Concept art from ecological architect Vincent CallebautWikipedia: KOMA MODULAR CONSTRUCTION

In medieval Europe, lawns were a product of the aristocracy. Not only did the early treeless expanses of land make the duties of the watchmen easier and more reliable, but the lavish expanses of grass and floral arrangements they eventually spawned became a boast and symbol of wealth and prosperity—land only the rich could afford to waste. Men only the rich could afford to pay to care for it. Water only the rich could spare to tend it. By the time the low-growing perennials described in 12th century literature grew into the fountain-speckled expanses of Versailles, lawns were a universal sign of power and frivolity.

In 20th century America, everyone had a lawn. Proud little green squares of perfect uniformity, hemmed by box hedges and Homeowners’ Associations. And then came the Italians. A fresh wave of European migrants arrived in these little boxy homes with their perfect green squares and had a better idea. Household after household tore up their ornamental lawn and flowerbeds, and replaced it with something they could use. Herb gardens, vegetable gardens, little square bedded kitchen gardens with rows of beets and carrots, divided by neat dirt of gravel pathways, not a scrap of land wasted.

“Golf course owners arrive with all the pomp and ceremony of those one-time French nobles”

Today, the aristocratic origins of lawn culture are mostly forgotten; an aristocratic garden is now more likely to be filled with bright exotics and dainty water features. But family after family continue to cultivate their perfect, uniform green squares. Perhaps a more obvious source of waste are the rolling lush expanses of golf courses. In the UK, this is at worst a vast usage of land and lawnmowers. Golf course owners arrive with all the pomp and ceremony of those one-time French nobles, carving out great swathes of verdant growth for their own amusement, and that of their paying peers.

But where does the manicured lawn become too much? The average Scot might not particularly delight in Trump International Golf Links, but what harm it does is primarily the same as any other large expanse of cultivated grass—habitat destruction, the spraying of noxious chemicals. There are 1,126 golf courses in California alone, a state currently celebrating an all-new low of 10,293,045 inhabitants in drought areas. The golf courses, naturally, have remained verdant throughout.

In England, kitchen gardens and allotments are becoming a more commonplace sight, but trimmed lawns are nowhere near falling from grace. The quads in Cambridge colleges are too perfectly manicured to even be walked on. Most kitchen gardens are relegated to a bedraggled corner where a flower bed can hide them from the lavish lawn. But the wastage of land is going down. Allotment groups are now reclaiming strips of land, abandoned building sites and long stretches beside railways for community kitchen gardens. Midnight raids of ‘guerrilla gardeners’ are now planting edible herbs and fruits in public flower beds and corners of land, free for the taking. Several councils have taken it upon themselves to let the bedraggled patches of roadside grass blossom into wildflower meadows.

“Solarpunk takes the bitter rage of pure punk and the artistic dalliance of steampunk and cyberpunk to create a system of ecological activism”

Whilst individual movements vary wildly in form and function, the current swell of sustainable gardening owes its backbone of support to the solarpunk movement. Independent researcher Adam Flynn calls solarpunk a system of “infrastructure as a form of resistance” in his 2014 manifesto, an optimistic futurism dedicated to the design and construction of eco-sustainable cities. A hybrid philosophy of aesthetics and politics, solarpunk artists and designers create images of vast, lush settlements filled with natural green spaces and practical living solutions. Solarpunk takes the bitter rage of pure punk and the artistic dalliance of steampunk and cyberpunk to create a system of ecological activism and a brand of futuristic design that wins over idealists and realists alike. The vision relies on a sense of community and development, a willingness to share technology and resources to create a new kind of utopia.

A quick search on Google images reveals the diverse beauty of the solarpunk ideal: vivid green vines draped over a Shanghai skyline or an Italian villa, the soft bubble shapes popular with American architects and the bright geometric patterns inspired by Afrofuturism. Believers in solarpunk practise stunning handicrafts and preach new technological developments, bringing the best of old and new technologies together. Rather than focus on single strands of development as the saving of the planet, solarpunk blends ideas from dozens of sources into a vision of practical utopianism.

But visions very rarely lend themselves to practical action today, and the aspiring solarpunk internet dweller who happens not to be a billionaire philanthropist, ground-breaking energy developer or renowned architect might find themselves at a loss for what to do. And this brings us back to the matter of lawns. We can tear up our pathetic miniature golf courses and build something worth having. Install state-of-the-art transparent solar cells in our double glazing. Join the growing economy of repair cafes and makerspaces. Find neglected stretches of land and build our kitchen gardens, or join the ones already running here in Cambridge. The call has already gone out, to create a new era of green spaces

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