The American Lawn is a Shared Nuisance

Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

Related Post Roulette

21 Responses

  1. fillyjonk says:

    One thing I will say about lawns/yards: they are a noise buffer. I live in a small, older house (build 1946) between downtown and my university. It’s in a neighborhood that used to be called “Teacher’s Row” many years back (or so long term residents tell me) because so many of the modest homes there were owned by professors. I like the house – it has wood floors, which was a big want for me (I dislike carpeting) and it has generously sized windows (I also dislike the modern trend here of building tiny, stingy windows in houses for “energy saving” and especially those privacy windows that are so high on the wall that while they let in light, you cannot see out – I find it claustrophobic).


    The other houses on my block have slowly transitioned to mostly rental properties, and say what you will, there can be a difference between an owner-occupied house and one rented by a distant landlord. I had the bad fortune one summer of the house to the north of me being rented to a large group of people in their 20s, who apparently either didn’t work, or didn’t go to work until very late in the day. They had parties *every night.* Their house was about 10 feet from mine at the closest distance and I wish it had been further. Parties loud enough that I could hear the music pounding in my bedroom (with my windows closed, a fan and white-noise machine going, and their windows closed…). Yes, I called in noise complaints but all that does is marks you as that bitchy neighbor who wants the parties shut down. (But I cannot manage my life on three hours of sleep, and these parties often lasted until 3 am, and I had to be at work before 8…)

    I tried talking to one of the people, explained the issue, got a “ha ha, sucks to be you” response. Eventually they were evicted but I’ve had other problematic neighbors in other houses since (including one where an FBI guy came to my door and asked if I’d seen them recently. I don’t know why. I hadn’t, and was truthful about that. But I still wonder)

    I finally moved to the other side of the house to sleep. It was not ideal.

    Anyway. if I were doing it all over again, buying a different house? I’d want a BIGGER yard. Even if it meant more mowing. ‘Cos you can’t trust people not to be a-holes to their neighbors in re: noise.

    (I will note that I use a reel-type lawnmower, and I only ever use the electric edger after 10 am on weekend mornings, because I know people like to sleep in. But similarly, I like it to be quiet enough so I can sleep overnight)Report

  2. LeeEsq says:

    American cities and suburbs look the way they do because of culture and history. American culture validated the detached single family home as the only proper way for the true Anglo-American Protestant family to live since the colonial era. There has been likewise a similarly long anti-urban and anti-density belief in American society. Its one reason why nobody really protested that much when the streetcars were ripped up and freeways driven through the city to tear up the urban fabric. Americans wanted the suburbs. It was one of the most popular top down social engineering experiences in human history. Even if density can provide similar amenities to a detached single family home at a fraction of the cost, that would be not what American cultures prefers.Report

    • Chip Daniels in reply to LeeEsq says:

      And I think the desire for the detached house surrounded by greenery was itself modeled on the country houses of the European aristocracy, who earned their fortunes in the dirty city but rewarded themselves by living in pleasant country manors far away from the common rabble who produced the wealth.

      It’s not a coincidence suburban developments ape the language of “Estate”and “Manor”.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Chip Daniels says:

        It helped that most of the British settlers to North America came from a place where landownership was rare and most farmers rented their land. The temptation to own a place of your own was overwhelming in a place with a lot of good land.Report

  3. PD Shaw says:

    The Chinese pulled up all the yards during the Cultural Revolution, so its path dependency is through the anguished cries of millions of blades of Kentucky bluegrass. Or less dramatically, a disposition against individualism and personal choice.

    Markets have their own tendencies, and housing is a durable good. One doesn’t purchase housing simply to consume it, but to use it and sell/transfer it to someone else in time. That means that new housing tends to certain long-term conventions, unless one has the money to design and build one’s own home. I also think the OP focuses on “use” when part of the features that attract buyers are aesthetic, whether or not they “use” the yard, they may prefer one.Report

  4. Rufus F. says:

    Back when I was a homeowner, I tore out the lawn and put in a garden that I had to weed once a week for about half an hour. The house is worth about 3x what it was when we bought it because of an inflated housing market. I don’t know that the lawn made any difference and lawns are just a stupid waste of resources regardless.Report

  5. Aaron David says:

    If one does not like things such as fireplaces, garages, or lawns, there are plenty of perfectly accommadating domiciles. They are called apartments. If one wants a garage but no lawn, you buy a townhouse. And so on. Or, a buyer can have a home of their own design built. But apartments make a person feel trapped like a rat when they have crap neighbors. Or they can be gentrified out of a location. Townhomes have HOA’s, forcing you to their convictions. A single family home allows for freedom; paint colors, landscaping, parking and so on.

    Homes have a shelf life much longer that a single owner. My house, for instance, was built in 1913. Yes, it has a fireplace and a formal dining room, but the garage is sized for a Model T so we can’t park in it. It is, however, a space for an art studio, bicyle storage (for the green types out there), a workshop, gardening supplies, or whatever the next owner wants. And there will be a next owner, as it is a quality home that will last lifetimes. Will the next owner have kids? Be a gardener? Will the problems of California and its power supply come up here and force me to use the fireplace? Best be prepared for those eventualities. Also the fact in that a home is probably the single largest purchase a family can make, and due to being a durable good, resale value is of importance. Thus, keeping it up as part of a good neighborhood, along with good schools and such, is important to a savy buyer.

