Title: Lawn as a cultural and ecological phenomenon: A
conceptual framework for transdisciplinary research
Author: Maria Ignatieva Karin Ahrn´
orgen Wissman Tuula
Eriksson Pernilla Tid˚
aker Marcus Hedblom Thomas K¨
akan Marstorp Per Berg Tom Eriksson Jan Bengtsson
Reference: UFUG 25529
To appear in:
Received date: 9-12-2014
Revised date: 7-3-2015
Accepted date: 4-4-2015
Please cite this article as: Ignatieva, M., Ahrn´
e, K., Wissman, J., Eriksson,
T. , Ti d ˚
aker, P., Hedblom, M., K¨
atterer, T., Marstorp, H., Berg, P., Eriksson,
T., Bengtsson, J.,Lawn as a cultural and ecological phenomenon: A conceptual
framework for transdisciplinary research, Urban Forestry and Urban Greening (2015),
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Page 1 of 18
Ms. Ref. No.: UFUG-D-14-002801Title: Lawn as a cultural and ecological phenomenon: A conceptual framework for transdisciplinary
2research Urban Forestry & Urban Greening3
Lawn is the most powerful symbol of global modern urban landscapes
We discuss concept and methodology of ongoing transdisciplinary project in Sweden
Importance of researching social, symbolic, ecological and aesthetic values if lawns
Opportunities for lawns in sustainable urban planning, design and management
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Lawn as a cultural and ecological phenomenon: A conceptual 11 framework for transdisciplinary research
Maria Ignatievaa,*, Karin Ahrnéa, Jörgen Wissmana, Tuula Erikssona, Pernilla Tidåkerb,
Marcus Hedbloma, Thomas Kätterera, Håkan Marstorpa, Per Berga, Tom Erikssona, Jan
aSwedish University of Agricultural Sciences, PO Box 7012, SE-750 07 Uppsala, Sweden
bSwedish Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Engineering, PO Box 7033
19 S-750 07 Uppsala, Sweden
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Globalisation and urbanisation are the major drivers of the worldwide
homogenisation of urban landscapes. The flora and fauna of cities in different parts of the
world are strikingly similar, despite geographical and climate differences (McKinney, 2006;
Muller and Werner, 2010). In most of the Western world, urban landscapes have been
influenced and shaped by the same landscape few architectural approaches, namely French
formal, English Picturesque and Victorian Gardenesque and, in the 20th and 21st century,
Modernism (Ignatieva, 2010). One of the most powerful symbols of these landscape
architectural approaches, and thus of modern urban landscapes, is the lawn. Only a few
management options have been adopted for urban lawns, regardless of how they are used and
where in the city they are situated.
The use of lawns in our modern society is seen as a product of our life style (Giddens
1990). Today, lawns cover a significant part of all green open spaces in cities (up to 70-75%).
They can be found in private gardens and public parks, cemeteries, golf courses and along
roads. Most people of the Western world view lawns as a ‘natural’ and even as compulsory
element of the urban landscape, without questioning their social, ecological or aesthetic values
(Stewart et al., 2009).
There is a common positive view of lawns as functional and accessible areas in parks,
playgrounds and private gardens. Lawns often have symbolic value and people enjoy them
(see, hear, smell etc.), although they may be not permitted to enter or use the lawn area. The
However, the intensive management practices used on lawns, such as frequent mowing and
spraying of herbicides and fertilisers, has raised awareness about their potential negative
impact on the urban environment. All previous research on urban biotopes has shown that
lawns are strikingly similar in terms of plant species composition and, in their modern
expression, are important contributors to the homogenisation of urban landscapes and loss of
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urban biodiversity (Ignatieva, 2012). Most grasses used for lawns are varieties originating
from the same few nurseries or seed mixtures, creating habitats that have no equivalent within
the native environment. In the US, 23% of the entire urban land area is estimated to be
covered by lawns (Robbins and Birkenholtz, 2003), 62 000 tons of pesticides are used by
homeowners each year and 1.5 billion cubic metres of municipal water are used for irrigation 51
of lawns each summer day. In Sweden too, lawns cover large areas of public courtyards, parks,
golf courses, sports fields and traffic environments.
Like everywhere else in the Western world, lawns in Sweden are widely advertised
by urban planners, landscape architects, developers and mass media as a very useful
consumer product for the market. In the present project we regard lawns as specially
constructed plant communities with a domination of a limited number of grass and 57
herbaceous species which are densely planted and depend on a special management regime
(regular mowing). The lawn is designed for social (sport and recreation), historical,
aesthetical and cultural purposes (viewing, picnicking, playing golf and football, walking).
