The perfect lawn: exploring neighborhood socio-cultural drivers for insect pollinator habitat

Abstract

In the United States, residential yards are typically overlooked for biodiversity conservation, yet they account for a significant portion of urban green space. Yard vegetation can serve as valuable habitat patches for insect pollinator populations in cities, providing important foraging and nesting resources. Based on long-term native bee sampling data, we investigate the social and cultural drivers shaping front yard vegetation composition and configuration at two study sites with consistently low native bee species diversity and abundance. We employ quantitative remote sensing approaches with analysis of qualitative interview data to examine residential vegetation patterns and analyze the socio-cultural relationships between people and vegetation. Data analyses reveal both study sites have lower levels of vegetation composition and complexity, resulting in reduced habitat resources. We find neighborhood public-facing landscaping is shaped by various socio-cultural influences: aesthetics, norms, reference-group behavior, institutions, socioeconomics, and identity. Front yard land-use and decision-making practices are particularly meaning laden, as these spaces are often perceived as visible representations of longstanding neighborhood identity and contiguous common areas to be managed to a “perfect lawn” ideal. The quantitative and qualitative data are used to characterize the two study sites and inform future urban conservation and development efforts salient to citizen stakeholders.

Introduction

Globally, native bees and other insect pollinators generate approximately $200 billion in food production value annually, yet many species are threatened, endangered, or declining (Gallai et al. 2009; Diaz et al. 2015). As a result, scientists and practitioners are benchmarking and monitoring insect pollinator populations (Winfree et al. 2009; Samnegard et al. 2011; Lichtenberg et al. 2017; Winfree et al. 2018), including in cities (Hall et al. 2017), as the reduction and loss of pollinators negatively impact global food supply and local ecosystem resilience (Goulson et al. 2015). Among the leading causes of declines are habitat fragmentation and loss due to human land-use (Goulson and Nicholls 2016). Land-use change from urbanization drives the degradation and destruction of natural landscapes and habitats, alters biogeochemical cycles and ecosystems, and leads to the reduction and extirpation of native species populations (Ives et al. 2016). With land conversions globally expected to triple due to continued urban population growth (Seto et al. 2013), cities offer real-world contexts to examine how humans shape and influence insect, birds, bats, and other wildlife communities, including those humans depend upon like insect pollinators (Alberti et al. 2003; Sperling and Lortie 2010; Lerman and Warren 2011; Cook et al. 2012; Threlfall et al. 2016).

The effects of the urban environment specifically on native bee species vary with the amount of land cover, remaining natural habitat, and availability of foraging resources (Tommasi et al. 2004; Goulson et al. 2008; Leong et al. 2014; Baldock et al. 2015; Threlfall et al. 2015, 2017). For example, native bee populations (species richness and abundance) can increase with moderate urban and suburban buildup that includes open areas (Cariveau and Winfree 2015). Yet, as land-use intensifies, native species may be negatively affected (Egerer et al. 2017) by the reduced availability, diversity, and distribution of habitat, nesting, and foraging resources (Plascencia and Philpott 2017). Until we know which functional diversity traits (bee species nesting strategies, forage specialists/generalists, mating, etc.) correlate with observed richness and abundance in cities showcasing the driving biophysical mechanisms (MacIvor et al. 2014; Glaum et al. 2017), this paper focuses on humans’ role in shaping urban bee habitat. Humans are the most significant driver of urban form (Grimm et al. 2000) and urban vegetation is shaped by various socio-cultural factors meaningful to people (Osmond and Hardy 2004; Grove et al. 2014; Nilon 2014). To improve ecological outcomes in cities, development and conservation approaches must account for human behavior, socioeconomics, values, institutions, and culture (McDonnell and Hahs 2013).

In this case study, we use an interdisciplinary research lens to explore in depth citizen-reported anthropogenic drivers of parcel-level residential vegetation composition and configuration impacting native bee populations in two urban residential neighborhoods in St. Louis, MO, USA. St. Louis was selected because of access to a city-wide long-term native bee monitoring and research dataset (Camilo et al. 2018). Socio-cultural influences, deriving from a range of factors such as social control, identity, norms, aesthetics, and beliefs, structure our examination of how urban vegetation is shaped. We are interested in vegetation characterized in terms of general forage and habitat requirements for native bee diversity and abundance, because plant diversity and abundance (floral resources) is the most significant driver of bee diversity and abundance (Lowenstein et al. 2014; Sirohi et al. 2015; Baldock et al. 2015; Plascencia and Philpott 2017). Characterizing residential vegetation patterns and analyzing the socio-cultural relationships between people and vegetation can help inform conservation practices via explanations of: vegetation in terms of urban pollinator health, the current availability and diversity of vegetation, and potential areas for vegetation enhancement. To improve urban pollinator biodiversity and conservation, which in turn can positively impact other insect, bird, and wildlife populations, a fine-scale understanding of the driving social mechanisms shaping vegetation is valuable not only to advance scientific research, but to guide stakeholder and practitioner applied efforts as well (McDonnell and Hahs 2013; Hall et al. 2017).

To examine relationships between (1) socio-cultural drivers of land-use decision-making and management practices and (2) local vegetation patterns influencing ecological outcomes in residential landscapes, we ask: What neighborhood socio-cultural characteristics influence land-use decision-making and management practices? What socio-cultural processes explain vegetation composition and variations across neighborhoods and parcels, impacting native bee populations? We do this using quantitative remote sensing techniques, including virtual inventorying and geodemographics, as well as qualitative interviews, workshops, and focus groups.

First we reveal how humans are considered within studies of urban vegetation, with special attention to factors relevant to residential land uses and native bee habitat. We then discuss the study site, design, and methods for eliciting urban residents’ understanding of the social and cultural drivers shaping their yards’ and neighborhoods’ vegetation. We end with a discussion of the implications for bee habitat enhancement and conservation in cities.

