Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
June 21, 2001
Grass is being turfed out of Guelph front yards, study finds
Grass is becoming a thing of the past in some Guelph neighbourhoods, a new University of Guelph study has found.
More and more people are replacing traditional sod-covered front yards with flowers, rock gardens and native plants, say landscape architecture professors Maurice Nelischer and Nate Perkins. Their recent survey of Guelph reveals that the number of alternative lawns has increased between 300 and 900 per cent in the past five years.
“People seem to finally be figuring out that grass is an expensive plant that takes a lot of time and chemicals to maintain, and it doesn’t look good unless it’s perfect,” said Perkins. “I also think there’s less social pressure to conform and have a front lawn that looks like everyone else’s. More people are willing to take chances.”
Perkins and Nelischer’s survey was a follow-up study to research they conducted in 1995 on the region’s “alternative lawns,” meaning front yards where grass takes up less than 20 per cent of the available space. Five years ago, only about 1.5 per cent of Guelph’s residential front yards fell into this category, and of those, most were in older, more established areas.
“There have been unbelievable changes in the past five years,” said Nelischer. In Guelph’s older areas, the number of alternative front lawns has increased about 300 per cent. In neighbourhoods built in the 1960s and 1970s, the increase is 900 per cent. And in areas built after 1980, the number of alternative lawns has risen by about 600 per cent, the study shows.
“We used Guelph as a test site, but this is a movement that is taking place across the entire country,” said Nelischer.
The reasons for the change are many, he said, and they were slow in coming. “Since the early part of the 20th century, North Americans have embraced the idea that front yards should consist of turfgrass, shrubs and the occasional tree.” This has been a cherished image in both Canadian and American culture, he said, and there have even been studies on people’s attachment and preference for residential lawns. Over time, zoning laws have pushed houses farther back from the street, leaving a vast area of grass. During the same period, backyards have moved from being utility and parking areas to highly developed outdoor space, and there’s been less need to use the front yard for recreational space.
“In the early 1990s, homeowners started turning these large front yards into gardens,” said Nelischer. “Many made the decision for environmental reasons, avoiding the energy and chemical costs associated with a lawn.”
Running a lawn mower for an hour, for example, creates as much pollution as a car does in 11 hours. In addition, chemicals and fertilizers are becoming less popular in neighbourhood settings, resulting in people looking for other options, he said.
Perkins added, however, that starting an alternative lawn is not a simple process. Initially, it’s more expensive and time-consuming than installing turfgrass. You have to work a lot harder at it,” he says. “It requires more esthetic sophistication and patience, but it also generates a lot more visual interest and opportunities to grow rather than mow.”
Prof. Maurice Nelischer
Prof. Nathan Perkins
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