There are intensively managed lawns (frequently cut short) which we call “conventional” and
less-frequently cut lawns which are “meadow-like lawns”. The latter lawns are closer to 62
natural grassland in the sense that they are mowed and had bigger number of species. The
environmental impact of lawns largely depends on the intensity of management (Cameron et
al., 2012). If fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides are used, the surrounding surface water and
groundwater may be affected. Bolund and Hunhammar (1999) present six major groups of 66
important urban ecosystem services: air filtering, micro-climate regulation, noise reduction,
rainwater drainage, sewage treatment and recreational/cultural values. Out of these six, the
one where lawns are most important is the rainwater drainage. In vegetation-free cities, up to
60% of the rain water ends up as surface runoff. In areas with a permeable surface, such as a
lawn, only 5-15% of the rain water becomes surface runoff, whereas the rest evaporates or 71
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infiltrates into the ground providing important soil-moisture for trees and other vegetation that
further contributes to many of the abovementioned ecosystem services.
Although lawns may have positive effects on the environment, e.g. through carbon
sequestration in soil (Qian et al., 2010; Zirkle et al., 2011), the total effect on the environment
may be negated by the frequent use of mowers powered by fossil fuels. Lawns in general
could also serve as a habitat for grassland fauna, including bees and butterflies that utilise 77
urban environments (Ahrné et al., 2009; Ockinger et al., 2009; Matteson and Langellotto,
2010). Despite the important role of lawns in the urban landscape, there are few
comprehensive studies including their social, ecological, cultural, historical and symbolic
values, as well as their management and overall environmental impact. Most existing studies
have been conducted in Europe, the US and New Zealand, where lawns are causing problems 82
with invasive species because most lawn grasses originate from Europe (Müller, 1990;
Thompson et al., 2004; Stewart et al., 2009). In urban planning and policy documents, the
emphasis is often placed on sustainable planning and the importance of promoting ecosystem
services, but since these scopes are inherently complex, they are difficult to implement in
practice. In order to provide urban planners with valuable information on how this could be 87
achieved, one way could be to focus on a major urban green element, for example lawn, and
study it from different scientific perspectives in collaboration with practitioners. However,
this calls for interdisciplinary projects.
Transdisciplinary research on lawns91
Here, we describe the conceptual framework and methodological approaches of an
ongoing project on lawns. The project is a transdisciplinary collaboration including
stakeholders. The main research question”What is the phenomenon of lawn in
Sweden? ”involves studying lawns from different perspectives. The overall aim is to
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understand the role of lawns in sustainable urban planning, design and management.
Ecological knowledge, social values and norms influence the management of urban green
areas (Andersson et al., 2007) and may thus influence their biodiversity, environmental
impact and the ecosystem services they provide. Without understanding the social motives
behind the strong attachment of modern Western society to lawns, introducing potential 101
alternative solutions and changing conventional management routines can be difficult. The
transdisciplinary approach allows us to exchange knowledge between scientific disciplines in
order to influence the studies within each subject throughout the project and to achieve a
multi-dimensional understanding of the lawn as a phenomenon. The involvement and close
collaboration of stakeholders in the project allows us to get first-hand information on planning 106
obstacles relating to lawns and existing planning data from cities, and to focus on true
implementation aspects and not just theoretical recommendations.
To frame the project, we are using a multiscale approach and studying lawns from
different perspectives: from the large scale including the entire city (estimating the total
coverage of lawn as a land use type) through the medium neighbourhood level (providing 111
typology, coverage of lawns, their functions, values and use in parks or backyards) to the fine
level of the lawn itself, with emphasis on biotope characteristics such as biodiversity and
carbon sequestration. The study areas were chosen within dominant typologies of
neighbourhood areas in Sweden, multi-storey housing areas and residential private houses.
The pioneering character of our research is emphasised by the broad perspective, including 116
qualitative studies of social, cultural and historical values and a number of classical
quantitative biological studies (biodiversity of plants, pollinators and decomposers, and
carbon balance), as well as design considerations. All these aspects are being synthesised to
assess the environmental impact of lawns and their importance for ecosystem services in three
Swedish cities. Another very important part of this interdisciplinary research project is the 121
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involvement of urban planning and design dimensions, with practical output for practitioners
and decision makers who are formulating and implementing municipal policies.
