Peter Shawn Taylor
- Thu May 16 2013 00:01:00
From broken windows to weedy lawns
This theory was a big influence behind the crime-fighting success of New York City major Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s. After cracking down on transit fare-dodging and panhandling, the Big Apple happily found its murder rate falling as well. It was a significant milestone in understanding the preconditions for anti-social behaviour.
Here in Ontario, and Waterloo Region specifically, we’re in the process of discovering whether this theory works as well in reverse.
Our provincial and regional governments are currently engaged in experiments to see if community standards and social norms regarding the esthetics of yards and public green spaces can survive deliberate political efforts to make our region look uglier and less appealing.
Call it the weedy lawn theory.
First up, the provincial Liberal government’s continued ban on cosmetic pesticides.
The battleground here has been well discussed. Ottawa’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency scrupulously studies all pesticides; pesticides approved by this body can thus be considered proven safe by science.
In 2009, however, former premier Dalton McGuinty banned all chemical pesticides for entirely unscientific reasons. Ignoring the work of the federal agency, he invoked instead a populist fear of unknown or impossibly small risks, what’s called the “precautionary principle.”
In doing so, he eliminated chemical weed control from the arsenal of homeowners and municipalities. We’re now seeing the results.
Everywhere you look lawns appear shabbier than they used to be. It’s become virtually impossible to keep a front yard uniformly green and tidy.
In my own backyard, I’ve discovered a whole range of new weeds in addition to omnipresent dandelions battling for lawn dominance: purple weeds, white weeds, creeping weeds.
Parks and other public spaces are almost entirely given over to dandelions. And once those dandelions retreat, the gaps they leave in the grass turn muddy. Then bake rock hard.
Yellow and brown are the new green.
Some of my plucky neighbours have resorted to hand-weeding. This seems a tremendous waste of energy. For a province that allegedly has a productivity problem, forcing everyone to get down on their hands and knees to remove weeds seems downright medieval. For older residents, it’s a physical impossibility.
And keep in mind that the nature of weeds is such that they will continue to choke out natural grass until it becomes an endangered species.
Without recourse to pesticides — the only certain method of reclaiming a weed-infested lawn — I suspect a sizable share of the population will eventually just give up altogether. Judging from appearances, some in my neighbourhood already have.
When this happens, the accepted social norm for a front yard could switch from a neat golf-course green to a weed-infested hopeless patch of mud.
And once homeowners give up maintaining their front yards, it seems entirely plausible that this will lead to further diminutions in socially acceptable norms. Why fix your fence or paint your house when the province has already decided your lawn is going to look like crap?
We’ll soon find out if the weedy lawns theory is as reliable as the broken windows theory.
In fact regional government appears to be leading this de-beautifying process with its recent announcement that it will no longer pay local cities to trim the grass along regional rights of way.
As part of its 2013 budget, the region says it will only cover the cost of cutting the grass alongside its roads once a year — in the fall. It will also cease to pick up litter or control weeds. This change is a significant retreat from what many would consider a basic government responsibility.
The results will be noticeable, say the cities. Cambridge is worried its impressive displays of flowers along Coronation Boulevard will be completely obscured and overrun by weeds as soon as early June. “Aesthetically unpleasing,” is how a Waterloo city report puts it. Undoubtedly.
By shirking its grass care responsibilities, regional government is lowering community standards just as homeowners may be despairing at their inability to keep their own yards looking good.
Keep in mind also that the region’s uglification efforts can be blamed directly on its need to raise $253 million for its share of the IOU light rail transit project. (Sorry, I meant ION.) The train is touted as the means to attract highly mobile high-tech workers to live and work here. But will these fickle folk really want to come to a region that can only be bothered to cut its grass once a year? Hmm.
A significant part of what makes our region appealing and safe has to do with the care people take of their own property and the appearance of the streetscape. In the long run, the pesticide ban and the end to regional grass cutting could erode social standards for both public and private spaces in Waterloo Region in a noticeable way.
Keep Ontario Beautiful? Not the way things are going.
Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large of Maclean’s. He lives in Waterloo.