Week 11: Yards, Meaning, and Fitting In

“What will the neighbors think? Cultural norms and ecological design” by Joan Iverson Nassauer, Zhifang Wang, and Erik Dayrell, 2009.

Nassauer et al, 2009.

Nassauer and her team used a clever survey method to determine to what extent a person’s landscaping preferences are based on the surrounding neighborhood and broader cultural expectations. In this meticulously designed survey, a variety of landscaping styles were identified, ranging from the conventional turf lawn of the dominant American expectation to a wooded landscape with the home nestled between mature trees. Participants were asked to choose a home design, then each participant was randomly presented with images of their imaginary new neighborhood, which could be comprised of more “conventional” neighbor lawns, more wooded or “innovative” neighbor lawns, or a mix of both. After seeing their imaginary new neighborhood, participants were asked to choose their ideal landscaping.

Nassauer et al, 2009.

Nassauer’s team found that the majority of people chose the landscaping that best matched their imaginary neighborhood. In “conventional” neighborhoods, the turf lawn was strongly preferred, and in majority “innovative” neighborhoods, that style of landscaping was strongly preferred. This suggests that even an entrenched hegemonic landscaping ideal can be overridden if people feel like adopting a new aesthetic will help them fit into the neighborhood better.

“Lawnscape: semiotics of space, spectacle, and ownership” by Sarah Marusek, 2012.

The discussions about semiotics in this article turned out to be a little too in the weeds (no pun intended) for my project, but it did raise questions about who has the right to determine what happens on a private property in public view. Marusek points out that social policing tends to happen when people disagree about legitimate usage of a space. If I own a property with a yard, and there are no ordinances against it, I have the right to park my car on it, don’t I? Even if a neighbor doesn’t like the way it looks?

Similarly, Marusek mentions a court case in which a California couple replaced their resource-heavy turf lawn with an eco-friendly xeriscaped lawnscape, only to be charged with a misdemeanor for violating a city ordinance about lawns having at least 40% “live plants” (451). Here, we see a couple making what seems to be a responsible landscaping decision about their property and being overruled by external forces.

“Yard stories: examining residents’ conceptions of their yards as part of the urban ecosystem in Minnesota” by Maria E. Dahmus and Kristen C. Nelson, 2013

Dahmus and Nelson 2013

In this study, Dahmus and Nelson collected verbal descriptions and personal narratives in order to understand the way that people understood their outdoor spaces as part of the ecosystem. They focused on three main topics:

  • what is in the yard?
  • what is happening in the yard?
  • how is the yard connected to the city ecosystem?

Unsurprisingly, many conversations were dominated by talk about maintaining turf lawns, and many conversations included talk of weeds, views on fertilizer, and local flora, divided into beneficial “wildlife” and harmful “pests.” Some spoke of preventing the spread of certain plants or chemical inputs between yards. Many people had complex understandings of how their yards fit into the overall ecosystem of the neighborhood, some correct, some misguided.

The authors determined that collecting narrative explanations of people’s understandings of lawns can help point out areas where there are gaps in their understanding or misconceptions about the ecological connectedness of the neighborhood. For instance, they found that people tended to conceive of their yards in terms of inputs rather than natural cycles, and thought in terms of property boundaries rather than ecological continuity. They recommend education campaigns begin by finding weak points in homeowner knowledge on urban biology and building information programs based on bridging these gaps so homeowners could make better-informed decisions.


These articles seem to suggest that the majority of homeowner decisions about landscaping are based more on social factors than on a sophisticated understanding of urban ecological patterns. There also seems to be a certain malleability in consumer preferences as evidenced in Nassauer’s findings that people wanted lawns that fit in with the surrounding neighborhood. The biggest takeaway that I have from this week is that I don’t think an exclusively scientific appeal to biodiversity or ecological health will be compelling enough for most people. Any appeal to consider alternative behaviors must include arguments for how an eco-friendly lawn will benefit a person’s relationships or social standing.