Changing Minds: Individual Homeowners and Their Role in the Solution

By Ellena Ochoa, UER Board Member and Landscape Designer

Efforts to promote landscapes that work to serve ecological functions, such as Eco-Functioning Spaces (EFS), have gained ground in recent years especially in urban open space, institutional, and commercial projects. Stormwater management regulations and public incentives, like the RiverSmart Programin D.C., have helped to elevate the importance of ecological functions of urban landscapes.  Recently, the Green Building Certification Institute included the SITES rating system for landscapes under its umbrella of green building certification systems, which is modeled on the highly successful LEED program in the US  and worldwide.

Despite these advances, wide acceptance of sustainable landscaping and land use practices at the level of the individual homeowner and residential developer has been slow to catch on.  Many factors make this part of the urban environmental restoration story more complicated, but three of them are decidedly cultural and grounded in an American narrative that includes:  

·      a deeply-held aesthetic attached to a garden ideal of expansive lawns and manicured plantings

·       the legal view that one’s yard is part of one’s home and exists solely for the use of its human owners-- absent is any notion of a connectedness or responsibility beyond lot lines to a wider ecological commons

·       the role of one’s home and yard as a large component of personal wealth -- which may perpetuate a belief in the importance of conforming to an orderly outdoor space, a view that may even be enforced by local neighborhoods that assume property values will adjust downward for yards that look untidy or stray from the cultural norm

In many places there is little recognition that we have placed ourselves within nature, though our housing developments occupy what once was a forest, a meadow, or a wetland. The idea that the land once served an entire ecosystem - of hundreds or thousands of animal and plant species - is lost in the view that the private yard and garden exist for the sole purpose of our use, enjoyment, and individual aesthetic expression. The property value calculation ignores the value of natural plant communities, denies accountability in any ecological sense, and assumes that buyers care nothing of ecological function, but rather hold the views above.

Environmental regulation at different levels of government generally cannot or will not counterbalance the legal right to control one’s land, therefore voluntary action is needed. And a general shift in the way we see our yards and the role they play in the natural world will be critical.  What if we no longer saw our yards and gardens as extensions of our homes, but rather as sanctuaries for the multitude of species displaced by our development? Responses to climate change? Contributors to human health? Or gateways into the mysteries of the natural world? 

Though there are challenges to winning over homeowners on the benefits of Eco-Functioning Spaces, the support of the urban/suburban landholding population will be key to the long term management of ecological systems in rapidly developing areasToday roughly half the US population lives in urban/suburban communities occupying approximately ten percent of the land area of the country. Census data from 2014 shows that the fastest-growing large cities tend to be more suburban

Many of these metropolitan areas are located along the coasts and near important waterways, with an outsized influence on marine and watershed health. And many of these areas are rapidly replacing undeveloped natural space as they expand well beyond former city limits. It is ever more important to find ways to convince homeowners of the importance of Eco-Functioning Spaces in greater numbers than we are today. 

There are dedicated nonprofit organizations, mostly at the local level, promoting ecologically-friendly landscapes for homeowners, such rain gardens, bayscapes, and conservation planting through educational outreach and subsidized funding. These groups, however, succeed to a greater or lesser extent depending on their ability to fund permanent programs and reach homeowners across a wide range of demographics and geography. For the most part, these programs are reaching people who are already interested in environmentally-friendly ways to care for their gardens and who tend to seek opportunities to learn more. The challenge is to engage homeowners with little interest and those who are not necessarily attracted to the concept of natural plantings and ecological systems in a residential setting.

Clearly what’s needed is more dependable long-term funding sources for organizations supporting Eco-Functioning Spaces, especially for smaller, locally-focused nonprofits. But equally important will be progress on educational outreach that captures a wider audience and the expansion of programs that target communities of homeowners and residential developers. 

The creation of voluntary, community-based networks to spread the word and share knowledge, may be a place to start. These networks could leverage the support of nonprofits and local agencies, as well as provide the people power these organizations do not have.  Programs led by community members who are champions of Eco-Functioning Spaces have the potential to engage more homeowners across a broad spectrum of opinions, knowledge, demographics, and geography that typically fall outside the purvue of established environmental organizations. These networks could support hands-on opportunities for neighbors to learn about Eco-Functioning Spaces, while discovering their benefits and having fun together. The peer-to-peer nature of these networks has the potential to provide far more lasting impacts on the way homeowners view naturalistic gardens and the stewardship of their yards. Different models of educational outreach at the community level are beginning to emerge in places as diverse as San Francisco and Kansas City, Missouri. It is a hopeful trend with much more work to be done.