This winter, a colleague and I have been batting around thoughts of lawn. Specifically, less lawn and more lawn alternatives. There are about 46.5 million acres of it in the U. S. Why must a lawn be a carpet of felted green? Although I understand the appeal of a swath of soft turf to run across barefoot and breezy, I can't justify the time, energy, and resources to maintain it. I'm not comfortable dumping chemicals on a monoculture just so I can keep up with the Joneses. Our lawn is a mishmash of clover, types of grass, dandelions, violets, and whatever else feels like growing in it. I like bees. They love clover. It's all good.
Curious about the lawn phenomenon, I researched.
Turns out lawn was a status symbol. American lawns were influenced by the sweeps of mown turf on English estates that required a staff of gardeners with scythes (and maybe some sheep) to maintain. The English gentry had enjoyed turf since around the 17th century when close-shorn grass became the rage. That lovely bent grass was perfect for croquet, tennis, or just a post prandial stroll. The wealthy had the time and the money to plant a verdant patch. Lawnmowers weren't really commonly available until the 1870s or so. The popularity of golf and lawn bowling also play a role in the development of turf grasses for the home gardener. With post industrialization spurring a call for greenery, lawns sort of snowballed from there. For more information, you might want to try this article.
Now for the alternatives, of which there are many. The first step is to determine what you use your lawn for. Is it for sports, play, sun bathing, or just a glorified groundcover? There are many plants that can handle periodic foot traffic that don't require much maintenance and more are being developed. Take thyme, for instance. Low growing, fragrant, pretty flowers, and you can walk on it. What's not to love? There are also a number of alternate grasses that stay short without mowing. The movement is growing to create usable spaces that require much less resources. Check out the Lawn Reform Coalition for a wealth of ideas.
Also, as part of the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the Landscape for Life website has tons of resources on making your patch of paradise more earth friendly, including a nice section on lawns.
I realize that Americans are passionate about their lawns and for some it is a competitive sport. However, I think that we can maintain a balance between green grass and less impact on the environment.