How the Nonhuman World Influences Homeowner Yard Management in the American Residential Macrosystem


Although the yard is a hybrid social and material landscape, much social science research emphasizes the socio-cultural factors and has mostly neglected the potentially important influence of plants, animals, and the nonliving material world on homeowners’ decision-making. Using interviews across six metropolitan areas in the United States, we investigated the ways residential yards’ nonhuman context is perceived to influence homeowners’ relationships with and planning for their yards. We found that nonhuman dynamics establish boundaries of yard-related decision-making, and that homeowners described their relations with the nonhuman context of the yard as cooperative, oppositional, and negotiable. We call for social science in urban spaces to be more explicitly informed by a consideration of nonhuman agency, and offer an ethical reflection of who or what is considered to have a right to cohabitate in homeowners’ yards.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Data Availability

The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are not publicly available because we did not explicitly receive institutional review board approval to publically share them, but are available from the co-author Dr. Kristen Nelson on reasonable request.


  1. 1.

    Although we are explicitly influenced by ANT, other in threads of contemporary social theory consider the importance of the relationality between humans and nonhumans, such as post-humanist theory and object-oriented philosophy. This scholarship shares a commitment to understanding the contingent relations of humans and nonhumans, with particular focus on the agency of nonhumans in these relations.


  1. Aronson, M. F. J., Lepczyk, C. A., Evans, K. L., Goddard, M. A., Lerman, S. B., MacIvor, J. S., ... and Vargo, T. (2017). Biodiversity in the city: Key challenges for urban green space management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 14(4): 189-196.

  2. Bertoncini, A. P., Machon, N., Pavoine, S., and Muratet, A. (2012). Local gardening practices shape urban lawn floristic communities. Landscape and Urban Planning 105(1-2): 53-61.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Braun, V., and Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology 3(2): 77-101.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Braun, B., Whatmore, S. J., and Stengers, I. (2010). Political matter: Technoscience, democracy, and public life, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Delanty, G. (Ed.). (2012). Routledge handbook of cosmopolitanism studies, Routledge, New York.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Goddard, M. A., Dougill, A. J., and Benton, T. G. (2013). Why garden for wildlife? Social and ecological drivers, motivations and barriers for biodiversity management in residential landscapes. Ecological Economics 86: 258-273.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Groffman, P. M., Cavender-Bares, J., Bettez, N. D., Grove, J. M., Hall, S. J., Heffernan, J. B., ... Steele, M. K. (2014). Ecological homogenization of urban USA. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12(1), 74-81.

  8. Groffman, P. M., Grove, J. M., Polsky, C., Bettez, N. D., Morse, J. L., Cavender-Bares, J., ... Neill, C. (2016). Satisfaction, water and fertilizer use in the American residential macrosystem. Environmental Research Letters 11(3).

  9. Groffman, P. M., Avolio, M., Cavender-Bares, J., Bettez, N. D., Grove, J. M., Hall, S. J., ... and Heffernan, J. B. (2017). Ecological homogenization of residential macrosystems. Nature Ecology and Evolution 1(7): 0191.

  10. Hampton, J. O., Warburton, B., and Sandøe, P. (2019). Compassionate versus consequentialist conservation. Conservation Biology 33(4): 751-759.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Haraway, D. J. (2003). The companion species manifesto: Dogs, people, and significant otherness, Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Hitchings, R. (2003). People, plants and performance: On actor network theory and the material pleasures of the private garden. Social & Cultural Geography 4(1): 99-114.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Jones, O., and Cloke, P. (2008). Non-human agencies: Trees in place and time. In Knappett, C. and Malafouris, L. (eds.), Material agency: Towards a non-anthropocentric approach, Springer Science + Business Media, New York, pp. 79-96.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Kohn, E. (2013). How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. University of California Press, Berkeley.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  15. Larson, K. L., Cook, E., Strawhacker, C., and Hall, S. J. (2010). The influence of diverse values, ecological structure, and geographic context on residents' multifaceted landscaping decisions. Human Ecology 38(6): 747-761.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Larson, K. L., Nelson, K. C., Samples, S. R., Hall, S. J., Bettez, N., Cavender-Bares, J., ... and Trammell, T. L. E. (2016). Ecosystem services in managing residential landscapes: Priorities, value dimensions, and cross-regional patterns. Urban Ecosystems 19(1): 95-113.

  17. Latour, B. (2004). Nonhumans. In Harrison, S., Pile, S. Thrift N. (eds.), Patterned ground: Entanglements of nature and culture, Reakiton Books, London, pp. 224-227.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Latour, B., and Woolgar, S. (1979). Laboratory life: The social construction of scientific facts, Sage Publications, Beverly Hills.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Law, J., and Lodge, P. (1984). Science for social scientists, Macmillan Press, London.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  20. Locke, D. H., Roy Chowdhury, R., Grove, J. M., Martin, D. G., Goldman, E., Rogan, J., and Groffman, P. (2018). Social norms, yard care, and the difference between front and back yard management: Examining the landscape mullets concept on urban residential lands. Society & Natural Resources 31(10): 1169-1188.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Martini, N.F., K.C. Nelson, S.E. Hobbie, and L.C. Baker. (2015). Why “Feed the Lawn”? Exploring the influence of residential turf grass fertilization in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Metropolitan Area. Environment and Behavior, 47(2): 158-183.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Mendieta, E. (2010). Interspecies cosmopolitanism: Toward a discourse ethics grounding of animal rights. Philosophy Today 54: 208-216.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Mendieta, E. (2012). Interspecies cosmopolitanism. In Delanty, G. (ed.), Routledge handbook of cosmopolitanism studies, Routledge, New York, pp. 276-287

