Wednesday, July 6, 2011

American Front Lawn Update: Turf Wars

Back in May when I put together a post on setbacks and the American front lawn, I wrote that cost, social pressure or concerns about resale value would tend to discourage homeowners from considering creative alternatives to a grass lawn.  To that list must also be added force of law, judging by this story out of Oak Park, a Detroit suburb, where the municipal government has confronted a local homeowner who decided to turn her front lawn into a vegetable garden:
Code enforcement gave her a warning, then a ticket and now she's been charged with a misdemeanor. ... "That's not what we want to see in a front yard," said Oak Park City Planner Kevin Rulkowski. Why? The city is pointing to a code that says a front yard has to have suitable, live, plant material. The big question is what's "suitable?" ...

"If you look at the definition of what suitable is in Webster's dictionary, it will say common. So, if you look around and you look in any other community, what's common to a front yard is a nice, grass yard with beautiful trees and bushes and flowers," [Rulkowski] said.
While the planner's comment plainly gives away the conformist and aesthetic rationale underlying these particular regulations, this disagreement is one which again can only be fully understood in the context of setback requirements.  Under Oak Park's zoning ordinance, all single and two-family residences must be set back at least 25 feet from the street, of which 20 feet must remain as "open space unpaved, unoccupied and unobstructed from the ground upward." 

When combined with the city's interpretation of its code, this requirement places an affirmative duty on all homeowners to maintain ornamental front yard plantings in perpetuity.  The homeowner may comply either 1) by dedicating her leisure time to lawn maintenance, without compensation; or, if the financial means to avoid this are available, by 2) compensating others to maintain her property (simultaneously a hidden property tax and a generous subsidy for the local landscaping industry).

The Oak Park homeowner in the article, in essence, rejected option 2) and instead attempted to earn  a type of compensation from the labor required of her in option 1).  This, in Oak Park, as in many other suburban jurisdictions and HOAs, is an offense against codified majoritarian aesthetics and apparently may be criminally punishable. Once front-yard farming is decriminalized, however, the market finds ways means of making these yards economically productive – such as in Vancouver, where private yard-farming firms cultivate vegetables on home lawns, with part of the crop going to the homeowner and the remainder to local CSA groups. 

Still, the pro-urban farming perspective seems to address only part of the main issue here, which (for me at least) is not should we also permit gardening in front yards?, but why should we at all limit the reasonable uses to which the front 25+ feet of the property is put (up to and including building on it)?  The front setback's origin, purpose and continued reason for being, as I've tried to show, is precisely to work in tandem with landscaping codes to mandate an uninterrupted field of grass lawns in front of all homes.  When the setback is divorced from this underlying goal, what justification can be given for requiring it? 

This is perhaps why a homeowner turning a front yard into a garden is so significant: it subversively challenges the rationale of a key element of the mandated American suburban form, poking a finger in the eye of William Levitt and the authors of a thousand suburban zoning ordinances.

Other lawn-related posts from here and there, highly recommended:
The Case Against the American Front Lawn at Apartment Therapy (thanks for the link!)
The Great (Big) American Lawn at Per Square Mile


  1. If you look at the history of urbanism in the U.S. over the past 100 years and maybe 200 years, we have a simple, overarching theme:

    Everything Always Gets Fucked Up

    Nobody has ever produced a more attractive, comfortable pattern than the suburban house on a quarter-acre, the "Small Town America" pattern dating from about 1800.

    Of course, this pattern has immense problems, as we well know. However, the apparent alternatives -- 20th Century Hypertrophism (tower blocks/superwide streets), 19th Century Hypertrophism (basically, Brooklyn), and various suburban alternatives like the typical "townhouse development" -- all basically stink.

    In short, we have a 100% failure rate when we diverge from the Small Town America pattern. Thus, people don't want to consider any tiny modification, because they don't want to find out that our 100% failure streak remains unbroken.

    However, you can take these same Suburbanites, put them in, say, Barcelona, without a car, and they are perfectly happy and content.

    So, I think it is basically a waste of time to talk to people. You have to build something, and see if they like it.

  2. Nathan -- not all 19th century urbanism was hypertrophic, though. The mid-Atlantic region from Washington and Baltimore up to Philadelphia and westward to Lancaster and Bethlehem produced large amounts of residential fabric that was more or less "traditional." St. Louis did too. (Then there are hybrid forms, such as the Chicago bungalow which is neither hypertrophic, traditional nor really in the "Small Town America" pattern.)

    It was mass-produced and sometimes on streets that were quite wide, but there are still vast amounts of modest rowhouses on narrow streets in these cities. Most of it fared no better than hypertrophic Brooklyn or the Bronx from 1940-1970, although there are signs that these types of neighborhoods can revitalize more quickly than hypertrophic ones once a city's fortunes start to turn.

  3. Charlie:

    That is interesting -- I was not aware that there was anything at all in a roughly "traditional" format in the U.S., excepting some very old pre-1800 neighborhoods. However, I note that there are some rowhouses in places like Baltimore which are on streets narrow enough to qualify as "traditional" in my book (i.e. about 20 feet wide). However, I note that these are typically given over to a large central automobile roadway -- probably a later retrofit -- rather than a pedestrian-centric street (i.e. no sidewalks).

    These neighborhoods have not, as you note, fared very well, about as well as the 19th Century Hypertrophic neighborhoods surrounding them. Thus, despite some promising design elements, they not been successful in producing a comfortable living arrangement for a typical middle-class family. This could have to do with things as varied as crime, government corruption, taxation, or the history of local industry.

    Narrow Baltimore Street:

    Classic rowhouses in a Traditional City:

  4. "This could have to do with things as varied as crime, government corruption, taxation, or the history of local industry."

    Um, yes. Note that this is true pretty much everywhere. Urbanists have an annoying tendency to attribute social ills to urban form rather than to social problems; it goes back to the reformists in the 19th century who created the garden city and suburbia, so it's not exactly a new trend. One of the things that separates Jane Jacobs from the rest of the pack is that she recognizes this and makes sure to focus on ills that have something to do with an urban form that prioritizes top-down control.

    In reality, rich people live where rich people live, and poor people where poor people live. Pretty much any urban form you can think of has come in poor, middle-class, and rich versions, and in areas where there's a pattern, people keep associating the urban form with a social class. Americans think urban apartments and project towers are for slums, suburbs are middle-class, and medieval urbanism (i.e. the North End) is quaint; Israelis think project towers are for the super-rich, garden city apartments are for anyone from the lower middle class up, medieval urbanism is for slums (Ajami) or tourism (Jerusalem's Old City), and suburbia is for settlers and the poor.

  5. Nathan: I should emphasize, though, that although the semi-traditionalism of Baltimore and Philadelphia (sometimes) imitates the basic form of the traditional city, most of it was not produced by a comparable generative process. Those Baltimore rowhouses in your link were cranked out on speculation by 19th century builders, in contrast to neighborhoods like Society Hill and Fells Point which were more incrementally built and which have remained popular among the middle class. Neighborhoods built in that manner (speculative mass-production) at that same time almost all declined rapidly after the 1920s, no matter if they were apartments, modest rowhouses, large brownstones, freestanding homes on large lots, etc. Those that predated the speculative building frenzy were more resilient.

    And doing a little Google-touring of Baltimore, I do see that most of the streets apart from the mid-block lanes are not "really narrow streets." Forty foot, perfectly straight streets lined with two-story rowhouses produce a rather desolate effect with a building-height-to-street-width ratios well under 1:1. The overall feel is of a hypertrophic city punctuated by traditionalist elements. This is a far cry from an Alsatian village.