Map Monday: USA Turf Grass

Next time you’re out mowing the lawn, think about this map for a second. Via (something called), here you go:

grass lawn map

The map comes from a NASA study which looks at how lawns affect the environment. Here is the key part:

There is now an estimated total of 163,812 square kilometers, or more than 63,000 square miles, of lawn in America — about the size of Texas. […] maintaining a well-manicured lawn uses up to 900 liters of water per person per day and reduces sequestration effectiveness by up to 35 percent by adding emissions from fertilization and the operation of mowing equipment.

“If the entire turf surface was well watered following commonly recommended schedules there would…be an enormous pressure on the U.S. water resources, especially when considering that drinking water is usually sprinkled,” the researchers found. “At the time of this writing, in most regions outdoor water use already reaches 50-75% of the total residential use.”


What are alternatives to lawns? Are they worth all the trouble? How many lawns actually get used regularly?


17 thoughts on “Map Monday: USA Turf Grass

  1. Cobo

    This might be a little off topic but I’ve never understood the nation-wide war on lawns. I think in some climates/areas they are a perfectly fine thing to have. They provide drainage and look nice.

    If you almost never water your lawn, how can it be a waste of water? In most of Minnesota (and similar places) it seems that it is a rare scenario that you would ever need to water your lawn. I know that people do install sprinkler systems but if they have proper moisture sensors they almost never go on.

    I have a gas powered mower which produces a small amount of air/noise pollution. But I only need to run the mower for about 20 min a week so there’s very little environmental / societal cost there. I also never fertilize, always mulch, and use only the smallest amount of weed killers.

    That being said I think a lawn can be a huge waste of resources if they require constant watering from pumping depleting aquifers or need excessive chemical treatments to survive. But theses scenarios seem to be limited to the hotter & more arid areas of the country.

    I know that this may just read as a long winded (and admittedly self focused and possibly naive) justification for me to have my lawn, but if you live in an area that is more swamp than desert, where is the harm?

        1. Rosa

          but then we should be talking about lawncare practices, not the existence of lawns. There’s going to be *something* between the buildings, paving everything is terrible water management, and every green space option has labor, energy, and materials costs to think about.

          Personally I really love how many institutions have been putting in rain gardens. But they take some management and time – not everything is a better choice than lawn. Ditto curbside gardens – it takes some careful design to not just be privatizing public space by making it a place nobody can walk, and then upkeep every year to keep growing but not invading the sidewalk and street.

      1. Rosa

        See, this very specific change in people’s behavior (only water 1 inch a week if you feel like you need to water) and outlawing grass fertilizers and getting people to mulch clippings are all great and should be pretty easy to get people to follow – it’s cheaper, it’s less work, and it doesn’t require much aesthetic change but it has big environmental effects.

        But it wouldn’t change that map one little bit.

    1. Janne

      Cobo, if you have a standard lawn mower, that motor is less efficient than any other motor you have. Yes, it’s just 20 minutes, but the air pollution is way worse than, say, 20 minutes of car driving.

  2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    I will soon become the owner of a lawn, and I’m not happy about it. I’m going to have to do some research on xeriscaping and/or native plants.

    1. Rosa

      lawn is pretty OK xeriscape here. It just goes dormant in a usual summer when it doesn’t rain for a long time – this summer that never happened, but we also never ever water our lawn so the only effect of that is that we had to continue to mow occasionally all summer so far. Of course we just call anything low growing, green, and mowable “lawn” – if we were intent on eradicating creeping charley and plantain we might be part of the chemical runoff and watering problem. But those are all fine to mow and walk on.

      As the owner of a small lawn, many trees, and quite large mixed-native beds…in Minneapolis, where you don’t mow, you get trees. Lots of little trees. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Elms, maples, mulberries. I spend hours of every week all summer weeding tiny trees out from among the native grasses and wildflowers. They take root above and through weedcloth if there’s mulch. They hide behind the tall prairie flowers and put their roots into the foundation of the buildings.

      Mowing is a lot faster and easier than weeding, overall, and there is absolutely no reason to water or fertilize a lawn here.

  3. benjamin

    I always envision me sitting there with my yard and the zoom out to the world level.

    Here I am all worried about this small little piece. Spending hours manicure it and stuff.

    Then I think that is pretty fickin stupid.

  4. GlowBoy

    The anti-lawn perspective seems to be based on the idea of said lawns being irrigated and fertilized.

    To me that’s a straw-man argument, because you don’t need to do either. I’ve had lawns for 14 of the past 17 years, and I have never watered nor fertilized them even once. Grass does just fine on its own. Most of that time was in the Pacific Northwest, where the grass goes brown and dormant in the summer due to lack of rain (and it is considered quite socially acceptable to let that happen). Here in Minnesota, where it rains on a weekly basis in the summer, my grass is staying lush and green without any added water input, thank you very much.

    Just mow it every week or two to keep the weeds down, and that is ALL a lawn needs.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      It’s not a straw man. People do water and fertilize. And try to kill the types of weed they don’t like. They also now and let the clippings flow in to local bodies of water.

      If you don’t do any of that, congrats, you’re not an affirmative bad. But you’re still a lot of work for a thing that’s unnatural and perhaps not that enjoyable.

      1. Rosa

        the lawn part is much less work than the non-lawn part, if you’re going to have a yard. Unless you just gravel it or lay down green plastic outdoor carpet.

      2. GlowBoy

        My point is that the irrigation and fertilization arguments are not an inherent problem in having a lawn. There are lots of people like me, who neither water nor fertilize. I don’t think that much of the clippings run off, either. Mowing isn’t that much work, either: no one I know who’s converted lawns to gardens is putting in anywhere near as little work. About the only thing that would be less work would be paving over the backyard, but I think we could agree that has more negative environmental impact than a lawn.

        I don’t know what you mean by “not that enjoyable.” My kids love running around in the grass, and I can’t think of a more-enjoyable surface for them to do so.

  5. Janne

    I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned the run-off problems of lawns.

    Turf grass is very bad at absorbing water, so when it rains, they are only slightly better than hard surfaces at letting waste into the ground. That means even more too warm water in lakes killing fish, more water washing oil and pollutants of streets into lakes. It also means less water in available to the roots of trees, in wells, and (over a longer period of time) in our aquifers.

    Tree roots & native plants are much better at letting water into the ground, avoiding these problems. As Rosa said, they aren’t maintenance-free, but they do address some externalized problems of pollution, runoff, and water availability.

  6. Kele

    An additional problem with traditional lawns is that they completely lack biodiversity — it’s only a single species! In terms of biodiversity, there isn’t much difference from a traditional yard lawn in a city/suburb and a field of corn and soy in the rural regions (except size, obviously). Note that the land the lawn replaced had numerous species in that area.

  7. BrauerPower

    Not sure where the Texas comparison came from (didn’t see it in the paper you linked to) but it’s way off. 63000 square miles is about the size of our fair (and smaller) state to the east, Wisconsin. Texas is over 4 times that big. It’s still a lot of lawn, it just ain’t Texas big.

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