Why Vancouver is letting go of green lawns

The grass in front of Sky Morfopoulos’ home in East Vancouver is barely grass at all. Although the strands are brown and parched, tiny sprinkles of weeds and clovers blend in with the decaying grass and present an illusion of a semi-green lawn.

The lack of maintenance is deliberate and not negligence.

“I’ve never been much of a grass waterer, mainly because I have considered it a waste of water, especially when taking into consideration climate change,” said Ms Morfopoulos, who shares a rented three-bedroom, multi-unit house with her two adult children.

She estimates that her lawn was last watered in June. That is consistent with the watering restrictions – which prohibits any residential watering of grass – the Canadian city imposed in early August as British Columbia (BC) tries to manage its most severe drought in eight years.

Out of the 34 water basins in the province, 23 reached drought levels of four or five (level five being the highest) this summer.

In recent years, BC has experienced severe heat waves, heavy rain and flooding and, most recently, a record number of forest fires. The local government and residents alike are acknowledging a changing climate.

“I find that the summers seem to be getting hotter now here,” Ms Morfopoulos said. “Vancouver is a city that typically gets a lot of rain in general but, as a community, I feel we are becoming more aware of the need to conserve water as a natural resource.”

With the exception of the rare offenders who maintain traditional lush green yards, most residents on Ms Morfopoulos’ street and in neighbourhoods across Metro Vancouver are compliant with the restrictions, allowing their grass to die this summer.

Vancouver homes with brown grassIMAGE SOURCE,GERALD NARCISO
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Some towns have held “ugly lawn” contests this year

The dusty brown visuals are in stark contrast to the city’s global reputation for vibrant natural beauty: snow-capped mountains, pristine beaches and manicured parks, specifically the renowned Stanley Park, which is billed as a “magnificent green oasis”.

While local residents and homeowners have long been subjected to stringent watering rules during heat waves and dry periods, parks and public spaces have maintained green grass until this year.

With the exception of minimally watering trees and shrubs in order to address fire hazard risks (there were almost 400 forest fires in BC in August) and preserve historic trees, the city has fully eradicated grass watering in its 250 parks and turned off public water features like fountains.

“As leaders, we have to set the example,” said Amit Gandha, director of parks for the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation.

“We are trying to educate the public on what we want them to be also doing because it needs to be a joint effort on how we can conserve water.”

Brown stretches of unkept grass are now common sights in tourist areas like Stanley Park, right near the city centre, as well as Queen Elizabeth Park and Kitsilano Beach.

During the annual fireworks celebrations on Vancouver’s English Bay in late July, thousands of spectators roamed over remnants of dying grass, reducing it almost to dirt. The change in aesthetics signalled a city prioritising sustainability over vanity.

“I think that the city’s on it because there’s no way anybody wants to see Vancouver go backwards,” says Suzanne Bidinost, a downtown Vancouver resident who works in tourism.

On a late August evening nearing sunset, Ms Bidinost and Susie Butler, a visitor from England, sat on white lawn chairs at downtown’s Sunset Beach admiring the ocean view, which was partially obstructed by the hazy skies caused by the recent fires in the province’s interior.

The smoky backdrop and a sea of dead grass didn’t seem to deter the smiling tourist.

“It is a magical place – there’s just no place quite like Vancouver,” Ms Butler said. “So much open space and normally, you can see the mountains plenty.”

As director of sales for a downtown Vancouver hotel, Ms Bidinost contends the recent shift on aesthetics is “not affecting people coming here to the city” and adds the tourism industry has had a busy summer season.

A Vancouver park with brown grassIMAGE SOURCE,GERALD NARCISO
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It’s not just lawns. Parks have also been allowed to turn brown

Nor is it apparently affecting the real estate market or the marketing of listed properties, according to local realtors.

“We have so many things impacting us right now, that brown grass seems to be not on the radar for both my sellers and my buyers,” says Dimitri Psihas, a Vancouver-based realtor.

He cites interest rates, inflation and housing demand as more current industry concerns.

Not every local has embraced the brown lawn trend.

On Ms Morfopoulos’ block in East Vancouver, there is a smattering of houses with green lawns.

One neighbour strategically left the water running on minimal water pressure from a seemingly dormant sprinkler head, moving it periodically throughout the yard. The violation went unnoticed for the most part.

Vancouver has created a division to catch and punish water-wasting violators. By-law officers patrol the city and follow up on potential violations reported by residents.

Between 1 May and 27 August, the city issued a total of 682 warnings and 479 tickets incurring fines that range from C$250 ($185; £145) to C$500.

“I don’t know how I feel about the culture of ratting out your neighbours,” Ms Morfopoulos said. “It’s not like this is a life-or-death situation, and all we can do is try to set a good example to others in the neighbourhood by our own actions.”

Vancouver’s example is different from other jurisdictions. In the US, it’s common for homeowner associations to fine people who let their grass turn brown or who have in some cases planted drought-resistant plants or used artificial turf.

A green lawn, once revered as a social status symbol of affluence and homeowner pride, is now perceived here as irresponsible, wasteful – even selfish.

Several Vancouver-area municipalities have even held “ugly lawn” contests with modest C$150 gift card prizes.

Local officials have predicted the water restrictions are likely to be recurring going forward.

Grass in Vancouver’s parks and neighbourhoods returning to full, lush form next summer and beyond is unlikely.

“We want to preserve our assets here in Vancouver,” said Mr Gandha. “I mean, grass will grow back. That’s what grass does.”

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