More specifically, the aim of the project is to obtain interdisciplinary quantitative and
qualitative data on lawns which will allow us to estimate the values of different lawns and
draw conclusions about their negative and positive environmental impacts in our modern 126
cities. Our ambition is not to avoid or prohibit lawn as a phenomenon, but to critically analyse
it, connect it to people’s needs and suggest a new planning, design and management paradigm.
Specific objectives of the project are:
To classify and identify main types of lawns and their current management practices
To estimate the proportion of lawns related to other green and blue areas in the city, such 131
as forests, agricultural land and water bodies
To understand the motives for decisions about the establishment and management of
lawns among different stakeholders
To examine historical and social roots, perceptions, norms and aesthetic, symbolic and
design values of current management practices of lawns136
To understand the role of lawns in urban hydrology and water management
To analyse the environmental impact (energy use and carbon footprint) and biodiversity
(plants, bumblebees, butterflies and earthworms) of lawns
To identify how to establish and manage lawns so as to promote their provision of
ecosystem services in cities (e.g. pollination), while simultaneously reducing their 141
environmental impact and addressing people’s needs.
To study how different human interests and values interact (or conflict) from a
management perspective and how to find sustainable planning and design solutions.
We will deliver the results directly to stakeholders by providing an urban greening
manual, demonstration sites and different management packages for municipalities and 146
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communities with recommendations on how to design, establish and manage sustainable
Research framework and methodology149
We aimed to have a spatial overlap in choice of sites among research disciplines, but
at the same time to create a model that can be relevant for answering questions within 152
different fields (Fig. 1). The first few months were specifically dedicated by participants to
creating an understanding of each other’s disciplines and perspectives. Another important part
of the approach was to establish stakeholder and focus groups involving local municipality
experts. A special role was given to a scientific focus group that consisted of leading
international and local experts on lawns, including an expert in plant-pollinator interactions, a 157
horticultural scientist, an expert in grass-free lawn and a sociologist. We also involved non-
academic participants such as different stakeholders in the project.
The quantitative methods used in natural sciences with replicate samples and
reproducible research layouts are also being combined with quantitative and qualitative161
methods employed in social science, using interviews and surveys based on estimations and 162
stakeholder values. These in turn are being combined with case study methods used in
planning science, where unique cases are studied with method triangulation for validating the
results (Yin, 1995).
The process of choosing the case studies for field work was directly correlated with 166
three historical and cultural peculiarities that dominate Swedish urban planning structure.
Multi-family residential housing neighbourhoods with significant amounts of lawn area are
the most common typology in Swedish cities. We also included a category of Swedish private
houses (detached housing with private gardens). There are about 2 million such detached
houses in Sweden, making private houseowners an important stakeholder group with 171
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potentially a wide range of views and motives for planning, nurturing and maintaining their
private lawns (Lundgren, 2001; Berg, 2004).
We chose three case study cities, situated in the south (Malmö, 280 000 inhabitants),
east (Gothenburg, 530 000 inhabitants) and west (Uppsala, 200 000 inhabitants) of Sweden, in
order to cover differences in climate conditions and local culture. Within each city, three 176
types of lawns were identified for study: 1) residential lawns in private (detached house)
gardens; 2) utility lawns (common conventional, frequently mowed lawns); and 3) meadow-
like lawns in multi-family residential housing areas (cut only a few times a year). Utility
(conventional) and meadow-like lawns are two main classes differing in management
intensity that have been adopted by all Swedish municipalities. The classification of lawns is 181
mostly based on the management intensity (including frequency of cutting, using herbicides
and pesticides). Usually there is also one more type of lawns, the parterre lawn, which has the
highest management intensity. Parterre lawns are uncommon in Sweden. Instead we included
golf courses with lawn types ranging from very intensively managed tees and greens, to
fairways with intermediate management intensity and roughs with the lowest management 186
intensity. Golf courses are also included because of their more intensive use of purchased
inputs, and because of their potential for more sustainable management by providing habitats
for grassland species (Colding and Folke, 2009).
For calculating the percentage of the lawn coverage in the case study cities, we
decided to use existing data obtained by LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging), a remote 191
sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analysing
the reflected light, complemented with stakeholder knowledge of current managed areas.
