree to which they up the game so lawns go way back in american history. Washington and Jefferson, of course, have lots nevertheless, even well into the twentieth century. People especially working class people were more concerned with house
say the use value of fear, your it's as opposed to the exchange value of the of the landscape, and what I mean by that is that working class people would raise a small livestock in their yards or raise vegetables. That said, the really big expansion in the landscape, if I can call it that happened after the Second World war with suburbanization that is left at one of the most remarkable housing development arrogantly between nineteen, forty, seven, nineteen, fifty one or two or so the Levitt Mass per some seventeen thousand homes on what had been a bunch of potato fields on long island in New York, when every one of those seventeen thousand.
Holmes had a lawn surrounded it. If you look back at the young deeds for lever, town and other places, you'll find that their covenants in them requiring the owner. The new lever, town home tomorrow, there yard once a week. Yes that all, but they don't match, has come to our God. Today, Americans spend roughly sixty billion dollars a year in what is known as the turf grass industry. This covers lawn supplies, lawn services and so on. That figure includes sports fields, commercial properties and private lawns. Lawns account for about two thirds of the total swear footage and how much square footage is that it's about fourteen, a half million acres of turf, that's Christina Malaysia,
I'm a scientist by training and I bought from NASA for over ten years. Today. Malaysia is an independent environmental scientists. Forty odd million acres of turf for reference that is bigger than Iowa Malaysia hadn't, set out to measure the size of America's lawn. In fact, quite the opposite, I was working to map the amount of paved area in the United States, mapping out paved areas included using satellite data that measured nighttime light emissions. Light emissions come from physically turning on street lights night. She and her team also used aerial photography, which, of course, showed
more than just paved areas. The Abbe also took measurements of how much law Meda there was how many shrubs siberia and tree area and that's how they came up with forty point. Five million acres of Turkey, which is just a bit less than two percent of the United States, paved areas. Meanwhile make up just one point: three percent: the sheer volume of grass got Malaysia thinking how our flaunts actually functioning as an ecosystem. They use water, but also fertilizer and pesticides, and that we use lawnmowers and Leif Blowers, but that their plan, so they fought the synthesized absorb carbon. What's the balance between what we put in and what we put
the answer I decided it would be a worthwhile question to ask the specific question being whether lawns are from a carbon perspective, net positive or negative. She began by trying to tell you how much water people use on their lawns the standard recommendation specially where rainfall doesn't do the job is one inch of water per week, and I came up soon some members that they could not believe what are these unbelievable numbers. The total was about twitter trillion gallons per year, Amon watering one little context for that number considered that we use just thirty trillion gallons to irrigate all our crops. Next, Malaysia calculated how much car
the turf grass stores in the soil and then a subtracted from it them amount of carbon that was associated with nitrogen, then fertilization and amount of carbon. There was emitted by using a typical lawnmower, and would you learn? I learned TAT, the turf would become man sink of carbon, and this is not surprising at plant, given plenty of attention for the same sizes carbon but have come said the cost of producing the fertilizer or mowing the grass and all the industry that comes around it. So even with those costs included, lawns look pretty good.
Carbon perspective. On the other hand, Malaysia's model didn't include inputs, lake, the carbon emissions from the trucks that long crews drive or the original manufacture of all that long care equipment. Nor did it include the energy used to deliver water to households and clean it for human consumption. We should not forget the disease said drinking water. I do not account for those costs and has just about any economist will tell you. Water is often woefully underpriced which can lead to over use, especially for growing a grass species that wasn't to grow where you live, Kentucky Blue Grass or creeping band grass evolved in the cool moist climb.
