Fess up: when’s the last time you stepped out into your backyard?
You know, the unfamiliar patch of grassy land that abuts your abode. I only ask because it seems very few people venture outside onto theirs anymore. If I walk or ride my bike through my neighborhood on a beautiful spring or summer day, I only need one hand to count how many people I typically see outdoors. Most of the time, yards on surrounding streets are as eerily quiet and barren as the ones in Doom Town, the nuclear test site Indiana Jones encountered and escaped via a fridge (and even its yards were populated by plastic mannequins).
It didn’t always used to be this way. Postwar Americans adored their yards. They were suburban oases where kids played on swing sets, fathers grilled burgers, and mothers entertained friends and neighbors. Advertising from the ’50s through the ’70s heavily promoted outdoor products such as lawn mowers, lawn games, and patio furniture. Even Pepsi capitalized on the trend, introducing a diet soda line called Patio in 1963. Having a lush, manicured lawn was something to be proud of—and enjoyed.
Speaking of which, people don’t seem to be tending to their own lawns anymore, either. The days of Don Draper rewarding himself with a beer after cutting the grass appear to be gone. I can’t help but think that maybe if homeowners were doing their own yard work they might spend more time soaking up the results of their labor. Today, Americans go out of their way to hire landscapers to regularly remove leaves, kill weeds, and trim grass to make their yards look nice. But the irony is I rarely see anyone using theirs. So what happened to the great backyard? There are a few theories.
One reason is that yard space, in general, is getting smaller. American homes are getting larger which means there’s less lawn space available. Homes built in 2015 took up 25% of their plot space compared to homes built in the 1970s, which occupied 13.9% of the land they were constructed on. Furthermore, homeowners are OK with this. A smaller yard means less fussing over its appearance.
However, a 2007 UCLA study noted that yards in the L.A. area, that were two to three times larger than the homes built on them, were barely used as well. One of the families that participated in the study kept a pool, swing set, baseball pitching machine, and other amenities in their 15,000 square-foot yard, which they rarely set foot upon.
The study went on to say that people nowadays are simply too overworked, too stressed, and too busy to devote any time to lounging outdoors. That certainly makes sense, given that our parents and grandparents usually worked no more than 40 hours a week and had disposal income to devote time and money to making their yard the outdoor extension of their home. Today’s households are owned by dual-income couples who need their weekend time for running errands and taking the kids to sporting and social activities. The idea of having an hour to chill in a lounge chair with a glass of wine in the yard is often out of reach.
And lest we forget, our fondness for technology may have a lot to do with our ambivalence towards our home turf. Kids and teens are spending a lot of time online and playing video games versus playing outside these days. A book called Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century states that children spend only 40 minutes per week in their yards while adults spend a mere 15 minutes in them. Large houses often feature an entertainment room that can make staying inside more tempting than dealing with mosquitoes, hornets, and other critters.
However, I’d like to propose that in spring 2020, which is mere weeks away, that you start a new trend on a weather-appropriate day: spend a little time in your yard, if even to admire it up close. Studies have shown that fresh air does us good, regulating our blood pressure, boosting our mood, and even helping us digest food better. Introduce your kids to badminton or cornhole, fire up the outdoor grill, or just kick back with a brew or a glass of lemonade—even if you only have a half-hour to spare.
I guarantee, if anything, you’ll enjoy the peacefulness of the neighborhood.