To Lawn or not to Lawn

One of the things I like most about the internet is that it often acts as a randomness generator when you stumble upon something you weren’t looking for which sends you off on a path you weren’t intending to go down. This happened to me recently when I came across a snippet of video from an old TV show here in Australia called the D-Generation. The show itself was a bit before my time, so I never saw it when it was on TV. But I knew its name due to the fact that the members of the show have gone on to become well-known fixtures in the Australian entertainment industry.

To understand the sketch, you have to know that Australia took in many immigrants from Italy and Greece in the decades after WW2. There was a lot of racism in those years due to the fact that Australia still retained, although was fast losing, a strong cultural attachment to Britain. By the 80s, the overt racism was mostly gone, but its memory was not.

The part of the sketch that caught my attention played to this background of racism. Two of the show’s stars, Jane Kennedy and Santo Cilauro, are visiting Santo’s uncle, Alberto. As the names might suggest, Santo was born to Italian immigrants and his uncle was presumably also an immigrant. Jane and Santo are touring Uncle Alberto’s house and Jane notices that Alberto has concreted over the front yard of his suburban house something she says is common for Italians to do. She asks why he did it and Alberto responds that it makes it easier to maintain.

In this very short exchange lies a whole wealth of cultural information. We’ve covered the connotation of racism, which was almost certainly intentional. But the exchange is primarily about the banal subject of front yards. In Australian suburbia in the post-war years, the front yard had to have a lawn. The reason Uncle Alberto’s front yard caught Jane Kennedy’s attention was because he didn’t have one.

A typical post-war front lawn

The Italian and Greek immigrants in the post-war years didn’t understand the rules about front yards and they broke them in two main ways. One was to concrete over the whole thing. The other was to grow vegetables in it. I have a friend who is the son of Italian immigrant parents and they still grow vegetables in their front yard to this day. The Greeks and Italians retained the old-fashioned idea that, if you had decent soil, you should use it for something productive. They didn’t understand that the whole point of the front lawn was that it was conspicuously non-productive.

Of course, when you have a front garden, including a lawn, you need to mow the lawn and weed the garden to keep in presentable. That work has to be done by someone and it’s very likely that person considers it a chore. That was Uncle Alberto’s point. Why do a chore when you don’t have to?

There’s two personal reasons why all this resonated with me. Firstly, I have lived in inner city apartments most of my adult life but, some years ago, I moved to suburbia here in Melbourne and I did so for the express purpose of growing a garden. I now have backyard chickens, grow a lot of fruit and vegetables and have recently tried to beautify the garden a little with flowering perennials. This was a deliberate lifestyle choice on my part and so I don’t resent the relatively small investment of time and energy it requires.

There are, however, many people who do resent the work of maintaining a suburban garden. One such person is a friend of mine who is always complaining about it. A couple of years ago, sick of his whining, I brusquely suggested that he should just concrete over the front yard so he didn’t have to maintain it anymore. I’d had the same idea as Uncle Alberto.

My friend looked at me like I had two heads. For him, a suburban house had to have a lawn in the front yard. It’s just the way it was. And, of course, all the houses in his area (and mine) do have front lawns.

The question is: why?

We take our surroundings for granted. Seemingly trivial matters like having a front lawn are just part of the world we grow up in and we never question them. But front lawns, and suburbia in general, didn’t just come out of nowhere. They exist for a reason. So, the real question is: what were the reasons for the rise of suburbia?

It looked like this

To answer that we have to go back to the 19th century. In the 19th century, the industrial revolution kicked into gear big time. It brought with it factories. The factories were concentrated in the inner cities alongside high density housing for the workers. They were dirty and dangerous and emitted pollution directly into the local environment.

Meanwhile, the aristocracy was living the good life out in the countryside. They had large estates and a team of gardeners whose job was the grow food for the household.

The pleasure garden

But the aristocracy also competed with each other to see who could have the most magnificent landscape gardens. This led to various fashions and styles of garden. The best gardeners became celebrities. All this was very similar to the way aristocrats supported the arts back in Renaissance Italy. Vanity through ostentatious display of wealth has been one of the main sources of funding for the arts since time immemorial. In Britain, gardening had become an art form.