    Google Scholar 

  24. Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. (2019). Lawns to Legumes Program. . .Creating Habitat for MN Pollinators. Retrieved from

  25. Murdoch, J. (1997). Towards a geography of heterogeneous associations. Progress in Human Geography 21(3): 321-337.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Nassauer, J. I., Wang, Z., and Dayrell, E. (2009). What will the neighbors think? Cultural norms and ecological design. Landscape and Urban Planning 92(3-4): 282-292.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative evaluation and research methods, Sage Publications Inc., Thousand Oaks.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Pearse, W. D., Cavender-Bares, J., Hobbie, S. E., Avolio, M., Bettez, N., Chowdhury, R. R., ... and Trammell, T. L. E. (2016). Ecological homogenisation in North American urban yards: vegetation diversity, composition, and structure bioRxiv.

  29. Polsky, C., Grove, J. M., Knudson, C., Groffman, P. M., Bettez, N., Cavender-Bares, J., ... and Steele, M. K. (2014). Assessing the homogenization of urban land management with an application to US residential lawn care. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(12): 4432-4437.

  30. Power, E. R. (2005). Human–nature relations in suburban gardens. Australian Geographer 36(1): 39-53.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Ramp, D., and Bekoff, M. (2015). Compassion as a practical and evolved ethic for conservation. BioScience 65(3): 323-327.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Robbins, P. (2007). Lawn people: How grasses, weeds, and chemicals make us who we are, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Robbins, P., Polderman, A., and Birkenholtz, T. (2001). Lawns and toxins: An ecology of the city. Cities 18(6): 369-380.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Saldaña, J. (2016). The coding manual for qualitative researchers, Sage Publications Inc., Thousand Oaks.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Sisser, J. M., Nelson, K. C., Larson, K. L., Ogden, L. A., Polsky, C., and Chowdhury, R. R. (2016). Lawn enforcement: How municipal policies and neighborhood norms influence homeowner residential landscape management. Landscape and Urban Planning 150: 16-25.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Trammell, T. L. E., Pataki, D. E., Cavender-Bares, J., Groffman, P. M., Hall, S. J., Heffernan, J. B., ... and Nelson, K. C. (2016). Plant nitrogen concentration and isotopic composition in residential lawns across seven US cities. Oecologia 181(1): 271-285.

  37. Trammell, T. L., Pataki, D. E., Still, C. J., Ehleringer, J. R., Avolio, M. L., Bettez, N., ... and Heffernan, J. (2019). Climate and lawn management interact to control C4 plant distribution in residential lawns across seven US cities. Ecological Applications e01884.

  38. United States Census Bureau. (January, 2018). Race. Retrieved from

  39. Visscher, R. S., Nassauer, J. I., and Marshall, L. L. (2016). Homeowner preferences for wooded front yards and backyards: Implications for carbon storage. Landscape and Urban Planning 146: 1-10.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Wallach, A. D., Bekoff, M., Batavia, C., Nelson, M. P., and Ramp, D. (2018). Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation. Conservation Biology 32(6): 1255-1265.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Weisser, W., and Hauck, T. (2017). Animal-aided design-using a species life-cycle to improve open space planning and conservation in cities and elsewhere. bioRxiv 150359.

  42. Whatmore, S. (1999). Hybrid geographies: Rethinking the “human” in human geography. In Massey, D. Allen, J., and Sarre, P. (eds.), Human geography today. Polity Press, Cambridge, pp. 22-39.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Wheeler, M. M., Neill, C., Groffman, P. M., Avolio, M., Bettez, N., Cavender-Bares, J., ... and Trammell, T. L. E. (2017). Continental-scale homogenization of residential lawn plant communities. Landscape and Urban Planning 165: 54-63.

Download references


This research is supported by the Macrosystems Biology Program (US NSF) under Grants EF- 1638648, -1638519, -1638639, -1638725, -1638606, and -1638676 and the NIFA McIntire-Stennis 1000343 MIN-42-051. The work arose from research funded by grants from the NSF LTER program for Baltimore (DEB-0423476); Phoenix (BCS-1026865, DEB-0423704, and DEB-9714833); Plum Island, Boston (OCE-1058747 and 1238212); Cedar Creek, Minneapolis–St. Paul (DEB-0620652); and Florida Coastal Everglades, Miami (DBI-0620409). The USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station also provided support. Anonymous reviewers supplied constructive feedback that helped to improve this paper. The findings and opinions reported here do not necessarily reflect those of the funders of this research.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jesse M. Engebretson.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Engebretson, J.M., Nelson, K.C., Ogden, L.A. et al. How the Nonhuman World Influences Homeowner Yard Management in the American Residential Macrosystem. Hum Ecol 48, 347–356 (2020).

Download citation


  • Nonhuman agency
  • Interspecies cosmopolitanism
  • Residential yards
  • Urban greening
  • Actor-network theory United States