of Synthetic Turf
As the drought in Southern California carries on in its fourth punishing year, depleting groundwater reserves and demanding large scale restrictions on usage, Californians are regularly forced to confront and appraise the more unsustainable aspects of contemporary American life. For some residents, it may mean washing their vehicles less frequently, or not filling the swimming pool this summer.
For others, it might mean swapping their natural lawn for a simulated version. As The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have recently attested, the demand for artificial turf (commonly referred to by the brand name AstroTurf) is on the rise. While some proponents celebrate natural grass removal as a meaningful step in water use reduction, others point out that synthetic coverings reduce the viability of lawns as ecological habitats, and that producing the material is itself a resource intensive manufacturing process.
In either case, the debate provides an opportunity to examine technology, engineering, and manufacturing, and the important role that they play in how we experience the designed environments around us — from the millions of square feet of ubiquitous lawns that stretch across the country, down to the representation of the ideal blade of grass.
Material Performance and Convincing Synthetics
Early versions of artificial grass were available prior to the development of AstroTurf by chemists at Monsanto in the mid-1960s. The first patent filing for the ubiquitous name brand product notes that “… attempts to make artificial grasses have been made during the past several years,” but asserts that most were only intended as decorative covering. AstroTurf was the first product to make a claim for an effect beyond just the cosmetic. Research and development in synthetic polymers and stitching techniques made for a surface that could withstand heavy athletic use and outdoor installation, and promised performance characteristics “comparable with those possessed by natural turf.”
To a certain extent, the development of artificial turf mirrors many facets of American culture in the 20th century. Perusing the database of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the product reveals as much. Through the late 60s and 70s, when synthetic turf was just becoming commercially viable, technological specifications often focused on the wants and needs of middle-class American suburbanites.
Perhaps no other recreational activity in America has been so closely associated with middle-class aspirations and professional ambition than the sport of golf. And because of the comparatively small size of the ball in play, the technical challenge of engineering the perfectly performing span of simulated grass was of significant consequence to the gameplay. The patent filings for artificial turf reveal the focused attention that inventors and engineers were willing to devote to every aspect of the product’s performance.
Additionally, there are patent filings for cigarette burn-proof artificial turf, and systems meant to simulate the challenges of the putting green for those who couldn’t make it to a well-manicured golf course. The use of artificial grass in stadiums and fields took off through the 1970s, following its use as a replacement for natural turf at the Astrodome in Houston.
But artificial turf both benefited and suffered from societal and cultural trends that existed around it. AstroTurf entered the market at time when American confidence and enthusiasm for chemistry and technology were surging. In the 1960s, synthetics, plastics, and polymers promised middle-class lives of ease, security, and comfort. But artificial grass soon had to contend with a national sentiment that became far more critical of technology, chemicals, and their implications. The 1970s saw revelations over the effects of dioxin, in use by American forces in Vietnam, the burying of toxic waste at Love Canal, and industry efforts to conceal deaths associated with asbestos.
The Gaze of the Patent Drawing
There’s a clear theme that emerges in these collections of patent filings, claims, and drawings: the greater and greater fidelity with which artificial turf attempts to depict real grass. The inventors’ engineering efforts seem squarely focused on reproducing, to an almost reverential extent, every nuance and peculiarity of natural flora.
The earliest patents describe the basic process behind manufacturing artificial turf: Small pellets of nylon synthetic polymer, along with coloring pigments (usually shades of green and yellow) and stabilizing additives are heated and extruded into thin, blade-like strands, or ribbons. These long strands are then tufted and stitched through a thick backing, generally rubber or latex, and sliced to create the impression of individual blades. The backing is then coated with adhesive and punctured for permeability.
Over the years, technological advances centered on perfecting the tufting and structural methods behind the look of the strands, and making synthetics and weavings more durable and resistant to ultraviolet degradation.
AstroTurf and American Landscapes
But synthetic turf does more than simply reveal a discomfort with aspects of our environment that we perceive as fake, false, or artificial. It also exposes some disquieting relationships in how we think about nature, wilderness, and our domestic spaces. In his book, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, author Mike Davis writes about suburban lawns as spaces that reveal “… the clear-cut, impermeable, but essentially imaginary boundary between the human and the wild.” Our homes provides us with a reassurance of boundaries, shelter, and safety. The grass that so characteristically surrounds the typical suburban home is a symbolic gradient between the wilderness of the outdoors and the comfort of the indoors. The lawn serves to soften the metaphorical edges of the walls and roofs around us, and to make this stark divide between indoor and outdoor less visually jarring. Perhaps, when applied to the spaces around our homes, synthetic turf is a way to make the natural world more stable and predictable — to bring the wilderness under our control.
