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Keep off the Lawn


By Carol Mithers

Published Jul 1, 2007 8:00 AM

In the 1940s, says Jeanne Arnold, "articles in magazines like House Beautiful were showing people how to use their yards as outdoor rooms — how to cook out, how to create privacy through visual barriers that shut out the busy world." By the next decade, with the shift to the suburbs a dominant theme of post-war culture, a private yard was a potent symbol of the middle-class Good Life. The back yard, we were told by the commercials, the movies, the TV shows and our neighbors, was where Dad grilled burgers, Mom made martinis and the kids happily played together. For that reason, says Arnold, the possession of a back yard became "a critical part" of a middle-class family's feeling of well-being.

It still is, even if we're not out there. Says Dana Cuff, a UCLA professor of architecture and urban design, and director of cityLAB, an urban planning think tank, "we still imagine that our homes are to be used the way they were when Ward and June Cleaver laid out the diagram for us." And although they're not — as Arnold and Lang point out, modern families typically spend their free time watching TV, practicing indoor hobbies and on the computer or playing sports away from home — we pretend.

A national consumer survey by the Propane Education and Research Council found that "home improvement projects tend to be driven by an underlying emotional need. Building or renovating outdoor rooms illustrates our need to relax and reconnect with family and friends." Creating an elaborate, fabulous (and expensive) back yard often "is a fantasy," says Santa Monica landscape architect Joseph Marek, who finds the CELF findings "shocking, but not a surprise. People watch home and garden shows on TV and think ‘wouldn't it be great to have that.' They imagine ‘if we have a wonderful space in the yard, we'll be out there more.' But the reality is that everyone is too busy."

Is such self-deception a bad thing? Maybe not, says Cuff. "If I have only five minutes to sit on the patio chair, maybe it's more satisfying that it's not a broken-down piece of plastic. If the scarcest commodity for families is time, you intensify the few moments you have with special things."

"Even if you don't use the yard, if it's done in a way that's very pleasing to you, you can get enjoyment just sitting at the breakfast table and looking out," says Eric Stodder, a Laguna Beach landscape designer and builder. "It adds some goodness to the day."

On the other hand, part of the reason so many families don't have time for leisure is that we're working frantically to finance the massive amounts of consumer goods we buy — and that includes the $599 outdoor recliner, "impervious to the elements" Santa Barbara sectional ($3,890) or Outdoor Room with 65-inch pop-up plasma TV, fire pit and three weatherproof recliners — suggested retail price, $60,000.

"We're on a treadmill, and I think it's crazy," Arnold notes. "Families really didn't seem to get this — or they're so busy they don't have time to think about it."

In the end, our beautiful, empty yards have become one more casualty of life in a Digital Age. They have become, in fact, just like so many of our stainless-steel, professional quality, and equally unused kitchens: elaborate, rather sad, set pieces crafted for the lives we wish we had, rather than those we actually do.