One of the ostentatious markers of wealth for the aristocracy of Britain was the extensive use of lawns in their landscape gardens. Small-holding peasants throughout history would never have grown lawns since it would be a waste of fertile soil that could be used to grow crops. Thus, an estate with extensive lawns communicated to the observer “look at me, I’m so rich I can afford to waste all this land on useless grass.”

Thus, in the 19th century you had two different lifestyle paradigms. On the one hand, the inner cities were high-density, heavily-polluted incubators for disease with a side helping of crime, squalor and filth. That’s where the workers lived. On the other hand, the aristocracy were using the proceeds of empire to live lives of ostentatious luxury signified partly by the cultivation of huge gardens with extensive lawns.

A third demographic then arrived on the scene: the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie were the beneficiaries of industrialisation. They were office workers, engineers and small business owners. This nouveau riche demographic wanted to escape the squalor of the inner city but didn’t have access to ancestral land like the aristocracy. What to do?

The answer was: suburbia.

Suburbia was modelled on the estates of the aristocracy and sold to the emerging bourgeoisie as a way to escape the city and “get back to nature”. The ubiquitous “nature strip” in front of suburban houses was placed there for this purpose. In Australia, the quarter acre block eventually became the default size of a suburban allocation. In the early days, this was enough to grow a fairly substantial amount of food on, which many people did. Once again, this was an imitation of the aristocracy who also grew food on their land; albeit with a team of servants to do it for them.

In short, suburbia arose as a miniature form of the lifestyle of the English aristocracy of the 19th century. That’s also why the suburbs invariably had lawns. The aristocrats had extensive lawns on their estates. So, too, would the bourgeoisie. The front lawn became your own little marker of ostentatious wealth. “Look at me, I’m so rich I can waste this perfectly good soil on useless grass”.

Now that we have this cultural background in place, we can better understand what was behind the comedy sketch mentioned at the beginning of the post. The Italian and Greek immigrants arrived in Australia and moved into the suburbs. What they saw was perfectly good soil that could be used to grow food and that’s what many of them did. In doing so, they transgressed the whole point of the front lawn. It was there as a marker of wealth. To grow vegetables on it was the signal that you were poor and thereby to bring down the whole neighbourhood. On the other hand, to do what Santo Cilauro’s uncle did and pour concrete over it was also against the rules.

Of course, by the time the D-Generation was made in the late 80s, nobody remembered what the original point of these rules was. The front lawn was ubiquitous but had lost its meaning. For the people who had grown up in the suburbs, the lawn no longer represented a display of wealth but a tiresome chore. Nobody grew their own food anymore. And nobody saw the old British aristocracy as anything other than an anachronism.

It’s no coincidence that it was exactly at this time that a new aristocracy arrived on the scene (in truth, it had been forming for decades beforehand). The 80s was the age of the Wall St shark. Once again, the common person took their lead from the aristocracy only now the aristocracy was not a landed gentleman with top hat and monocle but a besuited banking bro with a cocaine addiction and penchant for high-price call girls.

…and cigars.

(In fairness, many an English “gentleman” had similar tastes although, in accordance with the fashions of the time, it was less coke and hookers and more opium and hookers).

Taking the lead from our banking overlords, what has happened from the 90s onward has been rampant speculation in Australian real estate. One of the ways this has occurred is through subdivision. The middle class found themselves sitting on quarter acre blocks that had lost their purpose. They proceeded to subdivide in order to build units or townhouses which could be sold for a tidy profit. The same mentality extended into investment properties. At time of writing, the MPs that sit in the Australian parliament own 1.34 investment properties on average. For Australians on a similar salary, the number is slightly higher at 1.4. 15% of Australians now own at least one investment property.

There’s a particularly surreal example of the subdivision trend right at the end of the street where I live. The block was the old-fashioned quarter acre and, as was common back in the day, had a number of fruit trees in the backyard including a beautiful big peach tree whose branches reached over the fence and onto the footpath. I used to take the opportunity to pick a peach or two when I walked past and I can testify that they were very tasty.

A few years ago the block was subdivided and a new house built on the 1/8 acre that used to be the backyard. The fruit trees were ripped up and a new weatherboard house put down. All things considered, it’s an attractive house but it takes up pretty much the entire block.