The occasional imposition of an undesirable aspect of the wilderness, say from a wandering coyote or prowling cougar, disrupts the yard as a buffer space, as impenetrable boundary. “The ideal suburb is adjacent to nature,” Davis continues, “but never directly implicated in it.” In this case, then, we might say that the artificial landscape could be seen as a more forceful assertion of the uncrossable divide between indoors and outdoors, development and wilderness, or civilization and nature.
Important to consider, as well, is how these unnaturally bright green swaths fundamentally change the ways in which we interact with the landscapes around us. Home ownership is a central component of the ethos of the American Dream. So much of our cultural meaning and identity, therefore, is wrapped-up in the imagery of the single family home, residential neighborhoods, and the span of yards that punctuate them. Add to that the cultural values of self-sufficiency, independence, and do-it-yourself assertiveness, which for many Americans, have historically been expressed through the care and attention that we put into working on our homes and gardens.
The effort that many people devote to their foliage, flowers, shrubs, and bushes, is a labor of nurturing and sustaining a collection of living organisms — the plant life that surrounds our homes. But opting for artificial turf changes much of this work into an effort to simply maintain something that was mechanically produced, not nurtured and grown. Instead of watering, edging, fertilizing, weeding, mowing, trimming, and cutting, the synthetic yard demands a type of upkeep that is less attached to the ambition to nourish and encourage natural growth, but simply to maintain a product in “like new” condition.
“Gardens always mean something else, man absolutely uses one thing to say another. Vegetation in gardens is symbolic, hence one can write about them without using the names of plants, and people sometimes do without plants entirely in sculpture courts and sand gardens. But the trees in gardens are already statues and the grass a counterpane. Here the outside is arranged to suit the inside, in mocking imitation, in imaginary threat, in soothing reminiscence, as it leads the soul through all the old situations, portraying comforts and dangers enlarged or diminished in neutral unhuman green.” — Robert Harbison
Rather than cultivating a living thing, the focus of work becomes maintaining as much as possible the perpetual sameness of a factory-produced artifact. Artificial lawns are installed, occasionally brushed or sprayed clean, and eventually removed to make way for a replacement covering. A typical lifespan for an artificial lawn is 25 years. In many cases, the turf may be subject to a product warranty, or to some other guarantee of satisfaction.
Turning a natural span of lush, grassy turf into an artificial consumer product, reflects almost perfectly on the ambition of the very yardwork that it makes redundant. The yard, after all, is a space where wildness is tamed, brought under strict control for the appreciation of the property owner. The American lawn is a public display of control, stability, and ambition. The more fussily agonized and excruciatingly finished the detail, the more the property owner’s mastery of the landscape is asserted. And so we might imagine, is that property owner’s mastery of social and professional realms of life, as well.
Digital design and fabrication technologies now play a greater and greater role in the production of the designed world around us. Platforms for 3D printing, scanning, and online distribution of 3D files suggest the possibility for more engagement with the general public and the designed objects that characterize our everyday lives.
And as shifting environmental patterns continue to impact the accessibility and abundance of resources — including fossil fuels, plant habitats, and freshwater reserves — it’s worth focusing more of our collective attention in consideration and discussion about what cultural artifacts and social practices are worth maintaining, radically altering, or doing away with altogether. Is a natural grass lawn worth the threat of depleted aquifers? Are facsimile yards worth the expenditure of fossil fuels? Or would we be better off fundamentally rethinking the organization and distribution of the built environments around us?
It’s not difficult to imagine a day in which extruded petroleum filaments and layers of synthetic backing can be manufactured in such a way as to blur any easy distinction between fake grass and real grass. Or a world of custom printed lawns and laser-engraved blades of grass with the homeowner’s monogram or family crest repeated endlessly at near-microscopic scale.
We might agonize the idea of the lawn as no longer a space of clear distinctions and boundaries, whether between drought or flood, indoors and outdoors, or real and fake. But at least we can derive some comfort in the knowledge that the patent drawings for “Real Fake Grass” will probably look amazing.
Vinca Kruk, Meg Neal, and Alissa Walker.
A version of this essay was originally published on Gizmodo.