Human dimensions of urban vegetation

Vegetation composition and configuration is a social matter, rooted in past-uses, aesthetic preferences codified in laws, and interpersonal relationships. As a biophysical fact, vegetation in urban neighborhoods serve as habitat patches for biological communities interspersed among houses, buildings, and streets (Hinners et al. 2012). In U.S. cities, residential yards account for about 25–35% of total land and up to 50% of green spaces (Minor et al. 2016). Turfgrass is the most dominant vegetation, covering more land than any other irrigated crop (Milesi et al. 2005). It is a managed ecosystem (Cook et al. 2012), but typically offers little foraging and nesting resources for native bees and other pollinators (Tonietto et al. 2011). However, with intentional planting choices and management practices, turfgrass yards can benefit native pollinators. Mixed lawns with clover and dandelion (Larson et al. 2014), native plant gardens (Threlfall et al. 2015) and less-regularly mowed lawns (Smith et al. 2015) support a greater diversity and abundance of native bee species.

Urban vegetation is shaped by socio-cultural characteristics such as socioeconomics, aesthetics, values, norms, institutions, cultural heritage, and ethnicity (Nilon 2014). Spatially, the intersection of socio-cultural characteristics with land-use decision-making and management practices is often signaled by the prevalence and composition of public and residential green spaces, tree canopy, and understory vegetation composition (Boone et al. 2010). These natural elements impact quality of life, physical health, mental well-being, conservation awareness, and attachment to nature and place (Andersson et al. 2007).

Socioeconomics intrinsically affect human behavior (Grove et al. 2014). Demographic, social, and economic factors exert influence on people, who in turn exert influence on their environment (Grove et al. 2006a; Nilon, 2014). Often reflected in the land cover and understory mosaic, vegetation composition and configuration varies significantly across neighborhoods, carrying implications at local and city scales (Cook et al. 2012). In the U.S., the ubiquity of the turfgrass lawn as a socially constructed yard ideal reflects the dominant effect that aesthetics, values, and norms have on urban green spaces and the biodiversity contained within them (Larsen and Harlan 2006; Nassauer et al. 2009). The highly-manicured landscape archetype is underpinned by reference group behavior (Hunter and Hunter 2008) where investments in yards, common grounds, and public spaces often serve as visible demonstrations of social control, status, and identity (Robbins 2007). Shared beliefs, values, and norms are internalized as frames of reference shaping and reinforcing behavior through self-evaluation and appraisal expressed as value-laden public landscaping and management choices (Osmond and Hardy 2004; Grove et al. 2014).

Moreover, institutions as shared governance systems structure and reinforce human behavior and activities (Crawford and Ostrom 1995) that configure the urban landscape. Individual, neighborhood, and community customs and norms informally drive decision-making as “bottoms-up” grassroots approaches (Belaire et al. 2014), whereas formal “top down” codes and policies use “command-and-control” mechanisms (Shwartz et al. 2013), such as municipal greening initiatives improving tree canopy cover, to accomplish conservation objectives (Threlfall et al. 2017). Finally, culture and ethnicity influence urban vegetation composition and configuration. Distinct worldviews shape planting preferences for residential yards and urban green spaces, impacting the species’ diversity found within them (Kinzig et al. 2005; Clarke and Jenerette 2015).

Urban insect pollinator health case study materials and methods

This case study investigates the socio-cultural drivers of residential land-use decision-making and management practices shaping front yard vegetation composition and complexity, impacting local native bee populations. When analyzed together, the data sets comprised of the biophysical bee sampling, virtual inventorying, geodemographics, and study participants’ voices present contextualized, in-depth evidence of the ways in which humans actively shape residential landscapes and ecological outcomes. It was conducted at two study sites in St. Louis, MO, a Midwestern U.S. city of 319,365 spanning 170 sq. km, located near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers (St. Louis City 2010). Like other U.S. cities, its vegetation consists of a mosaic of riparian habitats, parks, brownfields, and vacancy dominated by weedy and invasive plant species (Camilo et al. 2018). The population makeup is primarily African-American (49.2%) and Caucasian (43.9%), with an average median income of $34,582 and poverty rate of 27.4% (St. Louis City 2010). Property and land vacancies are estimated to be 19.4%, resulting from the significant population decline and decentralization in its urban core over a 40-year period (Maimaitijiang et al. 2015).

Urban native bee biophysical sampling

Since 2013, researchers have been conducting a city-wide long-term native bee monitoring study (see Camilo et al. 2018). From 2013 to 2017, 201 bee species have been documented, including some rare and threatened ones, representing approximately 40% of Missouri’s native species (Camilo et al. 2018). Bees were collected via aerial netting primarily in community gardens, urban farms, and restoration prairies, and less frequently in city parks, private gardens, and vacant lots located across the city to establish a baseline for monitoring native bee diversity and abundance (for methods, see Camilo et al. 2018). Comparable to natural and restored Midwest prairie systems, St. Louis’ high native bee diversity is noteworthy and thought to result from economic, social, and ethnic processes (Camilo et al. 2018).

However, native bee community composition differs across the city study sites. To investigate the conservation objectives of funding sources, we selected two community gardens with consistently low bee diversity to benchmark and characterize the neighborhood vegetation to investigate drivers of low species diversity and abundance. The other sites were left as control sites for forthcoming research exploring social intervention effects on spatially explicit understandings of bee species diversity and abundance across the city (Camilo et al. 2018). For this project, we studied surrounding vegetation composition and configuration impacting habitat, nesting, and foraging resources, as well as the socio-cultural drivers affecting those site-specific bee populations (Fig. 1). Residential parcels within a 500-m radius of each biophysical sampling site were included, as this is the average foraging distance for native bees (Leong and Roderick 2015).