As carbon balance studies are labour-intensive, we decided to limit our detailed
research to three lawn types differing in management intensity (utility and meadow-like lawns
in multi-storey residential areas and golf courses). We researched only ‘mature’ lawns, i.e. at 196
least 10 years old.
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Social, cultural and historical research199
In view of the complexity and novelty of this transdisciplinary research project,
during the first year we carried out a pilot study to test the suggested methodology and to
establish contacts with keynote stakeholders. For the social, cultural and historical research,
we looked at the origin and history of lawns worldwide and particularly in Sweden (we 203
visited sites of alternative lawns in Europe), motives behind management and establishment
of different types of lawns, characteristics of Swedish lawns and the perception among people
of different types of lawns, the origin of seed mixes and the peculiarities of planning, design
and management practices for lawns. The methodology included: 1) A literature review and
archive survey; 2) questionnaires on management and choice of plant material, targeting 208
stakeholders (who plan and manage the specific lawns), people living in multifamily houses
and golf players; 3) interviews with private gardeners, public planners, decision makers,
politicians, landscape architects and horticulturalists to obtain information concerning their
vision, planning, management and perception of lawns; 4) observational studies on how
frequently and for what activities the selected lawns are utilised; and 5) surveys: short 213
interviews with lawn visitors to get an idea of how lawns are perceived and utilised. In the
social science part of the study we also integrated some questions from other teams. One of
the most challenging parts of the methodology was to put together and integrate different
Biodiversity and environmental impact218
Biodiversity and environmental impacts of differently managed lawns being studied
are species diversity and composition of plants, bees, butterflies and earthworms, energy use
and carbon footprint. Carbon sequestration is being modelled, as is the balance between
sequestration and emission of greenhouse gases (GHG), including hidden carbon costs (GHG 222
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emissions associated with production of mineral fertilisers, pesticides, mowing etc.) in the
different lawn types.
Within each of the three cities, we surveyed three replicates of each of the public
lawn types (utility and meadow-like lawns) in six multi-storey housing areas. We also
surveyed three management types (fairway, rough and high rough) at six holes in two golf 227
courses per city. At all study sites, all species of vascular plants were recorded (vegetative
cover and counts of reproductive parts) within small plots (0.5 m × 0.5 m). We also recorded
the amount of flowers or fruits produced, as this is important for the connection between
plants and pollinators. Species richness and abundance of bumblebees and butterflies, as well
as number of flowers visited by the pollinators, were noted in larger plots (3 m × 3 m). In 232
these plots we also estimated total number of flowers. The survey of all plots and points was
conducted on two occasions during the flying season to include plants with different
flowering periods and pollinators with different flight periods. We focused on the grass
surface, but also estimated the availability of flowering plants within a larger distance from
the inventory plots, e.g. in flowerbeds. Since the organisms studied may also be influenced by 237
the surrounding urban landscape, we included GIS analyses of the landscape at a larger scale,
examining landscape composition and connectivity among grasslands.
Soils were sampled and organic carbon and nitrogen concentrations, soil bulk density
and roots determined. Carbon sequestration is calculated using the Introductory Carbon
Balance Model (ICBM model) (Andrén and Kätterer, 1997). Input to the model is the lawn 242
biomass production and climate data (temperature and precipitation). Above-ground lawn
biomass is determined through manual cutting of sub-plots within each of the two lawn types
and the golf courses. The cutting frequency mimics the management practice used on the
particular lawn type. Root biomass production estimation is based on shoot/root ratios
obtained in earlier calibrations of the ICBM model (Kätterer et al., 2011), as are other model 247
parameters such as stabilisation coefficient and rate constants for degradation.
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The energy use and emissions of GHG are being assessed in a life cycle perspective,
i.e. including all relevant activities in the management chain, from production of e.g.
purchased inputs to disposal according to a standardised ISO procedure. The energy use
related to the management of different lawn types such as irrigation, mowing and fertilization
is being investigated through interviews and questionnaire surveys of stakeholders, combined 253
with a literature search, and divided into different energy sources. In addition to CO2
emissions related to the management, nitrous oxide emissions both from production of
nitrogen mineral fertiliser and soil are estimated and carbon sequestration is modelled using
the ICBM model. Earthworms are important for soil conditions and soil fertility and are being
sampled in Uppsala using the mustard extraction technique at all biodiversity sites (Pelosi et 258
In the first year we established a demonstration trail representing different
experimental sites of alternative lawns at Ultuna Campus, Uppsala, as an important
educational facility for academics as well as public communities. For example, these sites 264
contain plant communities suitable for bumblebees and butterflies, as well as meadow plants
suited for wet and dry conditions. This work relies heavily on active participation and
consultation within the focus and stakeholder groups and is based on exchange of scientific
and practical information from leading European scientists and Swedish practitioners working 268
with sustainable lawns.
