Alternative Groundcover

Image credits: Jenny Symonds, SFEI

Alternative groundcovers such as meadows, grass polycultures, shrubs, and mulch can replace lawns in many cases. Turfgrass lawn monocultures dominate the urban landscape and require high levels of chemical inputs, irrigation, and management. Urban greenspaces dominated by lawn monocultures have low biodiversity and the intensive maintenance they require creates negative impacts on human and ecosystem health. 

Biodiversity role:

Most alternatives to lawn monocultures provide higher pollinator and biodiversity support. Shrubs and other structural diversity that animals use as cover while navigating through urban areas can minimize landscape fragmentation. Lawn alternatives also often require fewer inputs of fertilizer and pesticides to maintain, and less mowing, both of which benefit insect diversity.

Human health role:

High proportion of grass cover in green space is associated with poor health and higher heat than diversified vegetation. Traditional lawn monoculture requires high levels of chemical inputs that can be deposited on clothing and persist in indoor environments, including homes. Lawn chemicals have been linked to negative health outcomes and gas-powered mowers impact air quality.

Key tensions and tradeoffs:

Lawns may be optimal for recreational areas, which support sports and other active recreation with strong health benefits. While total elimination of monoculture lawn grass may not be feasible or warranted, the following implementation guidelines can be used to limit the negative effects.

Use alternative groundcover

While some areas such as sports fields and gathering locations benefit from traditional turfgrass lawns, large portions of urban greenspace such as traffic medians and low traffic areas could benefit from alternatives that require fewer harmful inputs and can provide habitat for insects.

Add structure

Residential lawns that mainly serve as a visual amenity can be converted into native pollinator gardens, roadway medians can be planted with drought and pollution-tolerant shrubs and grasses, and low traffic areas can be converted into structurally complex native landscaping. Structure can have biodiversity and health benefits.

Incorporate natural surfaces

Permeable alternatives to lawns such as mulch, wood chips, decomposed granite, and moss can be used for high traffic areas such as pathways and areas around benches and tables.

Plant native grass lawns

In some bioregions, native grass mixes may provide alternative groundcover to replace traditional turfgrass lawns. Native grass lawns that include a mix of species are slower growing, have fewer weeds, and have the same tolerance to high traffic as traditional turf.

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