Of Northern Europe TED Steinberg again, and it's not all that easy to grow them here in the Continental, United States and especially in arid ports of North America. If you go to California, you'll find still all lawns with cool season, turf grass every square foot of that turf grass requires twenty, eight gallons of water roughly speaking per year, every square foot, but that's for the coastal environment. If you move inland to a more air it part of California, number increases to thirty, seven gallons of water or more per square foot of lawn. We waste so much water, that's Eric our city, I'm the mayor of the city of LOS Angeles. We spoke with Car Seti last year when California was deep in drought in Lhasa
jealous lawns and landscaping, use a whopping? Fifty percent of LOS Angeles, his water and the drought had doubled what the city was paying to import water. So Rossetti used incentives to change behaviour. The city paid residents to install rain barrels to capture water for their lawns. It paid them too, replace their lawns with drought, tolerant plants. I said, if you have a long and you're using it great, keep it and pay for the water to water it. But if you're not let us pay you to switch that out to beauty. The flowering green plants that use a lot less water and we are able to do with over fifty million square feet of lawn just the last couple years we reduced our water in the face of this drought or water usage by nineteen percent. Without having to find anybody without having to crack down with the water police, but by inspiring people through public education and rebates, giving them free, cisterns changing out their toilets, all sorts of things. What works in California, we
necessarily work elsewhere and California is more aggressive than most with environmental regulations, for instance, is currently pushing too low. Emissions are more care equipment which tends to have particularly dirty little engines There also really noisy, if you just hear the sound of relief Lord, it has these really interesting low frequency and high frequency components. That's A Walker she just got a phd in environmental Health at Harvard, so not only is it
traveling inside of you walls, but it has this high pitched home. That's just really annoying in Boston Walker helped compile a citywide noise report which mapped among other things. We ve blower annoyance levels, a lot of places of band we flowers or restricted their hours, specially noisier gas powered models. Walker was interested in the relationship between noise and public health in a city like Boston, sleep disturbance, as I think, the feed direct relationship between sounds and negative health, the World Health Organisation suggest that daytime noise levels shouldn't exceed fifty five decibels. Walker wondered how leaf lowers registered, even if you weren't the one blowing the leaves. We see that either, when you move four hundred feet away from the point of operation, you're still getting sound levels there in excess of what the World Health Organization
recommends for daytime sound levels, but then we also learned that these leaf floors heavy strong contribution from the lower frequencies. It has an ability to travel, very long distances and penetrate through the walls. So it's really hard to the gate and we see in the epidemiological literature that low frequency sound, is creating negative health effects above and beyond high frequency, sound. So
What are we learn so far? We have a lot of lawn in America and our pursuit of the perfect lawn is noisy and resource, and labour intensive lawns do, however, serve as carbon sinks and, of course, their beautiful least many people think so and useful for playing for picnicking for relaxing coming up on for economics, radio, we love lawn so much. We even plant them beside our highways as standard cloverleaf takes up about sixty acres of lawn and if you don't wanna, have a lawn in your yard. What can you have you and I think, the best year ahead, like two thousand pounds escaped it? Why did we make this episode about the costs?
benefits of lawns, mostly because of you. Occasionally, we ask for economic radio listeners for story ideas, especially for what we colloquially call our stupid stuff series, that is things we do or use or submit to that are on some level kind, a stupid. What last time we asked for your stupid stuff ideas, quite a few of them concerned lawns. Pat Alan from Trinity Florida wrote what is up with the american addiction to lawns John Falconer of Arlington Virginia complained about noisy, smelly lawnmowers, and then there was Alan Turner. I've from Newcastle Delaware, my of formal training. My initial Where was in landscape architecture and right now, I'm lookin, the highway median at the rest stop on,
Andy five, just South Wilmington Delaware, Turner's pet peeve, is what's in that highway medium grass and it looks like this grass gets mode three times in the summer. It's, not just in highway mediums, but also those cloverleaf interchanges. A standard cloverleaf takes up about sixteen acres of land Turner understands why these are all grass grasses, cheap, grasses, the cheapest ground cover you can install the problem with grasses. That is also the most expensive ground cover to maintain and it has to be maintained mode, especially for safety, for good site lines. So you ve got all that mowing and all those traffic delays when the mowers are out there in the media's Turner's ideas to plant highway mediums with plants that don't require maintenance like round Does the seed my car slightly more, but that's the only difference, and then you get a permanent ground cover that needs no mowing.
