The Ecological Value of Lawns

Todd Litman's picture

I appreciate natural environments. I have always enjoyed walking in wilderness and cycling on rural roads, and I understand the ecological value provided by undeveloped lands, which include clean water, air and wildlife habitat. I also enjoy local fresh vegetables and fruits and so appreciate the value of preserving regional farmlands. Planners call these "greenspace," or more generally "openspace" since some, such as deserts and waterways, are open but not necessarily green.

Most people seem to agree: they want to preserve natural environments and farmland. But planners often face conflicts between residents' desire to preserve local openspace and strategic goals to protect regional openspace. Smart growth policies that result in more compact development tend to reduce local but increase regional openspace.

This issue came up when I spoke at a conference last weekend, where I showed data on health, safety and affordability benefits of more compact development (, and described Vancouver's EcoDensity program ( designed to achieve such benefits. An audience member criticized this concept, arguing that, "People need nature to be healthy." She opposes any infill development that displaces greenspace.

I appreciate the intention but believe it is misguided. I certainly agree that urban areas need plenty of parks and gardens, including neighborhood pocket parks for young children, recreational parks for sports, and allotment gardens, so everybody has access to local greenspace. However, infill development, and the transition from suburban to urban conditions, tends to displace private lawns. In a typical situation a developer replaces single-family housing that has about 30% impervious surface with multi-family housing that has 80% impervious surface. Impervious surface increases in that area, but declines per capita and across the region compared with the same number of people accommodated with sprawled development.

Opponents often claim that such infill is ecologically harmful, but what ecological functions do lawns actually fulfill? Lawns cannot be considered wildlife habitat, since most wild animals are considered pests. They absorb precipitation and so reduce stormwater management costs, but because they are heavily fertilized and chemicalled (plenty of "Weed and Feed"), they threaten groundwater quality. Lawns and gardens do tend to reduce heat island effects. In practice, suburban and urban lawns displaced by development are are primarily an aesthetic loss, less land devoted to lawns and gardens which reflect an idealized but artificial landscape, but not much of an ecological loss. True nature is generally rougher, less pretty and unpredictable.

Here are some ways to maintain access to true nature for urban residents:
• Maintain public parks within urban areas, with some areas preserved in semi-natural conditions.
• Maintain regional nature parks.
• Use native plants and habitat landscaping as much as possible.
• Use organic landscape management which minimizes chemical fertilizers and pesticides, to protect water quality, as much as possible.
• Encourage rooftop and wall gardens.
• Welcome true nature.

I support urban gardening, but it should be opportunistic, taking advantage of suitable rooftops and undeveloped land. Cities should avoid restricting development (such as building heights) just to preserve gardens – the economic, social and environmental benefits of infill development are generally much greater than a garden's benefits.

While urban greenspace can sometimes be preserved by building taller buildings, this has disadvantages. Some households prefer private ground-floor entrances, feasible with townhouses and garden apartments which are usually limited to about three stories; beyond four stories residents tend to lose their social connection with the street (it is no longer possible to say hello to friends walking by from your window); and taller building are inhuman in scale. I am not suggesting that cities maintain a rigid four-story limit, but there are extra benefits mid-rise scale.

This is part of a larger debate concerning whether compact development is unhealthy. Many people assume that urban living is psychologically and socially harmful, based on the perception that city residents are more stressed, less friendly, and more likely to be anti-social – an expression of a long anti-urban tradition. Yes, some city neighborhoods have concentrated poverty and related social problems, but other city neighborhoods are quite healthy and happy. Objective research indicates no harmful impacts from the densities commonly found in North American cities (

Of course, direct environmental impacts are just one of many factors that should be considered when evaluating development policies. More compact and mixed development can provide other savings and benefits including public service and transportation cost savings, traffic safety, plus improved public fitness and health.

Described differently, people who insist on limiting local development to preserve local greenspace are consuming environmental quality by surrounding themselves with pretty lawns and gardens, while people who support infill development are producing environmental quality by reducing the amount of land consumed per capita, and therefore preserving more regional greenspace.

