Posted by Bruce Burns @BruceTracks
Why do we mow so much? In the city, our landscape norm is buildings set in areas of close cropped grass, and we are taught from an early age that regularly mowing lawns is the height of good husbandry (or wifebandry). But does it need to be so?
The mown lawn could rightly be viewed as an emblem of western civilization, and modern urban form owes much to the existence of lawnmowers. Regular mowing maintains open space around our buildings and roads and prevents ecological succession of those areas to weeds or forest. But there is a lot of lawn to mow – urban grasslands take up around 15 – 20% of Auckland (and other western cities) land area. There is also a cultural norm that seems to equate closely-mown lawns to tidiness, order, and care for urban human habitat. Mowing has become a regular activity for us, and we even instil a mowing ethos in our children with toy mowers.
But all that mowing comes at a cost, both real and opportunity. Publically and privately we spend millions of dollars and hours each year on mowing. Environmentally, mowing burns fuel and thereby contributes emissions to the air and pollutants to water. The opportunity costs can be estimated by considering what happens if we mow less and let lawns turn into meadows. Urban grasslands provide areas for stormwater infiltration and water retention – these ecosystem services are increased when grassland swards are deeper. As well, urban biodiversity would be enhanced. Meadow vegetation supports a greater diversity and abundance of plants, insects (including pollinators) and many other life forms. As well, wildflower-rich meadows would have psychological benefits for many urban dwellers, and they are stunningly romantic.
So, let’s experiment with setting aside areas within our cities and allow them to develop into meadows. I’m not talking about everywhere and not suggesting they won’t need some management. But I think we have a lot to gain by leaving the mower in the shed and valuing the nature that happens as a result.
Dr Bruce Burns is a Senior Lecturer in Plant Ecology in the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is a plant community ecologist specialising in the biodiversity and restoration of natural, managed, and urban ecosystems.