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?" ...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."
"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.
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