This is not to suggest that everybody should live in urban areas, but if there is unmet demand for such development it is good public policy to accommodate it through smart growth policy reforms.

For More Information

Robert W. Burchell and Sahan Mukherji (2003), "Conventional Development Versus Managed Growth: The Costs of Sprawl," American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 93, No. 9 (, Sept. 2003, pp. 1534-1540.

Ben Janke, John S. Gulliver and Bruce N. Wilson (2011), Development of Techniques to Quantify Effective Impervious Cover, Center for Transportation Studies, University of Minnesota (

Jonathan Levine (2006), Zoned Out: Regulation, Markets, and Choices in Transportation and Metropolitan Land-Use, Resources for the Future (

Todd Litman (2008), Evaluating Criticism of Smart Growth, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (

Todd Litman (2009), Understanding Smart Growth Savings: What We Know About Public Infrastructure and Service Cost Savings, And How They are Misrepresented By Critics, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (

Todd Litman (2010), Evaluating Transportation Land Use Impacts, Victoria Transport Policy Institute ( ); originally published in World Transport Policy & Practice, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 9-16 (

Todd Litman (2011), "Why and How to Reduce the Amount of Land Paved for Roads and Parking Facilities," Environmental Practice, Vol. 13, No. 1, March, pp. 38-46 (; at Also see Todd Litman (2011), Pavement Buster's Guide: Why and How to Reduce the Amount of Land Paved for Roads and Parking Facilities, VTPI (

Richard Louv (2005), Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books.

William Lucy (2002), Danger in Exurbia: Outer Suburbs More Dangerous Than Cities, University of Virginia (, 2002; summarized in

J. Morris and J. Bagby (2008), "Measuring Environmental Value For Natural Lawn And Garden Care Practices," International Journal Of Life Cycle Assessment, Volume: 13, Issue: 3, pp. 226-234.

NAR (2003), Creating Great Neighborhoods: Density in Your Community, The National Association of Realtors, the Local Government Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (

Todd Litman is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.



infill re-development

Following the history of Western urban development, one finds nearly all communities began as train stations. This original design was truly transit oriented. With the increase of automobile popularity urban growth began in the direction of automobile centric design which rendered the transit design to be dysfunctional.

We now have a society that is wholly based on an unsustainable foundation: environmentally, economically and socially. Urban growth has to become sustainable.

Parks or without parks in infill is irrelevant when the growth is automobile centric.

Todd Litman's picture

Infill Development

Thank you future.transit for your comments.

Yes, between 1870 and 1920 most towns and urban neighborhoods developed around train stations. Here in Victoria, BC, many of the most popular commercial districts are a legacy of our streetcar system, which created nodes of density (Cook Street Village, Oak Bay Village, Fernwood Village, etc.) which are among the most popular places to live and work, because they are functional and vibrant neighborhoods; places where most of residents' needs can be met in one location.

As a result, residents of such communities tend to own fewer motor vehicles, drive less, and rely more on walking, cycling and public transit than they would in automobile-dependent neighborhoods.

The value of such transit-oriented development is being rediscovered by experts, who recognize that such development provides economic, social and environmental benefits; and by individual households, who realize that they are better off leading a less automobile-oriented lifestyle.

However, transit-oriented development often faces opposition by existing residents concerned about the increased density it allows and requires - which is usually expressed as fear of increased traffic and parking congestion, and loss of local greenspace. There is a kernel of truth in these, but not much. In most cases the real problem is bad design, not density, and these losses are outweighed by the significant benefits provided by more compact, multi-modal development compared with sprawl.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Well Said

I have always thought as lawns as a throw back to the (North) American Dream, along with the white picket fence and so-forth. But that idea is self centred and reflects only the expansionist thoughts that retail companies and other capital driven ventures thrive upon.
What is a lawn next to a park? All I see is the exposure of human dominance on what should be a natural landscape. It isn't Nature, it's a chained, subdued, and tortured lesser form of the environment that is exclusionist and focused on one simple raison d'etre: a visually pleasing painting of the land. There is nothing real about it, it is completely man made. Why we would actively encourage such selfish uses for land in an age when space in village and town centres need to be denser to help alleviate the burdens of private automobiles and make transit more affordable and convenient? Some decision makers have encountered the woes of such thoughts when they created hectares of homogeneous homesteads. Just look at Gordon Head in Saanich.

