Why American Yards Are Shrinking

November 5, 2019

Have you noticed that the yards of American homes have been getting a lot smaller in the last few years? It's not your imagination. Cheddar explains why lawns are shrinking across the US - and why we even have them the first place.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

FEMALE_1: It's the American dream.

FEMALE_1: A house, a white picket fence,

FEMALE_1: 2.5 kids, and a big green yard.

FEMALE_1: In the 1970s, the American yard

FEMALE_1: was around 11,000 square feet.

FEMALE_1: But today, that number has dropped to 9,000.

FEMALE_1: Calabasas, California is a shining example

FEMALE_1: of where things are headed.

FEMALE_1: Just check out how close together these homes are.

FEMALE_1: The average $1.5 million home in

FEMALE_1: this neighborhood takes up 60 percent of the lot.

FEMALE_1: So why are our lawns shrinking?

FEMALE_1: [MUSIC] Before we get into this, click "Subscribe."

FEMALE_1: You're already here. Let's rewind.

FEMALE_1: In the 1800s, the average American yard was around

FEMALE_1: 50,000 square feet or a little over an acre.

FEMALE_1: Back then, the American dream was to have

FEMALE_1: a nice little house where you could raise all of

FEMALE_1: your children in the big yard where you

FEMALE_1: could grow food and have space to make things.

FEMALE_1: The average house took up about 4 percent of

FEMALE_1: that land or about 1,700 square feet.

FEMALE_1: There were fewer people,

FEMALE_1: so lots could take up more space

FEMALE_1: since there wasn't as much land in demand.

FEMALE_1: Lawn started to shrink when urban row housing sprung

FEMALE_1: up making efficient use of small amounts of land.

FEMALE_1: These row houses were generally

FEMALE_1: 15-20 feet wide and 30-40 feet deep.

FEMALE_1: As America moved away from

FEMALE_1: an agrarian economy to

FEMALE_1: an industrial one in the late 1800s,

FEMALE_1: lots size shrunk dramatically.

FEMALE_1: The American dream had been downsized because

FEMALE_1: people needed a lot less to live comfortably.

FEMALE_1: Lots size decreased by dramatic 43,000 square

FEMALE_1: feet average across the country

FEMALE_1: or down to around a fifth of an acre.

FEMALE_1: Single family home size decreased by

FEMALE_1: 300 square feet so that

FEMALE_1: the average home took up 20 percent of the lot.

FEMALE_1: This was a huge change,

FEMALE_1: but there are two very reasonable answers as to why.

FEMALE_1: The first is that square footage

FEMALE_1: shrunk to compensate for the costs of having plumbing,

FEMALE_1: heating, electricity, and other new technology.

FEMALE_1: The second reason is that people no longer

FEMALE_1: needed to produce their own domestic goods.

FEMALE_1: They didn't need to store home

FEMALE_1: canned fruits and vegetables,

FEMALE_1: supplies to make the family's clothing and bedding,

FEMALE_1: and other odds and ends.

FEMALE_1: People stopped being producers

FEMALE_1: and started becoming consumers.

FEMALE_1: These trends started to reverse in the 1930s

FEMALE_1: and home and lot sizes increased throughout the 1970s.

FEMALE_1: This was because of high rents

FEMALE_1: and crime rates in the cities.

FEMALE_1: Cheap land in the country,

FEMALE_1: easy access to cars,

FEMALE_1: and government incentives that all pushed families to

FEMALE_1: leave the city for larger suburban houses. [MUSIC]

MALE_1: The empty farmlands,

MALE_1: the quiet towns and villages surrounding

MALE_1: the city found themselves in

MALE_1: the midst of a roaring housing boom.

MALE_1: New developments on every hand, some well-planned,

MALE_1: well-designed, blending naturally into the terrain.

MALE_1: [MUSIC]

FEMALE_1: These larger suburban houses had large lawns that became

FEMALE_1: symbols of success and were

FEMALE_1: therefore something to be proud of. [MUSIC]

FEMALE_2: [MUSIC] Part of the reason why people cared so much about

FEMALE_2: their lawns in the first place is that in the 1870s,

FEMALE_2: when lawns became popular they were seen as

FEMALE_2: aesthetic extensions of Manifest Destiny.