I can honestly say this is the first time I have been asked to talk to anybody about roadside vegetation management, but does he talks with the Federal Highway administration which advises dates on how to maintain their highway grass. Nobody asked us about plants, they ask us about traffic and potholes everything, conservatively. We ve got about seventeen million acres of roadside vegetation. Roadside grass dates back to the early days of auto travel, having a grassy area near the road in case somebody broke down or wanted to just rest. After this ordeal, driving around was a very tempting option. So that's what began and as time went on grass Became an expectation because everywhere you went, there was and it when you didn't have it, people noticed it that was they prevailing attitude,
want these roads to look inviting. We want them to look like you're front yard that began to change as early as an eighteen sixties as state and local governments realised how many resources went toward maintained on that grass and in the seventies and eighties we began to realize the water was really big issue and states. Dealing with tight budgets began to plant native grasses things are a little bit more water, efficient and grasses. The didn't require as much mowing still about Alan Turner's idea, to get rid of grass entirely in favour of something that requires no I think he does have a point. However, I am also not willing to say that states have an already considered that there may
the reasons why they have to plan what they have budgets are so tight at the state duty level. Ok, so what about not replanting but also just not knowing the grass at all? If you were to let something just go wild returned nature. That sounds great. It sounds easy, it sounds cheap and it It's not necessarily the best choice, though that's really invasive species thrive, and that becomes a little habitat for you know like in the south, you get, It grows all over the place and you ve got other kinds of invasive species that pop up and start to proliferate, invading local neighbourhood lines or farmers crops
and get out of control, I totally understand what he sang and that's the assumption. That is Sarah Whittington, but I think we have to look and see if what we assume is really what's gonna happen and that's basically what we decided to do she's an ecologist working under Phd at the University of Rhode Island. My ecological research focuses on finding creative solutions to human caused environmental issues. She and her colleagues had a question about invasive species. The question that we were trying to answer was if invasive species actually do proliferate in a roadside areas that are taken out of the regular mowing management strategies, they took advantage of a sort of natural experiment in Rhode, Island, the Department of Transportation, typically Moses, roadsides anywhere from three to ten times a year, but over the past decade it decided to reduce smoking in some areas and stop entirely in others. We classify that
passive restoration because you're just taking it out of the mellings regulation and then letting it got letting succession take. Course. This let Worthington and her colleagues compare the number of envy, of plant species in the mode areas versus the unmowed which had begun to grow wild. They also looked at young forests near by which had never been mode. How did they collect those data? It? Sam, not so our glamorous. We basically lay out really long tape using compasses to make you know straight angles and then a very, very time consuming process. We document every single species that we see in these sub plots would they find we found that in May. Species are not proliferating significantly in these areas that are taken out of the traditional mowing scheme they have the same number of invasive as both the young forests and the traditionally mode areas. So I would advise that state, Deo tease, move
as much of their land, as is reasonable to reduce. Stirred lower now management scheme. Well, I think the easiest thing to do is to elect to have what I call a long maintenance, long at TED Steinberg, again He is talking about personal lawns. Now not highway. Mediums over treatment is the single biggest problem that we up here in the United States, with respect to launch care so right away, scale back on the chemical applications. You can get away with three applications of fertilizer. Season. People also probably need to actually learn a little bit about the ecology of their yard. To do it right, your problem should get a soil test on a big deal. Leave the clippings on the lawn. For God's sake, don't put em out on the curb, because the clippings break down and they return nutrients to the soil, and I would argue, consider stopping the area
Asian browns, not so bad. I think you just lost a lot of our long, loving audience rate than I think. That's that's do that. I'm not saying I disagree with you. I'm just saying that I think we have people. Think of a lawn brown is death. Brown is the enemy. Brown is not alone next time your law and, if you're worried about this turns Brown go out there get down on your hands and knees and look at the at the grass. It's not dead, most of them in a deal. You have got a horrible drought. Ok, I get it. Ok, but if it's not when it appears to be brown is actually dormant and you'll see a little bit of green, where the blade meets the soil. The individual plants host of em are still alive TED. I think either you would have to admit that if you got your way and if America suddenly woke up and said you know, a low maintenance lawn is good enough. It makes a lot of sense. Aesthetically, its
I'm environmentally, it's probably better: noise, wise, etc, etc, but think of the jobs you're killing. I mean this is a pretty substantial part of the labour market, especially for low education workers. Are you ten Steinberg festive history in law willing to take the heat for killing off all those jobs? I think one of the big problems that we have in the United States today may be even in the world is a lack of meaningful employment.
