The Sociology of the Modern American Urban Landscape, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
There are no leaves in sight, but you can never be too careful. (James Fallows)

We’ve had a lot of development on the scientific, public-health, technology, and local-government front since the previous reports in this space. Updates soon.

For the moment, a note about the intriguing, emerging sociology of landscape care in today’s upscale America.

    A principal argument against any restrictions on powered landscape equipment, including the hyper-polluting, noisy leafblowers powered by two-stroke gas engines, is that they’re simply necessary for the hard work of coping with leaves and debris. Why would anyone want to make life more difficult for already hard-pressed people on the lawn crews?

    The most obvious counter-argument on this social-justice front is that the cost of pristine-looking lawns is comparable to the cost of perfect-looking grapes or apples or tomatoes, back in the days before pesticide and herbicide regulations for farm workers. In each case, a vulnerable population was/is expected to work in dangerous circumstances for generally wealthier customers — until the rules began changing for farm workers, and should for landscape crews as well.

    But there’s another counter to the “how could we possibly get the job done otherwise?” argument, which becomes more evident with each passing year. It is that a larger and larger share of the use of this equipment has become ritualized, even sumptuary and “conspicuous” (in the Thorstein Veblen sense), and has less and less to do with the basic task of removing heavy leaves.

    The pattern that’s emerging is:

    • To have a “nice” yard or office complex, you need a landscaping crew or contract with a landscaping company;
    • To be a “serious” landscaping crew or company, you need modern equipment, and a regular weekly schedule of visits;
    • So as part of the mark of seriousness and professionalism, the equipment gets put to work, needed or not. Thus what was an autumn-season only activity ten years ago is a round-the-year part of “professional” lawn care.

    The two pictures on this page, both taken in this past early-springtime week, illustrate what I’m talking about. Springtime is the season of new growth, and bright budding leaves — not desicated old brown leaves tumbling from the trees. In the photo at the top, taken last week in an East Coast city (OK, Washington) you will not see even one leaf to be tidied up. Yet the crew member spent thirty minutes on the patch of lawn and flowers you see in this view. In those thirty minutes, as discussed before, he exposed himself to emissions the blower’s two-stroke engine comparable to a pickup truck driving 3,800 miles

    The photo below, taken yesterday in a Southwestern city (OK, Dallas), shows something similar. Here too there were no leaves or debris to be moved, but two blower-operators, plus a supervisor, were on the job at this property for 20 minutes.

    Again no leaves to be blown, but again lots of blowing going on — plus supervision (James Fallows)

    Some problems really are zero-sum, winner-vs.-loser struggles that leave some parties worse off. Fortunately this is not one of them, because of fast-developing technological alternatives, as we’ll describe in more detail soon.