Fig. 1
figure1

Bee sampling and vegetation surveys took place in south St. Louis City. Bees were sampled at two community gardens (denoted as stars) and neighborhoods within a 500 m radius of each sampling site. Site 1 (S1) is located in Ward 23 and Site 2 (S2) in Holly Hills, approximately 5 km apart. White outline denotes St. Louis, MO city limits. Source details: St. Louis City Public Datasets (2013). Esri shapefile of the St. Louis city limits http://data.stlouis-mo.gov/downloads.cfm USDA_FSA_APFO Aerial Photography Field Office. (2016). National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) Digital Ortho Mosaic St. Louis City. http://www.msdis.missouri.edu/data/naip2016/index.html

Residential yard vegetation virtual inventory

To examine spatially the parcel-level residential vegetation composition and variation within the two 500 m study sites, we conducted virtual field audits of 1679 residential front yards using 2016 geospatial video mapping (GVM) images we collected of each parcel (see methods Burr et al. 2018). A residential front yard vegetation composition coding and analysis system served as the basis to virtually audit, categorize, and score each yard’s vegetation using the GVM imagery (Fig. 2; Lowenstein and Minor 2016; Minor et al. 2016; see methods in Burr et al. 2018). We identified front yard vegetation resources first by category (green herbaceous cover, groundcover, ornamental grasses, ornamental flowers, shrubs, trees), and then by vegetation attribute presence or absence (1 or 0), to document habitat and assess heterogeneity. The total minimum value possible for each yard is zero and the maximum 24, with five scoring categories: 1–4, 5–8, 9–12, 13–16, and 17–20. No parcel scored higher than 20, so scoring category 21–24 is not included. When characterizing front yards (Fig. 2), vegetation diversity scores ranging from 1 to 4 typically contain only green herbaceous cover (turfgrass). Scores in the 9–12 range contain additional attributes such as a tree located between the sidewalk and street (parkway zone), ground cover beside the sidewalk (sidewalk zone), a tree and ornamental flowers in the middle of the yard (middle zone), as well shrubs/bushes and ornamental flowers abutting the house (house zone). Yards scoring in the 17–20 range contain robust vegetation attributes across multiple zones.

Fig. 2
figure2

The upper left photo demonstrates the four zone (parkway, sidewalk, middle, and house) categorization system used for the fine-scale virtual audits (Minor et al. 2016). Moving clockwise starting with the upper middle photo, examples of the vegetation diversity scoring classes from low (1–4) to high (17–20). Images: Google Street View 2011–2012

Tapestry™ geodemographics

Socio-cultural characteristics of neighborhoods can explain variations in physical and social disorder (O’Brien et al. 2015), health and well-being, (Cagney et al. 2007), and the environment (Boone et al. 2010). To investigate the socio-cultural characteristics of the two study sites, we used market segmentation tools, or geodemographics, to characterize residents living in the 500 m range by socioeconomic status, consumption practices, and lifestyle behaviors (Weber 2008). Geodemographics ascertain that people with similar preferences and behaviors live in spatially related places (Abbas et al. 2009). Geodemographics have been used to differentiate socioeconomic levels using neighborhood income status (Martin et al. 2004), classify neighborhoods surrounding study sites (Kinzig et al. 2005), and to investigate socioeconomics and lifestyle behaviors as predictors of urban vegetation cover (Grove et al. 2014).

Similarly, we analyzed data from Esri’s Community Analyst web application and Tapestry™ geodemographics to determine the social attributes of residents within 500 m of each sampling site. Tapestry™ analyzes federal, state, and local public databases, in conjunction with consumer behavior and market research, to produce distinct neighborhood classifications or market segments (Esri 2015). It generates unique segments summarized into 14 LifeMode Groups using cluster analysis techniques for a variety of demographic and socioeconomic factors rooted in where people live. LifeMode Groups incorporate traits such as age, education level, household income, employment status, and homeownership rates (Esri 2015).

Socio-cultural data collection

Demographics give an incomplete picture of possible factors driving vegetation decision making. To understand the socio-cultural drivers of land-use decision-making and management practices in neighborhoods surrounding the two study sites, we engaged with 120 participants via semi-structured in-depth interviews, focus groups targeting groups of neighbors, and workshops over a three-year period (Burr et al. 2016). Informants were recruited based on expertise and association with the native bee sampling sites as land-use decision-makers. Additional informants were identified through snowball sampling, as well as targeted neighborhood recruitment efforts to ensure the diversity of voices across the 2015–2017 field work. Sessions were structured to ensure full participation in each question and limit dominant voices. Conversations were digitally recorded, transcribed, and analyzed using QSR’s NVivo 10.0 qualitative analytic software. Participation was voluntary and confidential. Through inductive content analysis, we identified 14 themes to enable key points of correlation between the reported land-use practices and the vegetation data influencing native bee populations within the 500 m areas. We then conducted additional qualitative content analysis within each theme to identify the socio-cultural drivers discussed in the results section (Hoyle et al. 2017).

To explore the neighborhood characteristics that may explain residents’ land-use decision-making and management practices, we analyzed the vegetation composition and variations in 1679 front yards likely impacting native bee species’ composition based on the biophysical sampling results. We then analyzed the neighborhoods’ distinct geodemographic makeup as well as the socio-cultural data derived from the semi-structured interviews, workshops, and focus groups to learn what socio-cultural processes explain the vegetation composition and spatial variations across neighborhoods and parcels within the 500 m range.

Results

Residential front yard vegetation analysis

We used the fine-scale 2016 GVM data to benchmark residential front yard vegetation surrounding the two biophysical sampling sites. Analysis of the 500 m sites finds most parcels score in the two lowest vegetation attribute categories, indicating lower levels of vegetation composition, understory vertical and horizontal complexity, and tree canopy cover at the neighborhood, block, and parcel scales (Fig. 3) indicating limited habitat, foraging, and nesting resources for native bee populations. For Ward 23, 91.2% of the residential front yards are in categories 1–4 (i.e. turfgrass in all 4 zones) and 5–8 (i.e. turfgrass plus a tree, shrub, and/or an ornamental attribute). For Holly Hills, 70.3% of residential front yards are in categories 1–4 and 5–8. The scoring category 9–11 (attribute additions across 1 or more zones) contains 8% of Ward 23 parcels and 25.9% of Holly Hills, which when combined with the first two categories account for >96% of all yards in both neighborhoods. When plotted spatially (Fig. 3), these results detect individual parcels as contiguous, like scoring corridors often nearly encompassing entire blocks. For the remaining scoring levels, category 12–16 (increasing attribute frequency across multiple zones) has less than 1% of Ward 23 front lawns and only 3.1% of Holly Hills; and in category 17–20 (multiple attributes in two or more zones), there are no Ward 23 yards and less than 1% of Holly Hills.