The final year of the project is intended for critical evaluation of existing design,
establishment and management practices of conventional lawns in Swedish cities and their
economic, social and environmental effectiveness. We have also decided to analyse existing
European sustainable alternatives to conventional lawns, such as meadow lawns (established 273
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from biodiverse mixtures (up to 25-30 species of different grass and herbaceous species),
grass-free lawns (made by using specific mowing tolerant plants instead of grass, (Smith and
Fellowes) and pictorial lawns (made from annual decorative plants) (Hitchmough, 2009) and
their appropriateness of using in Swedish cities. The economic and environmental benefits of
such alternative lawns have been actively discussed in recent years. The final stage of this 278
project will result in suggestions of different practical design solutions for planning, design
and establishment techniques as well as management schemes for different types of lawns in
all three case study cities. We are not necessarily against the conventional lawns but call for
critical evaluation and suggestion of wiser resource use in the urban environment.
Initial results and implications for future research283
The involvement of different disciplines and of stakeholders is the strength of this
project, but also makes it complex. It took time and a lot of effort in the beginning to
understand how to combine the methodologies from different disciplines and adapt them to
collective goals and objectives. Series of joint meetings, reading each other’s articles,
collecting background information, building networks and creating a database of local 289
contacts were essential starting points for the project. Stakeholder and focus group meetings
identified an urgent need for lawn research. All municipal managers are very supportive as
well because they understand the necessity of changing the current costly and unsustainable
management paradigm. However, due to the complex character of Swedish home ownership 293
and management practice (many owners and contractors are involved in maintenance and
management), the process of obtaining data was not an easy task and took a longer time than
The pilot study in the first year worked well and by the end of first season the
methodological approaches in all packages had been adjusted and in some cases significantly 298
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changed. For example, we found out that in a large city such as Gothenburg, it would be very
time-consuming (costly) to manually interpret the coverage of all lawns using orthophotos. In
the pilot study we tried to use normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) and infra-red-
spectra to estimate the area of grass in Gothenburg. However, we found that the NDVI was
not capable of capturing vegetation in shaded areas and it was also difficult to distinguish 303
grass from trees and other vegetation, thus making it less usable. Moreover, not all cities have
red spectra in their aerial photos. Using existing LiDAR data proved to be the best method of
estimating total grassland cover. In Sweden there is national coverage of LiDAR data, and in
addition some cities (e.g. Gothenburg and Uppsala) have their own LiDAR with higher
resolution. We used the municipal management maps of grasslands as references when 308
interpreting the intensity in the LiDAR data.
In the social survey, the questionnaires for lawn visitors and managers/politicians
were changed several times until they were worked effectively. Establishment of a website
and demonstration trail were effective visualisation and popularisation tools and attracted the
attention of stakeholders and the public at large. Some municipalities would like to establish 313
new larger demonstration sites in botanic or community gardens.
Working with an interdisciplinary approach initially needed numerous physical
meetings (as well as reading of selected articles from each of the disciplines) to understand
the intentions of other participants for the project, identify possible synergies and be able to
cooperate. It was also important to understand that in such projects aiming at both a broader 318
and a detailed perspective, there will be compromises within each of the scientific subjects
and they might not be able to perform as detailed studies as they would like.
For the success of the research aim to use the knowledge gained in the project and
implement it on the ground, it is crucial to have close collaboration with stakeholders and let
them be part of the research planning process. Only informing stakeholders about main results 323
in a fact sheet or a scientific paper is not sufficient if sustainable development is to be
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implemented: closer meetings and mutual understanding during the scientific process are
necessary. We plan to continue working closely with stakeholders. Our final goal is to
influence and even change the attitude towards lawns among professionals and the public.
This study was funded by Formas, the Swedish Research Council for Environment, 329
Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (225-2012-1369). We thank Na Xiu for improving
the figure 1 and Fredrik Eriksson for valuable advices on social part.
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409 Fig. 1. Components of the transdisciplinary project on lawns. The four main areas overlap
greatly in terms of research questions, interactions and, spatially, field sampling.