Moving away from grass lawns demands the extensive transformation of our relationship not only with our cities but also with nature.
Zach Loeks is a farmer, educator, and urbanist based in Canada. He hates lawns, and with good reason. The grass that dominates much of our designed environments (yards, medians, parks) is useless and consumes an obscene amount of resources. We have a billion-dollar industry devoted to making grass one place look the same as grass everywhere else. In the United States, this monotonous appearance demands lots of water (a stunning 9 billion gallons a day), fertilizer (90 million pounds a year), and pesticides (75 million pounds a year). Loeks is right to see in the lawn so much that is wrong with the way we live and plan our cities, suburbs, and farms.
What is the solution? For Loeks, it’s making the spaces of private lawns or public areas more diverse and productive (not in the market sense but in that of trophic ecology). In a way, this sounds like a no-brainer. We should just make it happen. But it doesn’t look so easy if you take a step back and consider our culture, habits, and ways of thinking about our surroundings. Everywhere one looks, there are the same yards and the same greenspaces. Indeed, the leap from the kingdom of grass to what Loeks calls edible landscapes cannot be done without the assistance of something like a jetpack. Loeks’ vision demands the extensive transformation of our relationship not only with our cities but also with nature.
We often see nature and culture as distinct domains. The designed environment is the product of human culture. What is outside of it is nature, which is generated and regenerated by the unmediated and long-evolved interconnections of wild-living things. The two defining aims of Loeks’ new book, The Edible Ecosystem Solution (New Society, 2020), are the dispersal of ecological knowledge and closing the divide between culture and nature.
What Loeks means by “edible landscape” basically comes down to this: In the wild, there are plants within an ecosystem (or between them, in “edge environments” or “ecotones”) that have formed companionships, or guilds—one plant is good at supporting soil structure, another provides support above ground, another keeps water in the soil, and so on. A classic of plant companionship is that of corn, beans, and squash, also known as the “three sisters”—the corn offers beans a stalk for climbing, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil with the assistance of bacteria, and squash reduces evapotranspiration. There are different guilds for different ecosystems. The first part of Loeks’ book presents this ecological background with the purpose of setting up a transition from the wild to the city, from nature to culture.
Loeks proposes that these kinds of companionships can be mimicked where we now have lawns, greenspaces, brownspaces (just dirt), and even grayspaces (paved areas). This mimicry is the point where culture meets nature. By selecting a guild that will thrive in your region, you can set into motion what nature does on its own, which, writes Loeks, is to increase plant and animal complexity and diversity. The thing a lawn does, according to this view, is to underdevelop nature. A lawn locks an ecosystem in its infancy. It never grows up.
Loeks writes: “Our modern landscape is in a stagnation of succession; we spend a lot of money and energy fighting the natural phenomena of ecological succession, which provides us with benefits. … Land planning that includes space for maturing our land use as evolving ecosystems will enjoy various benefits such as carbon capture, genetic resources, and water purification.”
For sure, ecological succession is not a concept that’s free of controversy. The idea that nature, if left alone, will complexify is hotly debated among ecologists. But what cannot be contested in our period of rapid anthropogenic change is that this business of cutting grass, feeding grass, and protecting the look of grass with all kinds of chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic, looks like a dead end.
You can’t eat grass, and even if you could, it would not be one of the things you regularly eat. The diet of modern humans is as monotonous as our lawns. We eat the same kinds of vegetables and meats, day in and day out. But during much of our evolution, we were supreme generalists. Our bodies are made to eat lots of different things in ecosystems that are rich with plant species and bugs—though the latter are not in Loeks’ purview. We can restore some of these long-lost alimentary habits by spreading all over our designed environment guilds that have fruit trees as an anchor and produce a variety of nuts, herbs, and berries. And it is here that Loeks distinguishes his approach from that of urban gardening.
Edible landscapes are somewhere between Sarah Bergmann’s Pollinator Pathway and Marcus Henderson’s spontaneous urban gardens. A Pollinator Pathway is indirectly related to food production and is design-orientated. Its goal is the long-term structural and aesthetic transformation of an urban environment by connecting it with stretches of wildness.
The spontaneous urban garden, which scientist and urbanist Henderson drew attention to this summer in CHOP, Seattle’s autonomous zone, is more immediate. It transforms available city spaces into sites of food production that can be realized within a season. Loeks’ edible landscapes do both. And that’s not by any means easy to do.
As The Edible Ecosystem Solution makes evident with its abundance of drawings, pictures, and details that, though written clearly, are often technical, designing edible landscapes takes time and requires the accumulation and implementation of a great deal of local, regional, and global knowledge. One must be informed about which plants work with other plants and will grow where you live. There is the sun to think about, there are other yards to think about, and there is the micro-climate of the neighborhood to think about. What nature does without thought, you must do with carefully considered calculations and lots of research. The mimicry of a natural and edible ecosystem requires a lot of culture.
The name Loeks uses for those who plant companion species in a yard or greenspace in a city, suburb, or urban farm is not “gardeners” but “stewards.” What this designation implies is not planning and planting to reap the rewards of edible companions in a season or two, but instead getting things started for an edible ecosystem city, a mode of urbanism that is not too far in the future.