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Heterogeneity in Residential Yard Care: Evidence from Boston, Miami, and Phoenix

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The management of residential landscapes occurs within a complex socio-ecological system linking household decision-making with ecological properties, multi-scalar human drivers, and the legacy effects of past management. Conventional wisdom suggests that resource-intensive turf grass yards are the most common landscaping outcome, resulting in a presumed homogeneous set of residential landscaping practices throughout North America. We examine this homogenization thesis through an interview-based, cross-site study of residential landscape management in Boston, Phoenix, and Miami. Counter to the homogeneity thesis, we find that yard management practices often exhibit heterogeneity, for example, in groundcover choice or use of chemical inputs. The degree of heterogeneity in management practices varies according to the scale of analysis, and is the outcome of a range of constraints and opportunities to which households respond differently depending on their existing yard and landscaping preferences. This study highlights the importance of multi-scalar and cross-site analyses of decision-making in socio-ecological systems, and presents opportunities for longitudinal and cross-site research to examine the extent to which homogeneity is actually present in the management of residential landscapes over time and in diverse places.

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  1. While the “lawn people” described by Robbins (2007) still maintain their lawns and remain active in that sense, Robbins’ thesis ultimately renders the lawn subject as passive, with their management decisions determined by external factors and struggling to express any agency in the management of their yards. Even in situations where the household “succeeds” in choosing an alternative management regime, Robbins argues that “the logic of consuming alternatives matches that of maintaining the lawn, leaving the subjective experience of being lawn people largely unchallenged” (2007, 130).

  2. We use a slightly simplified version of the original conceptual framework presented by Cook et al. (2011), which divides the “Ecological Properties” component three sub-sections: “ecological properties,” “ecological function,” and “ecosystem services.” We found that our interviewees’ discussion of the ecology of their yards was insufficiently nuanced to sub-divide so we simply retained the overall component for our coding and analysis.

  3. For further details of the Long-Term Ecological Research program see The study areas from which households are selected in this project include the northern suburbs of Boston, which fall within the Plum Island Ecosystem (PIE) LTER site, Phoenix within the Central Arizona Project (CAP) site, and Miami within the Florida Coastal Everglades (FCE) site.

  4. The number of Census Tracts in each neighborhood varies, dependent on the number of residents. Therefore in Table 1 and Figure 2, the number of census tracts varies between one and three, depending on the location of interviewees within the neighborhood.

  5. The primary mechanism for the institutional codification of neighborhood standards for yard management is a Homeowners Association (HOA), a legal corporation designed initially for the marketing, and later management, of Common Interest Developments (CIDs) that are now home to an estimated 20 % of the U.S. population (McKenzie 2011:2). HOAs are often established by the developers of new sub-divisions or housing developments with ownership of the association transferred to the residents once a certain number of units have been sold. In some neighborhoods membership of the HOA is optional, but more often it is mandatory and delinquency in HOA fees can result in foreclosure.


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The authors wish to thank the anonymous reviewers and J. Morgan Grove of the US Forest Service for invaluable ideas and feedback. This material is based upon work supported by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant Nos. BCS-0948984, BCS-0709685, BCS-1026865, DBI-0620409, DEB-0423704, SES-0849985, OCE-0423565, and OCE-1058747, and through the US National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research program, especially the Plum Island Ecosystems, Baltimore Ecosystem Study, Central Arizona Project, and Florida Coastal Everglades sites. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF. The Clark University O’Connor’78 Endowment also supports this research.

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Correspondence to Edmund M. Harris.

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Harris, E.M., Polsky, C., Larson, K.L. et al. Heterogeneity in Residential Yard Care: Evidence from Boston, Miami, and Phoenix. Hum Ecol 40, 735–749 (2012).

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