But actually it might not be as dire as you're implying here. You're still gonna need people to modal on, maybe not as much you don't really need necessarily them who you're a lawn once a week. So this could represent a savings, obviously do consumers, and it might not be the case that the floor is going to fall out of the job market, because TED Steinberg advocates for less in the way of perfection and long care. There is also the possibility of re purpose in your yard entirely. Maybe tennis or an outdoor library or taking a page from our past ages. Money Stephen. How are you good? I Stephen and Jim Jim Coverlet Ski is a front yard farmer in Newport, Richie Florida, small city just outside temper are so let me ask you this you can
in long care did you enjoy that work? You know I mean I thought I did you know, but now, every time I see a line trailer, I d shiver keynotes dislike terror. I dont No, I don't know I didn't I mean I I had. He saw many chemicals, especially and you know, as I came to Florida cause them. The lawns got here. They ve got kind of grass. There will not grow without pesticides and herbicides. You can't get him to do anything, but vegetables and fruit are a different story. He grows sweet potatoes and black eyed peas star through and of cargoes lettuce and broccoli in cabbage and cauliflower coverlet ski turned front yard into productive farmland. He started with his own yard than expanded to his moms house down the street so I just bought a house right next door to her three years ago and offered me your front yard, which has full son. So it's allowed me to have
a lot more growing space. He sells his produce at a local farmers. Markets need, I think, the best year ahead, like two thousand pounds asleep at it, but theoretical. If I get better at this, this should be produced and, like fifteen thousand pounds, I cannot believe how much now, you can come out of a small piece of left, Kowalewski gardens all winter in Florida, and then he drives his one thousand nine hundred and sixty five cherry red pickup truck two main re does the same thing in both places he's known for his salad mix. I call it a green xanax and I kind of plant, very diverse, like you could be. You know a hundred different leafy greens and go through the garden can mix it as a picket, and then I will shouldn't spin it and put in a bag and sell that, and you know I'll sell you know in Florida. We sell two thousand twenty five hundred those bags a year and a main is pretty much the same max and you know maybe a thousand not there as I do the shorter season and it's not as populism I make more of my money in Florida for sure, so how much money do make
you know, I'm doing really! Well. Are you and I do keep track, because I want to show people how much you can make. It is pretty much a cash business. I could hide stuff, but I haven't I've kept track The last three years are two years really good, so I think first year that I kept goods It was like twenty four grand and then twenty seven- and I bet I'm on a pace of like thirty five issue, and so I have very little expenses. So you no thirty, five, A lot of money- I don't know where to spend it actually do you have any. Opera. No, it's just you know, you know what I've seen. I'm kind of of budget and by what I ve learned that he knows more stressful for me to try to work with other people and make things happen is more. My focus is to see how productive a small piece of land can be, and I'm seeing every year, I'm getting better added. Are there or worse There are any legal issues or ordinances. You had to deal with two plan, a garden in front yard there. You know we're fortunate here because,
You know it is a non. Did you strictly community, so there's not much fur. Ordinances and so there's nothing against the law. To do this, I mean, potentially there could be some enforcement issues about you know height of vegetation but it's always look so good. That was never an issue, so you sound like a pretty live and let live kind of guy, but on the other hand it sounds like you would be pretty happy if you started a front yard garden revolution yeah I would mean I wouldn't think I'd be won the lead, something like that. It found that you know people follow things that work. I haven't done any promotion over these ten years that there has been a lot of press. I've been amazed at how people are just longing for this, and you know I think it's poised to take off and so in a potentially we can put people back to work on the land. A farm in every yard. That is hardly the direction our economies been moving in either the egg,
cultural economy or the lawn care economy, but who's to say, the rise of the lawn was probably not foreseen. Would return to personal farming, be any more surprising. That's it for free concentrated this week. Come up next time. Steve Hilton was four years the man behind and beside british Prime Minister David Cameron, or we haven't been in touch since the bricks evoked death. I think there's not much to say now Hilton lives in America was taken up a new crusade. We want to end the the way that big money donors dominate politics and while Hilton is nearly unknown here that won't last for long he's got a new show on Fox NEWS called the next revolution, and that is going to focus on what I'm calling positive populism. How we deal with the issues that have
prison as a result of the populist uprisings we ve seen around the World Steve Hilton in all his candid, occasionally absurd glory. That's right! It's next time on for economics, radio, for can I'm radio is produced by W and my c studios aunt dubbed near productions. This episode was produced by Christopher Worth. Our staff also includes Shelly Louis Merit, Jacob rigorous
Stephanie Tam, Eliza, Lambert, Alison Hockenberry, Emma Morgenstern, Harry Huggins and Brian Gutierrez. We also had help this week from SAM Bear thanks to cabin Morris at the national Turf Grass Evaluation Programme, Teresa Adams at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Robert King of the Delaware Department of Transportation and Christopher Deal back and Doktor Michael Benjamin at California, AIR Resources Board for their help in reporting. This episode thanks also to adjust, and maybe in Sturgeon, Pat Alan John Faulkner, Sarris, nay, wind and all the other listeners. You senator suggestions about long care, TED Steinberg latest book is Gotham Unbound, the ecological history of greater New York. You can subscribe
two for economic radio on Apple podcast, stitched or where we get your progress. You should also check out our archives, it for economics, dot com, you can stream or download every episode with ever made. You can also read the transcripts and look up underline research. We can also be found on twitter and Facebook thanks for listening.
Transcript generated on 2021-01-23.