Ever-creeping climate change is spelling the end of the lawn as we know it. Environmentalists everywhere see the neat and weed-free grass lawn as an ecological disaster in an age of ever-increasing heat, shrinking water resources and increasingly scarce wild habitat.
Gavin Coates, a senior lecturer in landscape architecture at the University of Hong Kong, says lawns are “massively inefficient” in many of the world’s geographical regions.
But not in Hong Kong. The city’s relatively few grassy areas, in parks, nature reserves and on sports fields, are mostly well used and much enjoyed – a social benefit that offsets their environmental cost. Hongkongers walk, sit, play, relax, socialise and practise yoga on lawns in parks, and play and watch sports on sports fields.
Coates says Hong Kong’s hilly topography and urban congestion has kept lawns to a minimum, leaving only the socially important grassy areas.
“These grassy areas are hugely inefficient in terms of maintenance,” he says, referring to the immensely popular Sun Yat Sen Park in Sai Ying Pun as an example of expense and benefit. “They have to water it and fence bits off; there’s endless input to keep those grass areas looking reasonable and usable.”
“We cannot say we have an unlimited supply of water, but there’s no shortages,” the spokesman says. “We have a sufficient supply of water overall.”
Meanwhile, household lawns in drier cities in Australia, Canada and the US, in particular are less and less popular with suburban residents, as recurrent water restrictions and garden watering bans leave them dry, brown and crusty.
Still, the British charity Plantlife is campaigning for a No-Mow May (potentially followed by a Let it Bloom June and Knee High July).
The much-loved BBC celebrity gardener Monty Don referred to Britain’s national obsession with shorn lawns in a recent interview with the Radio Times magazine, saying mowing “burns lots of fossil fuel, makes a filthy noise, and is about the most injurious thing you can do to wildlife”.
“Letting grass grow, which is, after all, a pretty passive thing to do, is probably the single most effective thing you can do in any garden of any size to encourage particularly insect life, but also small mammals, invertebrates, reptiles,” he went on.
Across the Atlantic, limits on lawns are driven more by water shortages than anything else. California imposed a temporary ban on watering ornamental grass during last decade’s drought, and state authorities offered rebates to subsidise the replacement of lawns with gravel and succulents.
Other dry cities around the world have tried different ways with grass to reduce water usage. In Perth and other parts of Western Australia, lawn sprinkler systems are restricted to a couple of days a week and in Sydney, Australia, at various times down the years a hosepipe ban restricted garden watering.
The Las Vegas region had a record 240 days without measurable rainfall during 2020, among the driest years in the city’s history, so it has been easier to make the case against having ornamental grass.
Other desert cities in the US have yet to embrace grass replacement policies. Salt Lake City in Utah has an ordinance that actually requires a certain amount of yard and median greenery. Phoenix, in Arizona, where some neighbourhoods are lush from flood irrigation, has never offered grass removal rebates.
A draconian anti-grass policy might not work in downtown Phoenix, says Cynthia Campbell, water resources adviser for the city, the fifth-largest in the US. Trees and grass are needed to blunt the public health dangers of “urban heat islands” – those areas lacking green landscaping to offset heat through evaporative cooling.
“There comes a point when people’s demands start to harden,” Campbell says. “They’ll say: ‘This is the point of no return for me.’ For some people, it’s a pool. For some people, it’s grass.”
With additional reporting by AP