The front yard in particular caught my attention. The block is now very narrow and so the driveway and garage take up about half the width. The other half is perhaps 4 metres wide by 3 metres deep. Technically, this is the front yard, although it’s too small to be called that. What did the designers of the house decide to with this “front yard”? They put down a lawn. But it’s not a real lawn. It’s made of artificial grass.

It struck me that the house is a simulacrum. It’s a simulacrum of suburbia which is itself a simulacrum of the English aristocratic estates of the 19th century. Still, since the grass is artificial, at least the new residents won’t have to do much work to maintain it.

This little story is the microcosm to the macrocosm that has been Western civilisation over the last few decades. The ascent of the bankers has created a simulacrum of a civilisation. Again, it’s seems far too coincidental that the internet should appear at exactly the same time. Social media, in particular, is a simulacrum of reality. Images and videos flick past at such a rapid pace that the human mind cannot make sense of them.

This world created by the bankers looks to be falling apart in real time, although with the simulacrum in place it’s very hard to know what is actually going on. Nevertheless, the raw economics may finally win out. People are waking up to the fact that all we got from the last few decades was asset bubbles; good for bankers; not so good for anybody else. Increasingly, the system looks set to implode from its own momentum.

There’s much that could and has been said about this but one aspect I don’t see talked about much is the one we’ve seen a couple of times in this post. Although it’s impolite to say it these days with our egalitarian ethic, human societies run on mimicry. The masses copy the behaviour they see from the “elites”. That was what led to the creation of suburbia in the first place. It was the mimicry of the English aristocracy. It’s what is currently causing the dismantling of suburbia: the mimicry of bankers.

Mimic me and I’ll mimic you

This leads to another question: when the next GFC hits and, assuming the bankers don’t get bailed out this time, who will emerge as the new leadership class of Western civilisation?

Any ideas?

18 thoughts on “To Lawn or not to Lawn”

  1. The classic image that comes to mind is one neighbour mowing their front lawn then another hosing down their concrete. I lived in a rental in Melbourne that had the Mediterranean paved over treatment and I appreciated the lack of maintenance, but the thing that stood out was that unless you ‘watered your concrete’ in summer temperatures would become unbearable out on all that hard surface. One benefit of the lawn is that it does provide a bit of cooling from the grass transpiring. Apparently fake grass is just as bad as concrete for increasing the temperature around the house.

    As for someone taking over from the bankers, I dunno. It seems that as long as we have national currencies created by banks they will hold the reins, and it will take a collapse in currency to change it. I don’t doubt that is coming, but I just expect things to harden into a more socialist state where the nominal government tyrannically holds onto whatever power is available and graft is everywhere. A populist may come to sweep over it all but who knows. Maybe regional power centres with some sort of locla currency become the norm and whoever controls the most important assets rules.

  2. Jose – no doubt. But it’s an underappreciated fact, I think, that the British and Americans spent much of the post war years rigging the oil market in order to prevent the price of oil from falling too low. The reason is because a crash in the oil price is just as bad a spike. Both are destructive. Markets need to be balanced and so do currencies. So, the question is how to balance currencies in a world with a declining amount of energy available. It’s technically possible. In fact, technically easy with electronic currency. The problem is political and psychological. That’s why we’re seeing all kinds of “psy-ops” right now. In order to transition to a sustainable new financial system, the expectations of the masses needed to be completely changed. Hence, all the gaslighting and crazy nonsense we see on a daily basis.

    Skip – I think grass and tree canopy is a good paradigm in the areas of Australia where it’s feasible and, as Tony Rinaudo has shown, it might be feasible even where we think it isn’t. I remember spending a pleasant afternoon in Adelaide once sitting under the trees along the Torrens. It was 44 degrees but surprisingly comfortable in the shade.

    I suspect you’re right that the bankers probably have a little longer to enjoy their day in the sun. It is an interesting thought experiment, though, to wonder who else could vie for the role. Typically you’d have military or religious options but neither of those seem viable for us. It may be that we’re stuck with bankers since there’s nobody else that could do the job.

  3. Hi Simon,

    A truly awesome subject. When living in Fitzroy North, I really annoyed most of the street by digging up the cottage garden in the front yard, and planting it out to vegetables – the aspect to the sun was superb. The soil demanded to be used. Talk about making yourself a pariah though. And! Just to top it all off, we dried our washing on clothes horses set against the west facing front double brick wall, because that worked. I have a hunch, the neighbours were happy to see us go… 🙂

    I’ve always had the impression that grass out the front of a house was an overt display of wealth. The thinking goes like this: Here, we can grow this collection of plants, it’s of no practical use given the lack of grazing animals to crop it, and look we’re all so super wealthy!

