Can Landscaping Improve or Threaten Your Social Calendar?

If you have a nice lawn instead of a pile of dirt in your front yard, are you more or less likely to socialize with your neighbors?

Researchers at Arizona State University in Tempe believe landscaping has a significant effect on how we interact with others, and they've set up an unusual experiment to find out if they're right. Although the results aren't complete yet, early findings indicate that the lack of a lawn can mow down your social life.

And desert landscaping, even for people who have lived in the desert all their lives, could be deadly when it comes to getting invited to neighborhood parties.

That may be a bit surprising to people who love the desert (count me in that group), but the research also suggests that the longer people live in the desert, the less they like arid landscaping.

As noted above, these findings are preliminary and subject to revision, but the issue is important because of growing pressure to minimize lawns and maximize the use of desert plants in areas of the world where water is getting scarce. That's particularly true in Arizona, where thousands of people move every year because of the weather.

Phoenix, for example, has doubled its population in the last 35 years, and some areas of the state have been forced to limit construction of new homes because of water shortages. That set some folks to wondering: Does landscaping make a difference in how residents interact with one another? Is it a social lubricant or a barrier?

That's a difficult area to conduct research, says sociologist Scott Yabiku of ASU, because it's "a bit challenging" to mess around with people's lives. But Yabiku and David Casagrande of Western Illinois University are engaged in a multiyear experiment in the Phoenix area. They presented a preliminary report on their project during a recent meeting in Memphis of the Ecological Society of America.

It turns out there was an ideal opportunity on their doorstep. ASU also has a polytechnic campus in nearby Mesa, where its student housing includes 152 nearly identical houses. Most are occupied by young couples with children.

"The administration there was tired of watering all the grass," Yabiku says, so the researchers offered to take over the landscaping chores for 24 of the houses. The buildings were clustered in groups of six, and each group shared a common area of about two acres. Armed with a grant from the National Science Foundation, in 2004, the researchers moved in with notebooks, heavy equipment and truckloads of new plants.

Each cluster of houses ended up with different landscaping, ranging from plush greenery that required lots of water to a natural Sonoran desert landscape that required none. The houses were already occupied, Yabiku says, and the residents had no say in what kind of landscaping they would be getting.

The experiment will run through 2010, but the researchers have already spent a lot of time observing the social life of their subjects.

Yabiku says they rarely saw kids playing in the yards with desert landscaping. Instead, the families clustered in areas containing grass.

During interviews, the residents offered several explanations. Grass is cooler and more inviting. But beyond that, many found it hard to imagine a nice home without a lawn. "Their notion of what a home is includes grass," Yabiku says.

They also found a gender difference. Men liked the desert landscaping much more than women did. How come? "We don't know, exactly," Yabiku says. "But it might be that men are typically assigned maintenance duties, and they look at a lawn and see something that needs to be mowed. A desert environment is seen as low maintenance.

"And women are often assigned indoor tasks," he adds. "Some see a desert landscape and think dust."

It's not clear why people who have lived in the Phoenix area are less likely to prefer desert landscaping, Yabiku says. But similar findings have emerged from other studies in Arizona and New Mexico.

Although the experiment allows sociologists to have some control over the data, it's not perfect. There is a high turnover in the student housing project, so the results are a little fuzzy. Is the landscaping having an impact on social activities, or did some occupants choose a house with landscaping that already fit their lifestyle?

Yabiku says the working hypothesis is that landscaping makes a difference. But it will be a few years before he knows for sure.