Fig. 3
figure3

Study site GVM Vegetation Diversity Score mapping results. Parcels are symbolized based on their 2016 GVM Vegetation Diversity score. Multi-family housing zoning is denoted by a black parcel outline, commercial properties as gray, and unanalyzed parcels are blank

While less prevalent next to the house, turfgrass is the dominant attribute (>98%) in residential yards for both neighborhoods. Trees are the next most common attribute, occurring in more than 50% between the street and sidewalk (parkway), approximately 18% in middle of the yard, and 27% adjacent to the house. Parkway trees are typically managed by municipal forestry programs and, in St. Louis, plantings can be facilitated by residents and homeowner associations.

The remaining front yard vegetation attributes occur at significantly lower levels except for those located next to the house. Vegetation attributes occur more frequently in the house zone for both neighborhoods. For Ward 23, shrubs are the most common attribute, planted in nearly 82% of yards. However, attribute occurrence by the house declines steeply after shrubs, ranging from ground cover (37.9%) to ornamental flowers (22.4%). For Holly Hills, turfgrass (81.8%) and shrubs (73.9%) occur with similar regularity next to the house. Attribute frequency in this neighborhood decreases after ornamental flowers (55.6%), with reduced levels of ground cover (36.1%), woody trees (26.5%), and ornamental grasses (11.6%).

Participants: geodemographics

We used Esri Community Analyst and Tapestry™ geodemographic tools to characterize citizens living within 500 m of two biophysical sampling sites. The data reflect the range of similarities and differences between residents of the two neighborhoods (Table 1). Ward 23 contains lower total population (−17.99%), number of households (−7.28%), rentals, and vacant housing, yet has higher median (+28.17%) and average household incomes (+7.34%), and higher homeownership than Holly Hills. Based on St. Louis socioeconomics, we were surprised to learn both neighborhoods are comprised of predominantly Caucasian, college-educated residents constituted by two distinct segments: MiddleGround (>86%) and GenXurban (<14%) LifeMode Groups (Esri 2016). With the majority in the MiddleGround LifeMode Group, this segment is typified as college-educated thirtysomethings with a mix of renters and homeowners, single and married households, and blue- and white-collar professionals (Esri 2016). The smaller percentage segment, the GenXurban LifeMode group, is primarily college-educated, middle-aged inhabitants approaching retirement, also a mix of single and married households, residing in older homes, preferring to live and work centrally (Esri 2016).

Table 1 Esri Tapestry LifeMode groups and demographics for study sites (Esri 2015, 2016)

Socio-cultural data analysis

For an in-depth exploration of what socio-cultural processes may explain the limited vegetation composition and habitat across neighborhoods, blocks, and parcels and how this links to the low native bee biodiversity at the study sites, we had to talk with the residents (Hall et al. 2012). We asked questions about individual yard management practices, neighborhood communication networks, homeowners’ associations (HOA) and city policies and ordinances, as well as neighborhood yard vegetation history and evolution. We found the dominant socio-cultural drivers relevant to the land-use decision-making and management practices for the minimal front yard vegetation within the 500 m range are aesthetics, norms, and beliefs; reference group behavior; informal institutions; cultural identity; and socioeconomic factors.

Aesthetics, norms, and beliefs: “grass, grass, grass”

Throughout the conversations, participants described a range of factors which may account for the overall lack of vegetation described above in section 3.1. First, participants spoke about how neighborhood aesthetics, norms, and beliefs structure behavior, organizing front yard practices that lead to reduced habitat, nesting, and foraging resources for bees. Participants detailed, in personal terms, long-term neighborhood yard management routines. One resident who has lived in the neighborhood for 51 years admitted, “I really have no plants, no flowers or plants in my [front] yard. I’m a minimalist. I have not much growing in the back [either]. I have plants growing, but nothing to pollinate” (UR 2017). Informants described intensively managing their turfgrass yards to the “perfect lawn” standard. “I like mowing grass, let’s say that. I tend to prefer to keep my yard pretty low mowed down. I mean I am kind of obsessive about it to be honest - Such that, I don’t know, I like to do it at least a couple of times a week, but it doesn’t always necessarily need it” (UR 2017). Residents’ yard descriptions reinforced the ubiquity of the dominant U.S. lawn paradigm (Robbins 2007). “[The] next door neighbor has the perfect golf course lawn. He goes out there and sculpts with his weed-eater” (UR 2017). Another participant voiced similarly-held aesthetic preferences and the maintenance practices to achieve the manicured exemplar. “We have a zoysia [grass] front yard and I try to keep that, you know, ‘high and tight,’ trimmed nicely” (UR 2017).

Many comments evidenced how these norms are celebrated and normalized. A participant explained the reaction when front yard vegetation differed from neighborhood aesthetics and expectations: “Oh that’s the one thing about this neighborhood is that -- You will go past a pristine amazing [front yard] and then one where you just cross your eyes and go, ‘how did this happen?’” (UR 2017). The reaction illustrates active discourses that reinforce neighborhood aesthetic norms.

Participants that deviated from the “perfect lawn” by managing their yards less intensively and incorporating native vegetation still spoke ambivalently about yard appearance, maintenance, and the departure from neighborhood norms. One group, who collectively managed adjacent front yards to a self-described “unruly,” “cottage-style” native plant garden standard, detailed shared tensions when comparing their yards to more traditional yards on their block. “We’re always saying we have such a nice view [across the street]. They have a beautiful house, a beautiful yard, perfect grass, and all beautiful trees; everything is perfect. So we wonder what they think when they see ours” (UR 2017). Even for those committed to native vegetation, the power of neighborhood norms is compelling. Informants articulated a struggle to reconcile personal preferences with broader norms, aspiring to less intensive practices and balance between personal preferences and the neighborhood ideal.

