Sociologist Scott Yabiku of Arizona State University and an interdisciplinary team of colleagues have set up five independent landscape groupings within a larger suburb of virtually identical housing units. Each group of six homes has been assigned to a specific landscape type: mesic, consisting of water-loving shade trees and grass; xeric, consisting of desert plants; oasis, a mixture of both; native, desert plants from the region; and control, simple rock ground cover. The researchers plan to assess how these varieties impact everything from microclimates to impacts on wildlife as well as how the various landscapes aid or hinder social interaction. "We often think of people transforming and changing the environment," Yabiku notes. "But we also wanted to document the other part of the people-environment relationship: Could environments transform people?"
The 60 or so individual subjects have been living within the various landscapes since 2005 and already have shown a strong preference for lush conditions. In surveys done before the landscaping took place, the residents, particularly those with children, rated mesic and oasis conditions more highly than their desert counterparts, with women most highly critical of desert yards. And those families who found themselves living with lawns and shade trees socialized more often with their neighbors than families whose yards hosted plants native to the Sonoran desert. "This does not mean that, inherently, desert landscapes are nonsocial," Yabiku emphasizes. "There are ways to design desert landscapes with shade and other features to promote sociability." The experiment will continue through 2010 but initial results were presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.