As more and more people become aware of the many harms lawns cause to human health and to the environment, lawns remain common largely because of local laws – called ordinances – that make it difficult for property owners to plant anything else. Most of these laws were passed at a time when few people were interested in natural yards or other lawn alternatives, and thus plants more than a few inches tall were generally due to neglect, rather than being a deliberate choice. The laws, which were intended to ensure that properties were maintained in good condition, therefore used unmowed plants as a proxy for neglect, and banned any vegetation that was growing at its natural height.
But even in the times before the value of healthy, naturally-growing plants in residential yards was widely known, these ordinances didn’t work very well. Rather than catching and punishing property owners who were lazy or negligent, the rules disproportionately caught and punished those who were genuinely unable to mow their lawns. In 2001, the city of Palmdale, California, reviewed the likely impact of a proposed lawn ordinance, and concluded that 80% of those who would find themselves in immediate violation were either elderly or poor. (The city passed that ordinance anyway.)
Lawn ordinances also regularly catch and punish those who are most knowledgeable about how to establish a natural yard, and why natural yards are good choices for residential landscaping. In 1976, the lawn ordinance in New Berlin, Wisconsin, was thrown out after the city incorrectly accused a wildlife biologist of not mowing his lawn. (He was planting a prairie restoration.) In Philadelphia, a landscape architect who gets paid to install natural landscaping in city parks around the country was fined for having natural landscaping in her own yard. And a woman in Oak Park, Michigan, was threatened with three months of jail time for planting a front-yard vegetable garden to provide healthy, affordable food for her six children.
Articles published in law journals have argued that even if a yard is genuinely neglected, it is less harmful to public health and safety than an intensively-maintained lawn. While the current laws may have been passed with the best of intentions based on what was known at the time, we now have a different understanding of how we should manage our yards to take good care of our properties and our communities.