Los Angeles is a weird place. There’s always traffic. A five-mile ride takes 40 minutes, if you’re lucky. I didn’t even have a car when I lived there this past summer, so it got to the point where I was going on Tinder dates to get rides to other parts of the city. I was living near UCLA, a campus with gorgeous architecture that would reflect the glow of the California sunset during my walks home. The green lawns there were no doubt responsible for the “collegiate” aura of campus.
As my time in L.A. went on, I heard more and more about the ongoing — now four-year-long — drought. Though some blamed the agricultural sector, new headlines appeared each day about restrictions placed on residential water use. This conversation was jarringly incongruous with the unrestricted sprinkling and watering of lawns I would witness despite this alleged water shortage. As my friend and I would drive around, we wondered how so many people could hose down their lawns midday and think they weren’t part of the problem. That got me thinking.
The Great American Lawn is a suburban symbol of having “made it.” The idealized lawn is the visual embodiment of showing how one’s life is just as well manicured. Maybe this isn’t so immediately obvious since lawns are so ubiquitous. But their ubiquity further demonstrates their place in American culture is akin to that of apple pie. Many municipalities even require some form of lawn maintenance so that the physical landscape mirrors the homegrown values of Main Street, U.S.A.
This idea maps onto Yale’s landscape nicely. Cross Campus wouldn’t be nearly as photogenic were it not for the beautifully verdant lawn in front of it. Old Campus would not be the same if the lacrosse team played “spikeball” on a field of sand. The orderly and logical way of the academy is better facilitated by a manicured mall than an unkempt fen. The “quadrangles” on which we lay and read and pick at blades of grass are relics of the architecture at Oxford and Cambridge, which were adopted along with the other neo-Gothic frills central to Yale’s renowned grounds.
These primarily aesthetic benefits that come from lush lawns are not without environmental costs. Normal rainfall patterns do not often yield enough rain for a lawn to keep green. The Environmental Protection Agency fancies that across the country, landscape irrigation is responsible for around a third of all residential water use. This means that we collectively use 9 billion gallons a day watering our 30 million acres of lawn.
Here at Yale, seven percent of the 560 million gallons of water the school consumes annually is used for irrigation, according to a January 2014 article from the Office of Sustainability. Not to mention, the golf course under Yale’s purview uses a whopping “200,000 gallons per day,” according to a March 2012 article from the same office. This is even after renovations to the course in 2012 brought that number down.
It isn’t just water, though. In a 2004 survey from the National Gardening Association, it was found that 66 million U.S. households used chemical pesticides or fertilizers on their lawns. Those households together used nearly 80 million pounds of toxic, potentially endocrine-disrupting pesticides, which come with their degradation to human health and disruption to the ecosystem in which they are applied. For comparison, one study showed that homeowners use 10 times more pesticides on their lawn per acre than a farmer would use on an acre of farmland. Not very efficient.
At Yale, this isn’t a new discussion. A May 6, 1964, article in the News opened with, “Pesticide spraying will remain at Yale this spring despite the warning cries of Rachel Carson” — the scientist famous for her groundbreaking book, “Silent Spring.”
Even the alternatives proposed to the wasteful obsession of lawn care have raised debate. At Yale, football coach Tony Reno told the Hartford Courant that artificial turf would replace the Yale Bowl’s grass turf field, more for practical reasons than for environment ones. In response, a group of Yale professors wrote an opinion piece to the New Haven Register criticizing the move. They cited a Yale study showing that a significant number of the 96 chemicals in fake turf are carcinogenic. The quest for “greener,” less resource-intensive grass can sprout other problems.
What can Yale do about this? Let’s look back to Los Angeles. As other grounds throughout the city stayed green in spite of the drought, the iconic lawn of the Mormon Church turned brown as a public display of water conservation. Yale doesn’t have to allow its lawns to completely dry out to move in the right direction. Rather, the University can take advantage of other groundskeeping techniques that are less resource-intensive — “xeriscaping,” for example, is a type of landscaping that prioritizes growing plant species that wouldn’t need a midnight sprinkling.
Yale’s current strategic sustainability plan takes laudable steps to implement a series of land use policies, specifically to reduce potable water use on campus by five percent through a water management plan. But the underlying assumption remains: Yale must preserve its lawns.
Just because we are not in L.A. does not mean that we can disregard our water usage. As the old saying goes, the grass is always greener — but who says we have to have grass at all?
Austin Bryniarski is a senior in Calhoun College. His column runs on Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .