Provocative Objects / Spaces

20 April 2022 -

Provocative Objects: Artificial Grass

Welcome to the next in our Provocative Objects series, where we look at designs that challenge and confront us. This month, guest contributor Jane Macintyre discusses artificial grass: plastic perfection?

The garden lawn has a high social status which derives from its heritage as the preserve of royalty and landed gentry. For generations, domestic gardeners have aspired to own and flaunt the perfect green lawn that requires constant maintenance. The invention of the labour-saving lawn-mower and the growth of suburban housing have widened garden ownership and democratised the lawn.

Today, pressures on space cause householders to uproot their lawns to accommodate cars or extend their homes. The remaining shrunken lawn areas are used more intensively, becoming worn and bare. Artificial grass made from synthetic plastics offers the enticing prospect of hard-wearing, low-maintenance, year-round greensward. But plastics’ lingering association with cheap, fake products inhibited the use of synthetic turf in domestic settings until the 2000s, once the product had developed into a convincingly lush replica.

This sample of realistic-looking artificial grass is a sophisticated product, typical of the premium end of the domestic market. Its many design refinements suggest the randomness of natural, living grass. Fine blades of assorted lengths and shades of green are folded along their long axis, so that their widths seem to vary. The blades stand up from the backing material at arbitrary angles like tufts of real grass. A second type of blade mimics the thatch of dead grass that is a natural part of a real lawn. But there are no weeds: this is a simulacrum of grassy perfection.

Humans have a deep need to interact with nature, and this need is increasingly fulfilled by their gardens. Yet synthetic lawns are not only unnatural, but environmentally detrimental. They contain large quantities of non-renewable plastics derived from fossil-fuels, and are hard to recycle. They contribute to global warming through their carbon footprint and are ecologically problematic because they do not sustain life and thereby inhibit biodiversity. These features make artificial grass a controversial, even socially divisive choice.

Owners of artificial grass often install it despite being aware of an environmental cost; they may extol their lawn’s benefits evangelically using manufacturers’ marketing statements. Manufacturers have successfully positioned their products as hyperreal, thereby elevating them above nature and removing any association with cheap plastics. Instead, artificial grass’s high-tech credentials help to make it acceptable, perhaps even more desirable, than a living lawn.

People who resist installing artificial grass for environmental reasons may feel morally superior. Others believe its use could depress local house prices by rendering their neighbourhood less attractive.

Surprisingly, some artificial grass owners even perceive their lawn’s lifelessness to be environmentally beneficial. For them, synthetic turf is a hygienic choice because it does not attract insects or get muddy, suggesting an aversion towards nature. People who are separated from the natural world, however, value it less, and may fail to defend it in the face of anthropogenic climate change.

Modern artificial grass is only one of many applications of synthetic plastics that burgeoned after World War Two, just as the developed world began to understand the environment as something that humans destroy. Few plastics products directly replace living material like artificial grass does, making its environmental profile particularly problematic.

Whilst artificial grass is emblematic of our unhealthy relationship with plastics, its domestic use is an outcome of the embedded sociocultural ideal of the perfect green lawn. That ideal has recently been challenged by campaigns for wild-life-friendly, low-maintenance wildflower meadows. Can such efforts deter people from installing more synthetic lawns? Or will artificial grass continue to smother our outdoor spaces?

After graduating in chemistry, Jane Macintyre worked in scientific publishing until her interest in design eventually led her to study design history at Oxford University’s Continuing Education department. She recently completed her Masters degree (MStHoD) and is now an independent writer and editor.

Follow Jane on Twitter @MacJTweet

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