    One other thought; lawns are like having a park right in front of your home, without the tragidy of the commons. Now isn’t that nice!Report

  6. Damon says:

    So…lawns. We sold the “marital estate” after the divorce because I didn’t want to be house poor or have no time to date…having to maintain a big house that contained an old cat and me. I managed to find a townhouse on and end that had SOME outside space that didn’t need maint. Woot. I’d have stayed in the marital estate if I could have afforded it (ie paid someone to clean it and take care of the exterior lawn) because it was quiet and in a good neighborhood.That’s a feature not a bug. And I like fireplaces and garages. If you don’t…don’t live in suburbia, or buy into a more modern architectural plan. Not everyone likes colonial style.Report

  7. Kazzy says:

    This seems related — but also very different — from the ways in which designing things for people with specific/particular benefits everyone. For instance, the curb ramps that now adorn most sidewalk/intersections were put in place for people with physical disabilities. But so many of us benefit from them being there… parents pushing strollers, kids on bikes or scooters, etc. And no one is really harmed by their presence. Sure, there was some cost involved to installing them that was shared among the populace but it was likely minimal, especially if just incorporated into the normal replacement of sidewalks.

    Here we see a system catering to specific preferences only it is sort of screwing everyone.

    I remember reading about an East Asian country (maybe Japan?) where the idea of homes being permanent or even-semi permanent was not the norm. Homes were build to last maybe a few decades. When you bought a home, you were really buying the property underneath it with the idea being that you’d knock down whatever was there and build something specific to your desires.

    I’ve only bought a home once but I’ve rented several times and it is always an interesting game: Okay, here are all the things we want. But these are the ones we want most. We won’t get everything we want so let’s start doing the calculus of which ones we’ll trade for which. And then you spend a few years convincing yourself you love something that only checks like, 6 out of 10 boxes.Report

  8. Oscar Gordon says:

    As I’ve mentioned before, I much prefer how my house is arranged. Ten houses all facing a common 1/2 acre lawn that the HOA maintains. Each house also has a backyard that is about 25’x25′ that people can leave as grass, or turn into a patio (what I did).

    The common area is big enough for everyone to play in, and no one stresses about caring for it, and there are playgrounds a few blocks away for the kids to enjoy if they need more.

    I am infinitely more satisfied with this kind of ‘lawn’ than if I had to care for the grass myself.Report

  9. Christopher Johnson says:

    Blazing hot take: Lawns are a fantastic example of stated versus revealed preferences. If Americans really wanted lawns everywhere (and many of the designs and “features” of American communities), they would reveal that preference in where they go when they actually have a choice.

    If their preference was for lawns, it would be revealed in the places they choose to spend recreational time and vacations. This would mean people flocking to the American suburbs when day-to-day conveniences and “normal” aren’t concerns, like on holidays or time not working.

    However, they choose quite differently from their stated preference of suburban life with a big lawn, heading downtown for recreation, or traveling to dense coastal and European cities.Report

    • Aaron David in reply to Christopher Johnson says:

      Super-sized hot take: people reveal their preferances for lawns by buying houses in the suburbs and not ripping them out. Those who live in cities and downtown, without lawns, go to parks with huge lawns to recreate. Further, those city dwellers move to suburbs as soon as they can afford it, and give their kids lawns.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Christopher Johnson says:

      I’m gonna push back on this. If people without lawns but who claimed to desperately want them never stepped foot on grass, you’d have a point. But this is like saying people from cold weather climates must not really like living there if they go somewhere tropical for a vacation. Or folks from warm weather climates must secretly hate it because they took a ski vacation. Occassionally wanting a break from the norm doesn’t mean you hate the norm.Report

      • Chip Daniels in reply to Kazzy says:

        What’s interesting is that dense urban areas like Times Square in Manhattan, Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, State Street in Santa Barbara and the Gaslamp District in San Diego, or for that matter any European city, are favorite tourist destinations, yet the people who find them attractive would scream at the thought of living in a place like that.Report

        • George Turner in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          But how many of those people are flocking there just to see the bright lights and the street performers? Perhaps the big question for tourists is “Would you leave your child unattended for 15 minutes in this place?” One of the attractions of having a yard, whether open in a rural or very low density area, or a fenced yard in a higher density suburb, is that young children can go outside to play. Children need exposure to the outdoors to help prevent developing allergies later, and recent studies have shown that children also need to be outside in bright sunlight for many hours every day or they’ll become nearsighted. Having a big yard in a nice suburban neighborhood makes that much easier.Report

          • Chip Daniels in reply to George Turner says:

            I’ve read stories about children who spend their entire childhood growing up in cities. They even play stickball in the streets.

            Yeah, I find it as preposterous as you do, but its true!Report

            • George Turner in reply to Chip Daniels says:

              That was back in the day when children were allowed to go feral, running loose without a parent hovering over them on the playground. But all too often those children were kidnapped by Indians and John Wayne had to go rescue them. The Duke died, so now we just slap their faces on milk cartons. That’s kind of stupid because most Native Americans are lactose intolerant and probably don’t buy milk.Report

  10. JoeSal says:

    “Vikram is henceforth banned from my lawn.” -My LawnReport

  11. Mikkhi Kisht says:

    There’s two reasons I use when defending my preference for apartment rental life. One, I’m not the one paying for an HVAC tech or plumber when something breaks. Two, I have no desire to mow a lawn or be responsible for tree trimming! I have zero urge to own real estate. 😀Report

  12. I loved this piece, and always always enjoy your writing, V.Report