Your “Lawn” Should Feed You; Detroit as an Urban Laboratory

Posted on June 7, 2012

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From Wikipedia:

Most lawns are composed of a monoculture (single species) of plants, which reduces biodiversity, especially when the lawn covers a large area. They usually are composed of introduced species not native to the area, which can further decrease a locale’s biodiversity and vital habitats supporting an ecosystem.

Lawn maintenance often uses inorganic fertilizers, synthetic pesticidesherbicides, and fungicides, which can harm the environment. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has estimated[when?] nearly 70,000,000 pounds (32,000,000 kg) of active pesticide ingredients are used on suburban lawns each year in the United States.[13]

For example, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Kuwait, and Belize have placed restrictions on the use of the herbicide 2,4-D.

The use of pesticides and fertilizers, requiring fossil fuels for manufacturing, distribution, and application, have been shown to contribute to global warming, whereas sustainable organic techniques have been shown to help reduce global warming.[14]

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Having a lawn is part of the ideal American Dream, you know– the suburban one with the house and the picket-fence, living with your nuclear family and pet dog– Sparky. As I rode the 460 Woodward north to Royal Oak, the abandoned lots with untended grass litter the geography of the Woodward line. Certainly, I notice this everyday as I stare out the window during the commute; today I took pause and wondered about the concept of the lawn. Where else do you find the lawn popping up in human communities throughout time and space?

Philology gave me my first clue, the origin of the word.

The term lawn, was first uttered in 1540, derived from “laune”  (Celtic c. 1300). The damp climate of Western Europe, is likely what made possible the management of the lawn. Well that’s interesting. Compare that climate to the most populous areas of the industrialized world, and one can start to see discrepancies. The dry southwest is a great example of environmental mismanagement. I take the following stats from the EPA.

  • 30 to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns (depending on city).
  • $5,250,000,000 is spent on fossil fuel-derived fertilizers for U.S. lawns.
  • 67,000,000 pounds of synthetic pesticides are used on U.S. lawns.
  • 60,000 to 70,000 severe accidents result from lawnmowers.
  • 580,000,000 gallons of gasoline are used for lawnmowers.
  • $25,000,000,000 is spent for the lawn care industry.
  • $700,000,000 is spent for pesticides for U.S. lawns.
  • 20,000,000 acres are planted in residential lawns.

Additionally, local wildlife are being poisoned by the pesticides, of which while the farmer more widely uses pesticides, the average homeowner uses 10x more per acre! It follows that the lawns need to go! If more of the population got involved in growing their own food through the utilization of their space, energy savings would be monumental. Note that the average distance our food travels before it reaches our plates is 1,500 miles. Fluctuations in oil prices effect fluctuations in food prices. And again the last few years have seen what meteorologists are observing as, “weather on steroids.” Alterations in weather patterns adversely effect food prices. Growing your own food can insulate your family from such fluctuations.  [Allen]

Detroit actually has a long history of urban gardening, and should officially make use of this wisdom“In the 1890’s, poor Detroiters were encouraged to grow food on vacant land by the mayor, Hazen S. Pingree.” [McMillan] In her new book, Tracie McMillan explores Detroit’s agricultural heritage and what we are doing to protect and promote public gardening. This is definately something that should be expanded on and might be a crucial turning point for the city. If we could take control of the water system and use it to irrigate vacant parcels of land for public gardens, tear up our lawns and plant gardens, we can reduce much of the poverty stricken conditions around the region, while empowering many to earn or save sizeable amounts of cash. McMillan tells of the group – Grown in Detroit – which grossed $60,000 in 2010 selling off their extra produce to local restaurants and at farmers markets. Of course Detroit is also home to the largest farmers market in the country with Eastern Market. A quick Google search proves the net is littered with organizations around the world discussing the upward surge toward urban farming, and Detroit is something of an American figurehead in that respect. If Detroit proved that a city could feed itself, well it’s an opportunity for Detroit to once again lead the way into a new era and unprecedented realization of the ‘American Dream’.

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