You know, what does success look like for me? Somewhere in the middle, where I don’t need the grass to be so picturesque that I’m spending every night watering the grass to make it slightly better. I have much better things that I’d love to do with my time than water the grass. So, I think I have a great middle ground to be honest. I mean, there’s not a crazy amount of weeds, it’s kept, but it’s not manicured with Fiskars scissors, and there’s some diversity -- there’s shade, there’s sun, there’s a lack of grass, and dirt in some places (UR 2017).

Tensions occurred not only among residents, but between household members. “So, if I had my way – my husband is the only reason we have any grass [in our yard]. He’s tied to it for some reason” (UR 2017). Yet some welcomed incremental changes from the contiguous turfgrass yardscapes. “People, I guess, have taken those small snippets or so and put little accent gardens in to break up the grass. The focus of flowers or shrubs or whatever, to just give a break from grass, grass, grass” (UR 2017).

Aesthetics, norms, and beliefs: departure from “grass, grass, grass” for natives

Urban green spaces, including residential yards, are important facilitators of aesthetic, recreational, and spiritual connections (cultural ecosystem services; MEA 2005) as well as promoting more ‘wildlife-friendly’ behavior (Goddard et al. 2010, 2013). Conversely, urban spaces absent of biodiversity and natural attributes hinder ecological awareness (Pyle 1978; Miller 2005), resulting in a lack of public understanding and engagement with urban conservation efforts (Pett et al. 2016). When considering native plants and weeds, participants expressed a diversity of opinions about indigenous vegetation, from advocacy to ambivalence to acceptance to disapproval. “Yeah, I think once you’re a gardener you realize not everything looks perfect all the time, but I think people’s unwillingness to have a more natural look might be a barrier” (UR 2015).

Some residents acknowledged and actively contested negative perceptions of native plants and weeds. “Well, I’ll tell you what people consider a weed. Usually, if they are not really into gardening and think everybody should have a manicured lawn, anything they can’t identify” (UR 2017) is considered a weed. This contestation sometimes occurred through direct confrontation with neighbors, as one Holly Hills informant shared “[My neighbor] looks over the fence and is like, ‘That’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen, that milkweed out there.’ He’s like, ‘You got some problems out there.’ I’m like, ‘Not a problem--that’s intentional’” (UR 2017). Voicing similar dissent from the norm, another participant shared, “Well, there’s been change in our yard. We let it go to weeds [laughter]” (UR 2017).

Other neighbors noted recent changes in the normative aesthetic benefiting insect pollinator habitat. “I think people pay more attention to native plants then they used to before. I do see a trend in trying to grow things that are supposed to grow here” (UR 2017). One informant mentioned providing habitat for ground bees by leaving parts of the yard bare. “[Ground bees are] kind of unusual now, because most people don’t leave any bare patches in their yards. They just cover it all with grass, or all with mulch, or all with plants, or stones or whatever” (UR 2017). Further, residents spoke of local pollinator-focused conservation programs positively influencing vegetation decision-making. “So it’s an exciting thing for me, because when I saw that [the mayor], wanted 250 monarch butterfly [gardens]. I was like ‘okay, what do I have to do to do this?’ And I had everything in my yard, except for milkweed” (UR 2017). In one of the 2016 workshops, an attendee vocalized a newfound perspective. “Well I guess what I’m seeing here is, I thought I’m gonna help the bees and get a hive, but in fact I should just be planting more flowers? The hive really isn’t the issue, it’s the flowers” (UR 2016).

Institutions and reference group behavior: maintaining “the perfect lawn” as the norm

Institutions shape the urban vegetation matrix by influencing urban land-use and decision-making practices at multiple scales (Robbins 2007). To understand what role informal and formal institutions play at the two study sites, we asked about local homeowners’ associations rules, municipal ordinances, violation procedures, and enforcement. Informants frequently mentioned informal institutions of broader social norms as that reinforce dominant front yard vegetation composition and configuration. “So here’s an observation from somebody who has not lived here for very long. Coming from different places – I’ve lived in a lot of different places – I feel like the lawn is the standard” (UR 2017). The “perfect lawn” is a noticeably prevalent standard. The social pressures to maintain the neighborhood’s front lawn status quo are described as implicit. “We talk to our neighbors, but not much about the lawn. It is like an unspoken thing” (UR 2017). Similarly, when asked about formal ordinances driving the aesthetic, participants were quick to point back to the informal ordinances. “Well, I don’t know that there are formal codes, but there are definitely informal codes [laughter]” (UR 2015).

Homeowners’ association (HOA) membership at both study sites is voluntary with nominal annual fees. There are no HOA rules regarding yard management or vegetation composition and no enforcement mechanisms. Regarding formalized city codes and ordinances, participants had limited knowledge and understanding of existing regulations. “City ordinance. There’s a height for your lawn and I don’t even know what that is because I’ve never seen them actually enforce that” (UR 2017). Participants stated the city seldom enforces vegetation-related codes and ordinances, but instead enforcement occurs through informal social control.

First Resident: We have a rule that grass can’t get over, does anyone know what it is? There’s just a certain height that your grass -

Second Resident: Probably about when I get looks [from my neighbor]. [laughter] It’s the ‘looks’ rule.

Third Resident: Knee height. Knee height.

Second Resident: That’s about the right time (UR 2017).

Citizens can file a formal weed ordinance violation complaint through St. Louis’ 311 request for service system. Native plantings have been mistaken as weeds violating the ordinance. “My neighbors actually called and reported me before for having weeds. I’m like ‘these are not weeds!’” (UR 2017). However, according to participants who had weed ordinance complaints filed against their properties, they were able to satisfy the city requirements without significantly altering native plantings, landscape design, or management practices long-term.

You want to hear the story on my [front] yard? When I started planting this stuff, I had a neighbor losing sleep; she complained all day long … must have called the city on me 30 times that I had high weeds [laughter]. I told them to send the horticulturist out, [who said] ‘They are just flowers, I got the same thing in my yard.’[laughter]. So now people go by and [say] ‘I love your garden’ (UR 2017).

Despite no HOA rules and lax municipal enforcement, the combination of informal and formal mechanisms is still perceived as a barrier, curtailing opportunities to overcome the status quo and change the existing “perfect lawn” paradigm. A Holly Hills participant mused: “If I was a king, I would let people use their front lawns for growing corn and things like that. Lawns are a terrible waste of space. I know they are pretty, but you waste water on them and whatever” (UR 2017). He then admitted “that philosophy doesn’t do well in the city” due to the combination of barriers. “Probably because of codes … Neighborhood associations would probably frown on that.. . and the neighbors would give me a hard time. You can probably do a lot more with your backyard” (UR 2017).

Reference group behavior (Hunter and Hunter 2008) and social control measures (Robbins 2007) were detailed at length. Participants described how public-facing landscaping and management choices led to self-evaluation and appraisal and how internalized neighborhood beliefs, values, and norms influenced their behavior (Osmond and Hardy 2004; Grove et al. 2014). This includes the intentional ways people manage front yard versus backyard areas. Residential front yards are perceived and managed as contiguous public spaces reflecting local beliefs, values, and norms, whereas backyards are private spaces representing distinct individual preferences (Larsen and Harlan 2006; Nassauer et al. 2009). Of 55 participants polled, 89 % told us they seldom if ever actively use the front yard. “I guess my front yard is more of a formal space. . .. The front yard is not an afterthought, but it’s like the living room compared to the family room, I guess would be a description of it” (UR 2017). Informants reported spending most leisure time in the backyard, whereas the front yard is essentially maintained for appearances. “I hardly use my front yard at all …. Next to never. [laughter] We don’t come in around this way. I just have some plantings there to kind of keep it looking somebody lives here, you know, some curb appeal.” (UR 2017)

Participants provided examples of social pressures and tensions over front yard choices and practices that conflict both with wider neighborhood as well as personal norms and beliefs. “This is how you keep your yard, and this is how you keep your yard, and--if you don’t believe this way, you have pressure from all sides--Well, ‘mow your yard!’” (UR 2017). Residents expressed concern and uncertainty about their neighbor’s lawn-care decisions and the unspoken expectations regarding the look of the lawn. In one particular instance, a participant explained how a neighbor applied chemicals along and under a privacy fence to ensure native plantings and weeds did not migrate across property lines. “I know, like my neighbor sprays under [the fence] ‘cause I think my weeds go into his yard so he sprays underneath and I am like ‘urgh’. [laughter] I know he does it, ‘cause stuff dies along my side” (UR 2017).

Despite disagreeing with their neighbors’ choices, the social pressures of the reference group push those ambivalent about their yards to wonder whether or not they should be doing the same. “The amount of fertilizer and stuff he used on his lawn, I’ve never seen it. I mean, I thought he was painting his lawn …. I think there was also, like, ‘am I competing with him?’ half the time, too” (UR 2017). Despite clear disapproval of particular behaviors, the pressures of neighboring “perfect lawn” regimen remain powerful. For example, participants who value organic methods acknowledge using chemical-related products as a last resort. “I try not to use anything [chemicals], particularly in the backyard due to the bees, but I never have. Primarily trying to stick to the organic, but Roundup can be found when I get really, really frustrated” (UR 2017).

Residents indicated the relationships between reference group behavior and identity that reinforces the status quo yard. “It’s the old keeping up with the Joneses. You know, if they do something, everybody around here [does too]” (UR2017). No matter the larger role, front yard vegetation constitutes a symbol of membership, belonging to a place. “It’s a real tight knit of a community, and we’re very, very tight knit about appearance you know, what the [front yards] look like and whatever, so it’s a good neighborhood” (UR 2017). The public-facing landscaping uniformity contributes to the “goodness” of the neighborhood. Participants acknowledged their role in reinforcing norms and values they share, as well as self-evaluating and supporting shared identities. Departing from the norm results in concern over neighbor reaction and acceptance. “I grew up where your lawn was an extension of you, so that’s caused a lot of stress. The sun completely fries our front lawn and I’m letting it do what it’s gotta do. Our neighbor is probably horrified” (UR 2017). Further, participants from both study sites said the conventional, time-honored yard styles are maintained either by residents’ inertia or more purposeful behavior actively enforcing the status quo. One resident summarized: “I believe this [neighborhood] is a time-capsule” (UR 2017).

Front yard signatures of cultural identity

People of differing backgrounds and origins experience and ascribe significance to nature in unique ways (Cocks 2006). In Ward 23, informants explained the yard aesthetics via cultural identity. Participants pointed to long-term residents’ German-American cultural heritage, fondly describing yards as “Scrubby Dutch,” consisting of limited vegetation composition and heterogeneity. The front yard scores reflect this, as 91.2% are in the lowest two categories. “I usually say it’s Scrubby Dutch, it’s the kind of neighborhood that people will literally trim their grass—I’ve actually seen people trim their grass—with scissors [laughter]” (UR 2017). Another told us his neighbor “raked his lawn with the hose. He used the hose to like get his leaves off of the yard …. That’s the Scrubby Dutch part” (UR 2017). One participant described the gradual progression to a more pollinator-friendly front yard that breaks with the inertia and status quo as “Scrubby Dutch, [but] increasingly progressive” (UR 2017). Another echoed that growing natives and mowing less contested the long-term local culture.

There are ways in which we have challenged the culture of our neighborhood [by growing natives and mowing less], in ways that obviously nobody could tell us we were doing something wrong, but in ways that are definitely different from the ways that other people who have lived here for a long time, or grew up in south St. Louis, from their culture (UR 2015).

In Holly Hills, residents also spoke of the traditional front yard ideal as highly manicured with limited vegetation complexity. “South Saint Louis is very traditional – not a lot of adventurous [landscape] designing and things like that” (UR 2017). However, the site contained higher amounts of vegetation composition and complexity compared to Ward 23, with yards scoring 25.9 vs 8% in the 9–12 category and 3.1% vs.8% in the 13–16 category. Holly Hills participants attributed front yard vegetation composition to neighborhood “culture and the peer pressure” coupled with external perceptions of its identity as a “nice” neighborhood in the city (UR 2017). “This neighborhood’s always had, at least they had, big bushes, some vegetation. I think it’s kind of spread, you know. They wanted it all to look ‘as nice as Holly Hills’” (UR 2017). The identity of the neighborhood is maintained by the narratives circulated about it as well as the look of the yards. “Holly Hills is one of the oldest [neighborhoods], and it’s definitely lots of families, Catholic families. Very much, people are proud of their homes and yards and maintain them, and definitely involved in the neighborhood and knowing each other” (UR 2017).

A further difference between the two study sites was linked to ongoing economic and demographic transitions in communities adjacent to the Holly Hills area. Participant conveyed concerns over neighborhood security due to declining property values, increased resident turnover, and growing crime in surrounding areas. A more cohesive community “look,” including better kept lawns signaling “eyes on the street,” is associated with less crime (Troy et al. 2016). “I, of course, am always concerned about crime etc. … I just like a stable neighborhood, which includes a lot of things, you know, stable meaning it looks like it’s being kept up, safe, people are tending to their property” (UR 2017). While preventative measures such as neighborhood watch and off-duty police patrols were cited, residents tied parcel decision-making choices and management practices to value-laden neighborhood cultural identity, stability, and social cohesion.

Socioeconomics and yard practices

Participants described their land-use and decision-making practices were influenced by socioeconomic factors such as financial resources, lifestyle, life stage, and commercial actors. This conforms to much of the literature. Matteson et al. (2013) found floral resource availability, quality, and abundance mirrored residential heterogeneity. Correlations among housing density, neighborhood age, and landscape characteristics have been found in a number of studies. For example, housing density contributes to the similarities of households’ front yard characteristics (Zmyslony and Gagnon 1998), while housing and neighborhood age (Lowry et al. 2012) have been found to correlate with vegetation and wildlife species abundance and diversity (Hope et al. 2003; Martin et al. 2004; Grove et al. 2006a, b). Here Ward 23 parcel scores had less variation among front yard characteristics than Holly Hills, perhaps indicating front yard mimicry (Zmyslony and Gagnon 1998; Minor et al. 2016).

Participants from both sites articulated general observations of landscaping management and planting choices in urban residential yards that result in a lack of habitat and foraging resources for pollinators. “It’s a simple thing, you know? Most people just don’t even practice the basics and that extends to more than yards. Yards are just one of the things” (UR 2017). Socioeconomics and lifestyle factors are cited regularly as influencing both near and long-term land-use decision-making and management practices, translating into reduced front yard vegetation resources. These include personal habits and interests. “It could be resources, but it could also be that they’re just not interested in it. It doesn’t seem like people spend, from when I was little, people don’t spend a lot of time outdoors anymore” (UR 2017).

Barriers to rethinking the perfect lawn

Adhering to the normative vision of the yard was explained with several rationales. Front yard size was frequently mentioned as a perceived barrier. “Yeah, so many people in the city just don’t plant anything. They just have lawn. And it’s, sort of, I guess just our yards are so small” (UR 2016). Participants cited time and energy limitations as the rationale for minimal vegetation attributes in front yards, again expressing some ambivalence. “There’s that patch of grass and really nothing, I can’t take anymore weeding, gardening. I’ve spent a lot of time with that in the back, so the front is that patch of green. It is kind of my freefall” (UR 2017). Physical limits due to life stage was also highlighted by participants. “It’s a yard. When you get our age, it’s so hard to take care of” (UR 2017). This was also attributed to chemical usage, despite expressed understanding of the negative environmental impacts, as one resident articulated. “I’ve tried through the years to pull the weeds .... but I finally gave up Saturday and sprayed RoundUp. So that’s not good, I know, but I can’t keep up. I’m 68 now [and] feeling it in my joints” (UR 2017).

Commercial actors such as retailers and lawn care companies affect essential planting and management decisions. Participants noted the influence large retail stores have in deciding what to plant, leading to widespread homogenous yard attributes. “The biggest observation, as a newcomer 11 years here, is the tendency to default to whatever is at Home Depot or Lowes for gardening and flowers. There’s not a lot of originality. It is gardenias, impatiens, that kind of thing” (UR 2017). Further, lawn care companies, whether local or national, affect urban landscapes by managing yard outcomes to the “perfect lawn” turfgrass status quo on behalf of homeowners. “So, I’ve learned that True Green has a tendency to keep the lawn at least growing in full so I don’t have all these bare spots and weeds growing” (UR 2017). One participant related their decision-making and management practices in terms of inertia: “My style is I wait for the lawn guys to come [laughter] and that’s pretty much it” (UR 2017).

Lawn care companies as commercial actors were also cited by participants regarding the use of chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides as part of regular yard maintenance services. Most voiced concern over widespread usage and possible impacts to human and wildlife health, including pollinators. “I use no pesticides, no weed killers … Some neighbors, though, do use lawn care companies that come along and spray weed killers. When it’s windy, that stuff drifts and I really wonder if that has an effect on bees” (UR 2017).

Discussion

Urbanites’ fondness for flowering plants and greenery inadvertently supports diverse populations of insect pollinators, as well as potentially other insect, bird, bat, and wildlife communities (Sperling and Lortie 2010; Cook et al. 2012; Threlfall et al. 2016; Hall et al. 2017). Advancing insect pollinator conservation requires identifying drivers of yard management rich in floral resources (Threlfall et al. 2017). Characterizing vegetation composition at the neighborhood scale, then meeting with land managers to discuss parcel-scale (yard) management yields a more accurate and nuanced account for how humans actively shape the biotic communities we depend upon, like insect pollinators.

Our research study findings depart from previous findings within the literature, as the Ward 23 site contained fewer investments in residential vegetation and urban green spaces despite having higher median and average household income and homeownership levels. Alternately, the Holly Hills site had increased levels of vegetation attributes, complexity, and street trees despite lower income levels and homeownership rates, which contradicts findings from other studies (Hope et al. 2003; Kinzig et al. 2005; Lepczyk et al. 2012). For both sites, although formal municipal institutions shape neighborhood vegetation directly via street tree plantings (Ward 23 = 52.7%; Holly Hills = 69.2%) and indirectly via lax weed ordinance enforcement, we did not find formal neighborhood institutions such as HOAs actively shaping the vegetation landscape of the study sites (cf. Lerman et al. 2012). Nevertheless, these data do reinforce findings of the homogenizing effects of social and cultural discourses and practices on yard management behaviors (Osmond and Hardy 2004; Robbins 2007; Nassauer et al. 2009; Nilon 2014).

In aggregate, the demographic data, front yard observations, and conversations with residents reflect and explain broad similarities in vegetation composition resulting in reduced foraging and foraging resources. From the Tapestry™ geodemographic data, the neighborhood characteristics indicate like people are clustered together spatially, influencing land-use decision-making and management practices. Front yard vegetation scoring data (Burr et al. 2018) substantiate this homogeneity. Yet, participants’ diverse perspectives, motivations, and self-reported practices of yard management frequently did not translate to front yard vegetation composition complexity or heterogeneity. The neighborhood socio-cultural processes further explain the lack of variations in vegetation composition across the sites, impacting native bee populations. Aesthetics, norms, and beliefs; informal institutions; reference group behavior; cultural identity; and socioeconomics seem to have a homogenizing effect on the vegetation makeup, as residents adhere to the status quo and continue the inertia of inherited vegetation composition in their front yards. Front yards in the 500 m sites are contiguous public spaces that few participants use and conform to the “perfect lawn” ideal of a highly manicured and intensively managed turfgrass yard with limited or no vegetation attributes. These front yard spaces are maintained as a public good for “curb appeal,” while residents describe backyards as private leisure spaces where they exercise individual choices exempt from social pressures.

Front yardscapes became contested spaces when residents departed from perfect-lawn norms. By planting natives, mowing less frequently, and removing turfgrass, participants acknowledged they were challenging norms that represent neighborhood aesthetics, norms, values, and cultural identity. They described the resulting tensions and conflicts with other residents that ranged from indirect confrontation (spraying weed killers along property lines) to direct feedback and pressure (“mow your yard!”) to formal weed ordinance violation complaints. Yard vegetation as a vehicle of cultural identity further entrenches front yards as contested spaces. Traditional South St. Louis, “minimalist” front yards are status quo expressions of identity and belonging. In Ward 23, participants reported German-American cultural heritage shaped the vegetation landscape and continues to influence resident socio-cultural processes and land-use practices in the neighborhood. In Holly Hills, with its higher levels of vegetation composition and complexity, residents expressed concerns that their socio-cultural identity is under threat from surrounding socioeconomic transitions. Investments in public-facing landscaping and urban green spaces serve as a visible defense of the traditions upholding the ‘tight-knit’ neighborhood’s identity, stability, and social cohesion.

Spatial characterizations of vegetation triangulated with geodemographic details and in-depth accounts of site-specific expressed socio-cultural rationales for urban residential vegetation enables targeted design of education and outreach to improve urban pollinator conservation. Participants expressed a desire for an expanded definition of the perfect yard; one that reflects and respects a variety of choices. Insect pollinator outreach based on this input might find salience with residents. One example is to design pollinator-friendly and native plant guides, as well as planting bed plans tailored for small, contiguous front yards. Another example is, for all turfgrass yards where participants specifically prioritize low maintenance, provide user-friendly plants, planting guides, and plans that enhance floral resources while minimizing work. Moreover, interviews with residents revealed a disconnect in how researchers and residents see problems with current vegetation. The scientific community is focused on addressing and improving pollinator populations, whereas citizen stakeholders are interested in addressing neighborhood stability. These local community priorities need to be accounted for via engaged social research when developing outreach programming salient to stakeholders (Wiek et al. 2012; Steelman et al. 2015).

Finally, the data yield questions for future research. Based on resident observations, the neighborhoods’ front yard vegetation makeup endured over an extended period of time. Beyond the socio-cultural drivers, investigating the role legacy urban form and history plays in shaping current residential front yard vegetation, as well as how these factors may continue to influence future yard vegetation composition and configuration may be valuable. Further, researchers may explore with residents how to broadly reconceive front yards from empty turfgrass yardscapes to contiguous urban green space corridors containing robust habitat, foraging, and nesting resources for improved biodiversity and conservation outcomes. Finally, exploring how the socio-cultural drivers of residential front yard vegetation contribute to and shape other urban biological communities may be valuable.

Conclusion

As more land is apportioned to residential yards, private citizens play a vital role in the urban environment (Martini and Nelson 2015) modulating the biodiversity within cities (Kinzig et al. 2005). Improved understanding of socio-cultural patterns and disturbances on native bee populations can inform urban development (Williams et al. 2010). To combat the negative ecological consequences of human-dominated urban environments and “the perfect lawn” ideal, development and conservation approaches must factor in behavior, socioeconomics, values, institutions, and culture (McDonnell and Hahs 2013). We leveraged biophysical sampling results to select sites to examine the front yard vegetation composition scoring, the geodemographic market segmentations, and the qualitative data to explore the potential effects neighborhood socio-cultural drivers have on land-use practices, and the observed responses in bee populations. Investigating the socio-cultural drivers of parcel-scale residential vegetation impacting native bee populations may yield improved outcomes not only for urban insect pollinator health, but also for human health and well-being. Learning the active drivers, how they interact, and translate into the urban vegetation matrix at the parcel, block, neighborhood, and city scales can guide land-use decision-makers to use social functioning to enhance ecological functioning that conserves urban biodiversity (Aronson et al. 2016).

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Burr, A., Hall, D.M. & Schaeg, N. The perfect lawn: exploring neighborhood socio-cultural drivers for insect pollinator habitat. Urban Ecosyst 21, 1123–1137 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-018-0798-y

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Keywords

  • Interdisciplinary research
  • Native bees
  • Sustainability science
  • Cities