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This wild garden in a wealthy Toronto neighbourhood is a gathering place for generations of family. (Ben Rahn/A-Frame/Levitt Goodman Architects)
This wild garden in a wealthy Toronto neighbourhood is a gathering place for generations of family. (Ben Rahn/A-Frame/Levitt Goodman Architects)

When it comes to lawns, the natural way is here to stay Add to ...

And when the suburbs were born in the late 19th century, the tension between what is mine and what belongs to the community remained strong.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park, also designed suburban developments – from the 1860s on – that democratized the great green lawns of European manors into small slices that were private but also collective in character. The front lawn was collective ground. As author Leonidas Ramsey wrote in 1930, “A man’s home may be his castle, but his front lawn belongs to the public.”

We care what our neighbours think of us, of course, and for most of the 20th century, that meant cutting the lawn. But those manicured expanses come at a price. Lawns, which in North America are most commonly made up of the thirsty species Kentucky bluegrass, suck up tremendous amounts of water. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that landscape irrigation consumes nearly 34 billion litres a day, much of it wasted in over-watering or runoff.

The first strong cries of dissent came in the environmentally conscious 1970s, with a movement in favour of the “freedom lawn,” as activists began to resist the golf-course-like landscape.

A little later, Michael Pollan, now famous for his writings on how to eat, published an essay in 1989 called, “Why mow?” As he charted his own journey to planting vegetables and fruit trees, ripping up the carpet of turf, he reported a feeling of freedom. “For however democratic a lawn may be with respect to one’s neighbours, with respect to nature it is authoritarian,” he wrote. “Under the mower’s brutal indiscriminate rotor, the landscape is subdued, homogenized, dominated utterly.”

Where was the nature in this, he asked. Where was the sense? Today, these questions are everywhere.

Not that everyone agrees on the answers. In 2010, Vancouverite Ken Dyck complained to the city about the neighbours’ practice of farming their yard on an East Side street. He argued that the metre-high plants grown by housemates Sara St. Vincent and Ander Gates, including herbs, vegetables and berries, were spilling onto his yard and reducing his property value. (Local officials weighed in with orders to clean the place up a bit and play nice: “The city fully supports the vegetation and garden,” an inspector said. “Neighbours just need to respect one another … and work together.”)

Most of the behaviour changes that people are making are more subtle, however. Almost everyone who plants a garden these days includes a kitchen garden; the idea of growing your own food, which once had disappeared from the mainstream of North American culture, is not just acceptable but fashionable, a logical extension of the local-food movement. And many garden designers favour “xeriscapes,” or low-water gardens, with native species once mislabelled as weeds.

These developments feed off a larger theme: the reclaiming of the post-industrial city. For example, green roofs first became popular on public and commercial buildings, but now are suddenly fashionable for residences. Planted roofs are valuable for insulation and heat reflection, but aesthetically they also bring a wild presence to domesticated spheres.

In a similar spirit, perhaps the most well-loved bit of landscaping of our time is the High Line in New York, which opened just in 2009. The park is located on an elevated rail line in a formerly industrial neighbourhood, and it imitates (at great effort and expense) the overgrown state of the place when it was abandoned, with furniture, steps and bleachers that make a spectacle of the dense surrounding buildings.

“Whether you’re thinking of formal gardens in the French style or making things look natural – those are the two expectations,” said its lead designer, landscape architect James Corner. “But I think we’ve created a different genre. We’ve created something that is obviously living and dynamic but feels shaped and made.”

The High Line’s landscape reflects a bundle of ideas, aesthetic and ideological, and they are appearing in Canada as well, in public parks and gardens that use native plants for both environmental and design reasons.

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