It's not often grass makes headlines, but it did this summer when a resident challenged the city's demands he mow the boulevard alongside his house, arguing such forced labour is a violation of his rights as laid out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Likely, many Winnipeggers similarly do not love having to look after their lawns and boulevards, but these green spaces have become such a central part of the urban landscape that most people simply go about this task without giving it much thought.
The dominance of the lawn is a fairly recent development. Up until the late 19th century, close-cut lawns were the exclusive domain of wealthy estates in Europe and North America. Rich landowners could afford the help required to maintain such greenery, and they had the luxury of dedicating their tract of land to something as frivolous as a non-food crop.
In the 1900s, however, suburban planners began to splice up the North American landscape into quarter-acre plots that were affordable to the middle class. Lawns then took off on this continent after the Second World War, in line with the dream of home ownership and the advent of gasoline-powered mowers and effective herbicides and pesticides. Everyone could enjoy a mini estate of sorts, with the home set off grandly from the road by a boulevard and lawn. By the 21st century, lawns had undeniably become the norm, with almost three quarters of Canadian households having such a sea of green between their home and the street.
Today, homeowners spend an average of 25 hours per year looking after their yard, and while the end result may look nice, it is a decidedly expensive and environmentally unfriendly endeavour. Canadian spending on lawn care has skyrocketed in the past few decades, to around $3 billion per year. Meanwhile, lawns receive more pesticides, on average, than any other crop, and these chemicals end up in lakes and streams, creating algae blooms that kill aquatic wildlife. In fact, nearly half of all households in Winnipeg use pesticides according to Statistics Canada -- the highest proportion in the country.
Finally, North Americans consume a whopping 30 billion litres of water on their landscapes each day, most of which is fresh and potable, and burn three billion litres of gasoline in their lawn mowers every year. As a result, gas-powered lawn and garden tools account for five per cent of total air pollution on this continent.
And for what? While citizens make good use of their backyards and front porches and stoops to play, eat, and socialize, they are most often conspicuously absent from their front lawn and boulevard. Yet across North America, municipalities have mandated setback requirements that force developers to provide large lawns whether citizens want them or not. In Winnipeg, for example, the minimum is 18 feet. As a result, homeowners are forced to spend a huge amount of time, money, and resources looking after land that is, effectively, an ornament.
Perhaps it is time to update requirements so new communities are not required to have substantial lawns. It might be difficult to envision a neighbourhood without large front yards, but development in these neighbourhoods could be more like Europe, where suburbs built since the 1950s have eschewed purely decorative lawns. Taking a walk in suburban Paris or Rome, for instance, one finds small setbacks that have been converted to functional patios ornamented by attractive planters. Spacious yards lie at the back of the house, often with private gardens. For people who want privacy, hedges or fences could be put up in front of the sidewalk.
Of course, this is not to suggest lawns or other green spaces would be outlawed. In fact, the average yard size owned by lawn-lovers might even increase if homeowners who were more indifferent to outdoor space were not occupying so much of it. Meanwhile, there could be a greater emphasis on public parks where children and adults could play outdoors.
Without lawns, people could live in larger houses, or developers could build more homes on the same patch of land. This latter option would make housing more affordable, and reduce sprawl. With more people living in a given area, it would also mean more taxpayers would be paying for fewer roads, sewer pipes, and other services -- which would go a long way in helping to alleviate Winnipeg's massive infrastructure deficit.
Given the challenges of affordability and sustainability, not to mention the hassle of their care, it is worthwhile to consider whether large conventional lawns need to be a mandatory part of future urban development. Because while most Winnipeggers would likely be unwilling to go to court to fight a requirement to cut the lawn, they might nevertheless be in agreement that it is time to turf some of that grass.
Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.