FEMALE_2: They were symbols of American entitlement and triumph.

FEMALE_2: Manifest Destiny wasn't just the notion

FEMALE_2: that Americans should be a bigger country.

FEMALE_2: It permeated many aspects of

FEMALE_2: American life and people

FEMALE_2: believed that they deserved bigger,

FEMALE_2: better, and grander things

FEMALE_2: because it was meant to be that way.

FEMALE_2: Lawn products were heavily marketed to men.

FEMALE_2: Men were rulers of

FEMALE_2: their tiny wild domain that they could domesticate.

FEMALE_2: In addition, lawns were seen as

FEMALE_2: the masculine equivalent of the home

FEMALE_2: and kitchen that their wife rolled over.

FEMALE_2: But houses have only continued to

FEMALE_2: get bigger since the 1970s.

FEMALE_2: The average new home is 2,500 square feet.

FEMALE_2: About 50 percent bigger than homes from the late 1970s.

FEMALE_2: A combination of lots shrinking by 36.2

FEMALE_2: percent and home footprints growing by 15.2 percent.

FEMALE_2: Mean that lot utilization is a lot higher.

FEMALE_2: Homes built since 2015

FEMALE_2: occupied 25 percent of the land that they sit on,

FEMALE_2: while homes built in 1975,

FEMALE_2: occupied just 13 percent.

FEMALE_2: Now, average lot size has

FEMALE_2: shrunk to around one fifth of an acre.

FEMALE_2: And this isn't because of an increase in

FEMALE_2: townhouses or multi-family homes.

FEMALE_2: Census data shows that 90 percent of

FEMALE_2: new home growth came from detached houses.

FEMALE_2: It's also not because of

FEMALE_2: land crunched areas like the Northeast.

FEMALE_2: A Zillow report in 2015,

FEMALE_2: found that yards are shrinking

FEMALE_2: across the South and the Midwest,

FEMALE_2: despite lots of available room to expand.

FEMALE_2: The report hypothesizes that

FEMALE_2: shrinking lawns are actually an economic compromise.

FEMALE_2: Americans want bigger houses,

FEMALE_2: but since every extra square foot balloons

FEMALE_2: the cost builders cut down

FEMALE_2: on lawn acreage to keep things affordable.

FEMALE_2: But why did house size become so valued?

FEMALE_2: Louis Hyman, a Cornell professor says that in the 1970s,

FEMALE_2: Americans started to view their houses as

FEMALE_2: assets that could become more valuable.

FEMALE_2: The mindset was that you should

FEMALE_2: buy the biggest house that you can

FEMALE_2: because you'll make more money when you sell

FEMALE_2: it because house prices will go up.

FEMALE_2: Also, lawn maintenance is expensive.

FEMALE_2: There are 40 million acres of lawn in the US.

FEMALE_2: Turf grasses take up

FEMALE_2: roughly three times as much area as irrigated corn,

FEMALE_2: which was the US's largest crop in

FEMALE_2: 2019 grown on the equivalent

FEMALE_2: of 39 million football fields.

FEMALE_2: Turf grasses, vegetables that nobody

FEMALE_2: eats with the single largest irrigated crop

FEMALE_2: in the country.

FEMALE_2: The EPA estimates that America's lawns take

FEMALE_2: 9 billion gallons of water a day to stay green.

FEMALE_2: A NASA study derived from satellite imaging found that

FEMALE_2: turf grasses took up nearly two percent

FEMALE_2: of the entire surface of the continental US.

FEMALE_2: All of that lawn maintenance gets expensive.

FEMALE_2: And since people want

FEMALE_2: bigger houses without paying too much more for them,

FEMALE_2: cutting down on lawn size is

FEMALE_2: an effective way of making that happen.

FEMALE_2: Will American lawns keep shrinking?

FEMALE_2: Probably, since studies say that

FEMALE_2: around 50 percent of

FEMALE_2: millennials want to live in bigger homes.

FEMALE_2: But I for one think that

FEMALE_2: the grass isn't always greener in the bigger lawn.

FEMALE_2: [MUSIC]