Much like most years at this time, our lovable municipal government is cracking down again on people who violate property by-laws targeting “ugly” properties who commit crimes such as “not cutting their grass” or “letting weeds grow”. The only term I can think of for an initiative like this is “offensively stupid”.

The first problem with these laws is the utter inherent ignorance of basic ecology. What is a weed? By some of the city’s definitions, any plant over four inches (they have a more specific list, but don’t expect to get off because your “weeds” aren’t on it). To an ecologist, the term “weed” is quite subjective, but in general it tends to refer to quickly growing succession species. These plants exist to spread out over disturbed areas (forest fires, landslides etc) with next to no soil. In time they collect debris, build root networks and eventually die, creating the higher-quality topsoil needed by more “desirable” plants. If, instead, these weeds are continuously pulled out or cut down and removed, then this never happens and all that patch of ground will ever be able to grow is weeds. It’s also worth mentioning that many of these “weeds” are edible and highly nutritious, even valuable (nettle, chicory etc), and that it’s flat-out impossible to get a “natural” yard without letting nature go through its paces.

Lawns may be green in colour, but they’re not terribly sustainable. They require a lot of maintenance, often with mowers, blowers and other machines using two-stroke engines (which put out more smog than a car), use many times more fertilizer/pesticides (where legal) than actual cropland, and don’t tend to produce anything of value. “Weeds” on the other hand, do – they enrich soil, clean air and water, provide shade and shelter, and are often useful as food, medicines, fiber, fuel, mulch or compost.

The stated logic of these laws has always been to maintain high property values. This is a confusing aim, because while it may be good for the city (which taxes based on a property’s assessed value), real estate industry or somebody trying to sell their house, high property values don’t do much for others. If you simply want to buy or live in a house, higher property values will only hinder your ability to do that, driving the price up.

So far this year, city’s program has brought in $43 000 in fines and cost $413 000. This means the city has run this program at a loss of nearly 90%, but more importantly, it means that the people of Hamilton have paid over $450 000 so far.

There are more than a few big problems associated with bringing legal action against people for subjective concerns like the “ugliness” of their property. First of all, many people have no money for landscaping firms or home repair – and fining them won’t fix that. Second – because of the complaint-based nature of enforcement here, these laws can create a lot of problems for a community. Giving neighbours the option of smiting each other easily and anonymously with a phone call is all too tempting, and has a lot of potential for causing long-term conflicts. Even if nobody “snitched”, the suspicion will remain, and bonds of trust will start to disappear.

There’s also an undeniable element of social exclusion in all this. There’s a great many people in this town who have neither the time nor money to maintain their property to high aesthetic standards. There’s also many who don’t see a need, or who have different aesthetic standards. The point of bylaws like this is to punish these people into compliance, and even to force them out of neighbourhoods. There’s a massive price premium attached to “exclusive” neighbourhoods, and that can’t be easily copied by replicating the “look” of an area. If everywhere in Hamilton looked like a gated community in Ancaster, then there’d be nothing “special” about any of it, and therefore it would cease to be a status symbol. Even if well-kept lawns actually could remove the social stigma of living in “the ghetto”, there’s still the issue of cost. Only a small chunk of our population will ever be able to pay half a million or more for a house.

This is another of many local legal efforts aimed at removing visible signs of poverty from our city. From the ACTION Team and explosion of policing downtown to the “safety blitzes” aimed at pedestrians and cyclists, it’s very clear that the targets are low-income issues, areas and individuals.

Crime and Punishment
Like usual, the government’s response to this “problem” fails because it criminalizes a nuisance. It injects morality, blame and notions of victimization into what is, fundamentally, a completely subjective issue of appearances. It requires almost nothing in the way of evidence or clarification as far as “the problem” (why is this a problem? can the “harm” it “causes” be quantified in any way?). And as most people I know who’ve had conflicts with the city over the issue can attest – there’s pretty much no recourse or appeals process if you’ve been found “guilty”. One friend of mine was endlessly hassled for attempting to grow wildflowers in front of her house, another got nailed repeatedly as the city fined his landlord before consulting him about the wild greens he was growing and harvesting in his back yard. For a city which refuses to do a thing other than post notices at numerous sites in my neighbourhood which have been repeatedly exposed as illegally housing toxic waste, they sure do relish an opportunity to go after small-time property owners.