    Interestingly, poking around some of the historic wealthy hill station gardens in these parts, the utilitarian aspects (orchard, vegetables and chickens) were very much placed out of sight, and not convenient to the kitchens – but then that was probably a problem for the folks working in the kitchens, and not the owners.

    Don’t you wonder if Victory gardens will come back in fashion one day?



  4. Chris – who knew grass could be so interesting 😛

    Growing vegetables is probably second only to the classic wrecked-cars-plus-knee-high-grass combination in terms of suburban front yard no-nos. If the neighbours are the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses type, then you’re in for trouble.

    You might have already seen this, but there was a BBC series done in the 80s interviewing one of the head gardeners about the way they used to grow food in the old-school manor gardens. It’s called The Victorian Kitchen Garden. Worth a look –

    If the victory gardens are going to come back into fashion, they’ll need to hurry up. At the rate we’re going with subdivision, there won’t be any yard left to grow them in.

  5. Hi Simon,

    I had some mates who did exactly that trick with the wrecked car and long grass thing in a large Californian bungalow in Caulfield. Ah, those were the days! Used to pinch their internet connection from the neighbours too. Lovely folks. Yes, you could say that they like grass. 😉 As an amusing side note, they got their bond back at the end of the long rental, only because the house was demolished. That was a way to keep the riff-raff out by upping the house prices. Actually, I’ve long since suspected that the suburbs have become stratified upon economic lines. As a strategy this works, until you need your lawns cut. You can see the problems with this playing out in rural areas. Some towns have trouble fielding a football or netball team, let alone getting enough volunteers to man the CFA brigade.

    Interestingly, it was not always so, and often up here, the very wealthy, and those who served their interests, often lived cheek by jowl, with the exception that the blocks of land for the wealthy were a whole lot bigger and thus provided a suitable distance. Most people up here historically, served the interests of the wealthy hill station owners, who in turn got their income from interests in Melbourne.

    Who’s next? What a fascinating question. All (or most) have made themselves slaves to el-cheapo mad cash, and so they’re slaves. The two rising contenders I’m wondering about are the military and the IT folks. Both are pushing for a larger slice of the cake. But really, we may be surprised.

    I’ll check out the video later tonight. Should be interesting, and there is always things to learn.



  6. Simon – simulacra of simulacra pretty much sums up modernity. Love the mimicry image.

    When you say the problem of electronic currency is political & psychological, sure. But the Optus outage yesterday supposedly affected 10 million customers, maybe a routing glitch, but what about when the power goes out? Good luck buying groceries etc. Better get those vegies started in the front yard now. Oh but wait. There is no front yard. How much food can you grow on a small balcony? 🙂

  7. Chris – Australia has always had a much more egalitarian culture in that respect. The wage class had more political power here since the country was founded at a time when unions had learned how to organise. People forget that the White Australia policy was a Labor Party idea and a big part of the reason for it was to deliberately keep the population down so that wages stayed high. It was only really abandoned after the wars when we realised that having a low population had become a major security weakness and that fossil fuels abundance made economic considerations all but redundant anyway.

    Fun fact – a real estate once told me that Indian and Chinese people are far less likely to rent/buy out a house with a garden that needs to be maintained since they just aren’t interested in gardens. Another little clue that suburbia really is an Anglo cultural construct.

    Shane – that can be easily resolved as long as they don’t go fully digital and still retain cash services. Of course, as someone who works in technology, I can tell you that nobody ever thinks about what happens when things go wrong. Still, we humans eventually learn the hard way. I saw a story from NZ recently that in one of their big floods the power went out to some towns for several days but all the stores in those towns had gone full digital so people were unable to buy anything. Apparently, this was a big shock to the Minister for finance (or whatever their title was) who agreed they needed to re-think the fully digital strategy 🙂

  8. I always thought that front lawns are a waste of space instead of a display of wealth since I never made the connection to the palace gardens. They are also a pretty weak representation of the palace gardens which I enjoy to visit as a tourist.

    Regarding future rulers, I have a few ideas for Germany but don’t take them seriously:
    1. The Earth Cult currently supported by the regime (fridays for future) sacrificing humanity for the benefit of the earth
    2. African warlords conquering the decadent Europe
    3. Christian knights led by the reincarnated emperor Barbarossa fighting off the bankers and their lackeys
    4. The Führer emerging from the hollow earth or dark side of the moon

    Either way, I would expect a lot of violence.

  9. Secretface – that’s the point. Only the wealthy can afford to waste things. Our society is the richest there’s ever been and also the most wasteful.

    Like the options. All would make good novels/movies! Hopefully they remain fiction.

  10. I think there is a slight difference between the lawns of Australia (and perhaps the USA) and those I encountered in the UK because the Australian lawn is something to be actively used (especially by kids) and worn out, whereas the British lawn was much more likely to be more of an ornamental display to be admired.

    It was almost insulting over there to encounter a lovely patch of lawn and be confronted with a keep off the grass sign, that me and my friends often gleefully ignored and in fact sort out to trespass.

    It probably goes to that more egalitarian bent you talk of but also the weather makes it easier to engage in plenty of outdoor activities like running under the sprinkler and jumping on the trampoline.

    This is the common refrain from old cricket legends in Australia that the ubiquitous backyard cricket matches that raised generations of Australia test cricketers are dying away because of the loss of the lawn.

  11. Skip – that reminds me of a funny translation fail that I saw once. I think it was from China. The sign clearly was supposed to say “Keep off the grass” but had an English translation beneath the Chinese characters which read “Don’t bother the resting grass”. Very poetic 🙂

    I think the Australian lawn is a cultural adaptation of the English. We inherited the ornamental lawn but due to climate and also the fact that Australian suburban blocks were larger, it was adapted to something new. A similar thing happened with clothing. You used to have people wandering around in three piece suits in the middle of summer simply because that was the fashion back in the motherland. And that was before air conditioning too!

  12. Hi Simon,

    You may have seen new housing estates? What interests me about them, is that the houses have pretty much eaten the land. There’s not much in the way of garden space in newer estates, and I do wonder how that is impacting upon the concept of the lawn as a much larger symbol. Mind you, I used to know some people living in Derrimut who had little garden space, and a lot of effort was put into the small area of grass out front of the house.

    Years ago I wrote and critiqued the unlikely possibility of retro-fitting the suburbs. As an alternative suggestion, I offered the cheeky opinion that maybe the best way to go would be knock down every second and third house and set those aside as edible gardens! But I reckon transport will be a larger issue. The suburbs were built around cars.



  13. Chris – well, yes, everything has flipped around. People no longer want to escape the city but can’t afford it, they want to move to the city but can’t afford it. The workers used to be stuck in the inner city. Now they get shunted to the outskirts. I guess the one constant is that the elites arrange things to their satisfaction and the workers have to make do.

    The old suburbs were built around train lines and often had very good tram connections too. They should have pretty good longevity. Of course, those are now considered trendy inner city suburbs. I agree, the prospects for the outer suburbs look grim. Still, pulling down a brick house and dismantling the slab just to grow vegetables is not something that’s going to be economically viable for a very long time, if ever.

  14. If mimicry remain the order of the day, then inevitably businessmen would have to bevome the new role models.
    Navigating the treacherous waters of doing business in an era of constantly shrinking market sizes and resource pools looks like the only form of practical education beyong mere survival that’s going to stay relevant.

  15. Michael – what sort of businessmen do you mean? Seems to me there are very few (real) businessmen left. There’s only bureaucratic apparatchiks who work for either multi-national corporations, governments or NGOs; the unholy alliance of globalism.

  16. I’m taking my cue from JMG here, who mentioned this in a comment a while ago.
    I intentionally avoided the term entrepreneur to focus on what precisely are not those riding the current wave of endless resources and credit, but those securing a viable future for company and employees when times get tough.
    There is of course the ‘warlord option’ if the economic collapse is more brutal; barring that, I think those handling “the things we were not told about” best will lead.

  17. Michael – the trouble is that small business is not glamorous. Even warlords can be glamorous. Just look at gangsta rap as an example. Still, I hope you’re right. There’s far worse options on the table.

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