The Lawn Policeby Alice Lesemann-Elliott
Members of the Ypsilanti community often struggle to meet their community’s standards for lawn maintenance. One renter described to me how her landlord had given her a lawnmower but refused to provide any other equipment, like a weed-whipper or hedge trimmer. So, she was forced to cut her grass by hand, with scissors. Usually she had to cut it at night, as she was a single mother working full-time and going to nursing school. If she forgot, or didn’t have time, the city would send her a warning or a ticket. Another resident received several notices: not from the city, but rather from a “concerned neighbor” who posted typed notices on her door about her lawn and garden. And yet another resident had a similar experience with another neighbor who complained to the city’s compliance officers about their lawn– except the lawn wasn’t actually out of compliance.
This is a harmful form of community policing, and the vast majority of it is done by white middle- and upper-class landowners who have the time and resources to complain. It echoes the oppressive structures that play out in other areas of society: white managers prevent Black workers from wearing dreadlocks or Afros in ‘professional environments’, or cis men and women prevent trans women from using women’s restrooms. In a similar sense, lawns are a way for private property owners and higher-income people to police the behavior of lower-income people.
Most people would mow their lawn if they could, especially if they’re surrounded by the kinds of “concerned neighbors” described earlier. But maybe they’re disabled, or a single parent, or they’re working fifty hours a week to pay for the increasingly expensive rents of Ypsi. (Or all of the above.) Shaming or ticketing them certainly won’t help. If your neighbor’s lawn bothers you, instead of complaining to them, consider offering to mow their lawn for them, or loaning them the power tools that they need, or asking how you can make that job easier for them. What better way to become friends with your neighbors?
The legality of lawns
Unfortunately, our city’s code of conduct encourages us to judge our neighbors for their lawns. Ypsi’s Code of Ordinances states, in section 110-80, that “the existence of grass, weeds, and brush more than ten inches in height…provides a hiding place for vermin, is unsightly and unkempt, and is more likely to be a dumping ground for trash than otherwise.” Violating this ordinance is a municipal civil infraction, with a fine of $50-$300. This ordinance implies that unmaintained, untrimmed lawns lead to higher crime rates, more diseases, and general societal chaos. It echoes the popular theory of broken windows policing: the idea that signs of crime like vandalism and broken windows creates a conducive environment for more crime.
This ordinance presumes overgrown lawns are presumed to be just as attractive to skunks, raccoons, and even human predators as a needle-filled empty lot. But these are not equivalent. Most animals would rather live in restaurant dumpsters or park trash cans; not near a households’ neglected lawn. But just like broken window policing, this policy has led to bullying by predominantly middle- and upper-class residents against lower-income residents who are often people of color.
The environmental impact of lawns
As we face the oncoming impacts of climate change, it makes less sense to continue having a lawn. Lawn mowers, weed-whackers, and other gas-powered equipment burns fossil fuels, releasing greenhouse gases and other pollutants. When it rains, fertilizers and herbicides run off from lawns into the sewer system, which carries them to the Huron River, poisoning aquatic plants and wildlife. And a close-cropped monoculture of turf grass provides almost no habitat for critical wildlife– like pollinators!– that we rely on as part of a healthy, diverse ecosystem. Ironically, Ypsilanti is supposedly a “Bee City USA” participant– meaning that we’re “committed to addressing pollinator issues”, among other things. How can we call ourselves a pollinator-friendly city when we’re so obsessed with maintaining our lawns?
Fortunately, alternatives to the traditional lawn exist! These alternatives fall roughly into three categories. The end of this article includes a list of websites with more detailed instructions for lawn replacement, and a list of places where these seeds can be purchased.
- Native plantings. This involves purchasing a mix of seeds native to the area that are pest-resistant, drought-tolerant, and easy to maintain. This is the most ecologically sound approach, as the plants will also provide a range of services to our local ecosystem.
- Eco-friendly turfgrass. Many companies sell low-maintenance grass seed mixes designed to mimic the appearance of a lawn, but require very little water, fertilizer, or mowing. Like option #1, these seeds are also native, and provide ecosystem services.
- Unmowed grass, left to grow wild with minimal weeding and general maintenance. This may be the best option for many residents, who cannot afford the time, energy, or money that’s required to completely replace their lawn. Even if this results in the growth of what some may consider unsightly weeds, or non-native species, it is certainly much better than a traditional lawn– and you will probably end up with plenty of beautiful native species too!
Shaming each other for our lawn care is not only problematic, but illogical as well. If you are concerned about your neighbor’s lawn but don’t feel comfortable talking to them, I encourage readers to reach out to me about how to have neighborhood conversations. I am also always happy to explore options for replacing your lawn with one of the alternatives mentioned above. Together, we can build stronger communities and stronger ecosystems!
Alice Lesemann-Elliott is a local ecologist and environmental manager. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A guide to replacing your lawn with an alternative:
Where to purchase mixes for alternative lawns: