Front Yards/BackyardsNovember 15, 2012
Art Practical is pleased to present this article in conjunction with the Miami Rail. It was commissioned by the Miami Rail for the upcoming Winter 2012 issue, which will be released on December 1st.
South Floridians already know what recent census data tells us: increasingly, urban living is actually suburban living. Today’s American cities continue to spread well beyond their traditional urban cores, transforming former farm fields, forests, and wetlands in the process. In South Florida, the suburbs connect and subvert the boundaries of once distinct cities. They are patchy landscapes where residential developments, strip malls, and auto-repair shops intermingle. The suburbs are also the place most of us call home.
Perhaps it is this very intimacy we have with the suburbs that accounts for the widespread anxieties they seem to produce. There are few anthems that celebrate the suburbs. From the 1960s folk hit song “Little Boxes,” made famous by Pete Seeger, to Arcade Fire’s recent Grammy winner “The Suburbs,” suburbia has become a metaphor for political conformity, teenage anomie, and social homogeneity. And certainly from the surface, these anxieties about homogenization and conformity seem rooted in reality. For instance, the similarity of these images below, with their grid-like streets and grassy lawns, makes it difficult to tell Boston from Phoenix.
Scientists are also concerned about whether urbanization is creating ecological sameness, or homogenization, around the country. As these photos suggest, the suburbs generally replace native habitats (such as hardwood hammocks or pine rocklands in South Florida) with turfgrass lawns, popular plant species like Ficus hedges, and impervious surfaces. While lawns have lots of recreational value, they also require high levels of water, nutrients, and toxic chemical inputs. Scholars, such as Paul Robbins, have described the lawn as the nation’s largest irrigated crop after corn. With the prevalence of the suburban yard, are we creating a vast landscape of ecological sameness?
With funding from the National Science Foundation, we are trying to figure this out. I am part of a research team in Miami that is collecting an unprecedented amount of information about the ecology of yards in South Florida—including the types and diversity of yard plants, information about soils and climate, and other environmental data. Collecting all this information has meant crawling around every square inch of
people’s yards and taking leaf samples from every tree, bush, and weed. We are also spending a lot of time talking to homeowners about the choices they make in their yards. Even better, colleagues in Boston, Phoenix, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis are collecting the exact same information. By comparing the information across these cities, we will be able to understand the kind of America being created by urbanization.
Here are some interesting initial findings from our project so far. First, one of the main concerns about urbanization involves the homogenization of plant species. In other words, do cities reduce the diversity of plants compared to what we would find in undeveloped areas? The home in this picture is a typical home in a gated community and reflects most of our assumptions about the transformation of native habitats to residential land uses. As they do with many homes in developments, a builder installed this yard, and a landscaping company now maintains the yard. Also, as in many of our communities, a homeowners’ association enforces community rules that dictate what residents can do in their yards.
Developed landscapes, such as this one, come into being through a complex set of political and economic institutions, including real estate markets, local and regional land use policy, construction and landscaping industries, and various other forms of environmental governance. One result of this type of residential development may be a decline in species diversity from what you would expect from comparable undeveloped areas. The Institute for Regional Conservation estimates that in the “wild,” there are over 2,200 species of plants that are native or naturalized in South Florida.
Though we are still working on this project, it is clear that we are finding far less species diversity in people’s yards. So far, we have documented about 1,500 different plant species in residential yards, though the project’s botanist, Stephen Hodges, has suggested that much of this residential plant diversity comes from plant enthusiasts (such as orchid collectors) who are driving up our numbers. Moreover, we are finding very few native plants in people’s yards—only about 12 percent. Interestingly, the majority of these natives are actually lawn weeds. So, counter to our ideas about turfgrass as a driver of homogenization, in South Florida at least, the turfgrass lawn is actually a native plant repository.
Second, it is clear that front and backyards are very different social-ecological spaces. Front yards tend to be the “public” face for households, like a formal living room where you keep your best furniture to impress guests. Most of us keep our front yards tidy and in line with the expectations of the neighborhood. We do this to protect our property values, which for most of us are our biggest investments. This social conformity translates into ecological homogenization, as front yards have lower levels of species diversity than we find in the back.
Backyards are like our family rooms—where the real living takes place. This distinction is clear in the types of plants people cultivate in their backyards. In our plant surveys, we found a much greater number and diversity of plant species in people’s backyards. Backyard plants tend to be ones that homeowners have put in themselves, rather than legacies from when the house was built. The backyard is the landscape of home, and in our research we have been amazed at how backyard land stewardship becomes a performance of what home means.
What people plant, or cultivate, tells us a lot about their environmental values and how these relate to their identities. For example, for Cuban Americans, in particular, their backyards are exile landscapes and are a real testament to how backyards function as home. We find many Cuban American yards filled with tropical fruit trees: mangos, guanabana, papaya, sapodilla, cherimoya, and so many more. These are literally the sites of food production, as they are for many Caribbean households in Miami, though the term “production” hides the intensely cultural ways in which these fruit trees serve as a bridge to their homeland for Cuban American exiles.
I was born in Homestead and have spent much of my life in South Florida, so I have seen the ways in which the suburbs have filled in the rural gaps that once separated Homestead from “The City,” as we called it when I was growing up. I have also seen the westward creep of Miami and Fort Lauderdale toward the absolute boundaries of the Everglades. Nostalgia for the South Florida of my childhood colored my expectations about this project—I firmly expected that our research would verify everyone’s worst fears of urban social and ecological conformity. Instead, this project has renewed my appreciation for Miami’s cultural diversity and for the ways this diversity becomes written into the urban landscape. This ecological and social diversity is just hidden in the backyard.