Todd Litman's picture

The Utility of Lawns

Thanks for your comments, Paul.

Although I agree that lawns are artificial and provide little ecological value, I don't agree that they are totally wasteful and selfish. They are useful for play and sports activities and as attractive setbacks. However, this does not mean that more is necessarily better, nor that public policy should limit otherwise desirable development to preserve private lawns. A dynamic city that responds to changing housing market demands generally evolves from lower-density, automobile-dependent to more compact, multi-modal neighborhoods, which requires building on lawns and gardens. Greenspace still exists, but there is less, and a greater portion is shared rather than personal, including public parks, and shared gardens in multi-family developments. We have a nice little garden and lawn which covers about half our 5,000 square foot (about 9 units per acre, considered medium-density) parcel.

For more information see:

"Where We Want To Be: Home Location Preferences And Their Implications For Smart Growth" ( )

"Affordable-Accessible Housing In A Dynamic City: Why and How To Support Development of More Affordable Housing In Accessible Locations" ( ).

Also note, last week's New Yorker cover addresses this issue. It shows a small area of lawn surrounded by unhappy wild animals. See

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Michael Lewyn's picture

back yards vs. front yards

It seems to me that there's a difference between back lawns and front lawns.

Back lawns are more useful to a family because more private, more insulated from traffic and obnoxious strangers (though given children's apparent preference for video games over going outside, less useful than in the past).

By contrast, I don't really see the point of front lawns. On the one hand, they require more work (and thus more toxic chemicals) because they are in full view of neighbors. On the other hand, they are not private enough to be a particularly useful play space for the children of today's often-paranoid parents.

Todd Litman's picture

Front Lawns

Thank you for your comments, Michael!

I agree that back yards have special value as a safe place for children to play. Front yards provide setback and aesthetic value, and a place for neighbors to meet. A small front yard can be nice, but more is not necessarily better.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Front lawns as symbols of attainment

You insight about producing environmental quality vs. consuming it is brilliant.

I wonder (as no doubt others have before me) if the manicured, monoculture front lawn is a cherished symbol of attainment. Namely, it broadcasts emancipation from agrarian labor: "We are wealthy enough that we do not have to grow any food."

I also attribute the "green space" (one of the most insidious examples of plannerspeak to infect the general population) fetish to decades of bad urbanism. James Kunstler riffs on this much better than I could, but the gist of the argument is that cities were made increasingly unbearable by Corbusian modernism and auto-centric sprawl. The only response, because we all read "The Fountainhead" and therefore understood Modernism to be our moral obligation, was to apply nature bandaids.

Of course, the answer to bad urbanism is not shrubbery & mulch ensembles, it is good urbanism.

Todd Litman's picture

Status Versus Functional Value

Thanks for your feedback, Betty Barcode.

Yes, I agree, much of the value of lawns is the status they provide based on the assumption that land ownership displays wealth and success. This issue is discussed in my report, "Mobility As A Positional Good: Implications for Transport Policy and Planning" ( ).

Our challenge is to differentiate between status and functional values. Greenspace does provide some benefits - it can be attractive, cooling, accommodates recreational activity, absorbs rainwater, and can even grow fresh food. These are good and should be accommodated within cities as much as possible.

Most urban residential neighborhoods can have significant amounts of greenspace while still being compact, walkable and transit oriented, but it must be used efficiently. This means smaller private yards and more public parks, plus well-maintained boulevards and street trees.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

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