Keep off the Lawn


By Carol Mithers

Published Jul 1, 2007 8:00 AM

July in L.A. is like a command to go outside: warm afternoons of limpid, golden light, velvet sunsets streaked with red and purple. In back yards across the city, hibiscus, daylilies, roses and dahlias are in breathtaking bloom, swimming pools glisten, elaborate barbecues and gas grills gleam, heat lamps and firepots await lighting, and collections of chairs, couches with matching pillows, even rugs and daybeds are grouped around outdoor theaters, stone hearths, 16-foot-high chimneys.

And there's not a soul in sight.

Last year, when researchers for UCLA's Center on the Everyday Lives of Families closely studied the living habits of 24 dual-income, home-owning Southern California families with young children, videotaping subjects, mapping and measuring their homes, and asking them to create their own narrated video tours, they found a striking contradiction. Yards were well (sometimes elaborately) maintained, and during self-made video tours, couples showed them off, speaking of how often they used the spaces for dining and play. But during the study period, almost no one did.

More than half the families — including one whose 15,000-square-foot yard boasted a pool, patio, swing set, trampoline and baseball pitching machine — never relaxed or spent time there. In some cases, no one even stepped outside. These yards were often two and three times as large as families' homes, noted study co-authors Jeanne E. Arnold, UCLA professor of anthropology, and Ursula A. Lang, a Berkeley architect, but they received "the least hours of use per square foot … Neither the parents nor families as a unit are enjoying very much time of any sort, much less leisure, in these spaces."

Arnold points out that the CELF data matches analyses drawn from a larger sample of middle-class families across the U.S. Americans spend more than $40 billion a year to upgrade outdoor spaces — places they never actually use. The "why" lies at the intersection of culture, myth and protective self-delusion.

Historian Kenneth Jackson traces our modern suburban ideal of home surrounded by an expanse of manicured lawn back to the mid-1800s. For millennia before that, humans embraced their own versions of urban congestion, since togetherness meant security from bandits and invaders. But later, as plumbing moved indoors and garages became attached to homes rather than erected behind them, backyard space became usable. As street noise and traffic increased, families turned toward the open-air areas behind their homes and away from their front porches.