Amazing what a little research can uncover. Until today I had never heard of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, however I now know that they cater to a substantial number of builders, designers and consumers who focus their interest on outdoor living. The enthusiasm of those consumers resulted in "a record 17 million grills shipped in 2006, marking a 15.24% increase compared to 2005."
I was unfamiliar with the International Pool & Spa Expo/Backyard Living Expo, which has been named by Tradeshow Week as "one of the 50 fastest growing tradeshows in North America." That statistic also reflects the growing number of consumers who spend lots of money on their outdoor spaces.
As a townhouse dweller with a patio relentlessly plagued by wasps, I can't say that I'm big on spending much of anything on our current outdoor area, but I fondly remember the joys of my childhood backyard: the swing set in the sun, the sandbox in the shade of a huge elm tree, and an oft-frequented picnic table on the flagstone patio hand built by my parents. It was a simple but idyllic place, enjoyed daily by family and friends until I went off to college and Mom and Dad moved on to apartment life.
Today's "ideal" backyard isn't such an uncomplicated affair as a patch of grass, a small patio, and perhaps, in a warm climate, the luxury of a swimming pool. No, it's a landscaped expanse with a "lagoon" sculpted from artificial rocks; a vast manicured lawn with a putting green; an "outdoor entertaining area" with fully-equipped kitchen, wet bar and upholstered furniture spread over specially treated decking -- or even a combination of all those amenities.
It's no surprise that people still want the experience of a yard well-used and well-loved. The surprise is that even though they're willing to spend considerable amounts of money creating elaborate backyard environments, they don't often get out there and use them. Janet Eastman's recent L.A. Times column, "The Yard: So Close, Yet So Far," cites a new UCLA study about how families in Los Angeles use their outdoor spaces. The results, according to the study's lead author and anthropology professor, Jeanne E. Arnold, are that "backyards might as well be blocks away considering how often the families go in them . . . We admire backyards from inside the house or in our mind's eye, while we're busy doing other things."
Family life has changed considerably since the days of my childhood. Today's kids are usually more interested in playing video and computer games, IM-ing their friends, and hanging out online rather than in the backyard. The intrusion of the media into our daily lives has increased with the explosion of cable television stations, huge DVD sales, and the ubiquitous presence of the computer. Time pressures have long been a challenge for parents, but now there is also an increased need to cope with that uncomfortable feeling of information overload, the mixed blessing resulting from constant access to so much information. Family time is also fragmented in ways that reflect the prevalence of fragmented families.
But in spite of whatever societal changes have occurred, we still want to create backyards, from the relatively plain to the outrageously elaborate, that apparently don't serve our needs. Why? Are we clinging to a past that's no longer relevant, the American Dream of the house and yard? Is the yard now only a nice view from our windows or a way to separate us from our neighbors? Is it just another status symbol in a consumer society that values those symbols so highly? Whatever the case, money is being spent on something we don't use, and that's always a signal for a thoughtful consumer to reconsider the situation.
UCLA Professor Eastman concludes her thoughts about the study by saying, "I wish people would think deeply about how we work hard to buy a lot of stuff we don't need and then spend time maintaining it and we don't take advantage of simple things like just taking a few minutes to relax in the backyard."
It appears that, at least in Los Angeles, many of us have lost the ability to enjoy using our own little oasis of nature; we've lost a gathering place for the family to be together, talking or playing or working, without staring at some kind of screen; and we've lost a bit of our connection to the earth.
I sincerely hope that's not the case in other parts of the country.
And I'd sure like to figure out a way to get rid of those stupid wasps.
(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob