Native Plant Trust

Yard Futures Project

Envisioning Ecological Alternatives for Backyards

Read ground-breaking research on cultivating suburban biodiversity

Native Plant Trust has teamed up with the Woodwell Climate Research Center and a group of scientists across the country to report on groundbreaking research into how American homeowners shape the structure and ecology of yard ecosystems. 

The Yard Futures Project, a collaboration of scientists affiliated with nine institutions, measures how the structure of yards influences different attributes of residential ecosystems—such as plant and insect biodiversity, microclimates, soil carbon, and potential for nitrogen fertilizer runoff—in the metropolitan areas of Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Phoenix. 

The project team contacts homeowners, takes measurements in their yards, and conducts homeowner surveys. It classifies yards in different ways—sometimes based on demographics, sometimes based on management approaches. The work encompasses both natural and social sciences. It examines not only how homeowners shape their yard ecosystem, but also why they do what they do. The project receives funding from the National Science Foundation's Macrosystems Biology Program, which is investigating the causes and consequences of large-scale ecological patterns. 

This blog communicates new findings from this innovative project. It features work done by both established researchers and graduate students, who help to create through their work an emerging science of suburban ecology. The team publishes most of the research in the technical scientific literature, but now joins with Native Plant Trust to make the findings accessible to everyone—so that the results can be put to use creating yards that work for both people and the environment.

The editorial lead for the blog is Christopher Neill, Ph.D., Senior Scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, MA.

Current Post: Could We Manage Backyards to Increase Biodiversity?

By Christopher Neill, Senior Scientist, Woodwell Climate Research Center 

At dawn on a June morning in 2017, Megan Shave, a member of my summer field research team at the Woods Hole Research Center, parked on a residential street in the leafy inner suburbs of Boston, MA. She entered a previously chosen suburban yard, set a timer for 10 minutes, and watched and listened for birds. When the timer beeped, she wrote down on a data sheet everything she had seen and heard, then drove to the next yard. 

By the time people in the neighborhood had headed off to their workdays two hours later, Megan had joined up with three other team members for a day-long, intensive survey of a single yard in a nearby town. Like an eco-SWAT team, they noted every plant species and the lawn or garden feature in which they occurred. They measured the species and diameter of every tree, set traps to measure the diversity and abundance of bees and crawling insects, and took soil samples. They deployed small strips of special resins, designed to capture soil nutrients, that they will collect on a future visit. Before leaving, they created a detailed sketch map of the yard.

Since then, similar teams have surveyed yards in exactly the same way in metropolitan Baltimore, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Miami. Teams in all six cities are part of a nationwide study nicknamed the Yard Futures Project, which continues through 2020. The project aims to measure—across yards and across large regions—how management of residential single-family house lots influences the structure, biodiversity, and function of residential ecosystems. Our study is one of the most detailed scientific investigations into the broad ecological functioning of the suburban landscapes in which 51 percent of Americans now live. 

This is critically important, because residential areas continue to expand, and their influence on biodiversity and what scientists call ecosystem services—such as conserving and filtering water, cooling hot spaces, and retaining carbon—is poorly understood. Yet suburban yards could play a vitally important role in supporting more biodiversity and ecosystem services, which also make suburbs enjoyable places for people to live. One goal of our project is to help suburban landscapes become more successful in all these ways. 

Here’s how we have structured our project: Within each metropolitan region, research teams visit yards that fall into four main categories, or "treatments": (1) typical or passive homeowner-conducted management without fertilizer or pesticides; (2) intensive management with fertilizer and pesticides and hiring of a lawn-care company; (3) wildlife friendly management that includes certification by the National Wildlife Federation: and (4) hydrological management that includes specific activities to reduce water use or water runoff. In each place, teams also compare the structure of yards with the structure of large natural areas in the region, and the smaller remnants of natural areas that residential neighborhoods often now abut. 

We know that the way homeowners manage their yards in Phoenix might not have the same consequences as in Boston. But that's the point. We want to learn about those differences and put them into the service of making backyards maintain more natural functions, and over more of the country. 

This project grew out of previous work by the research team that tested how building suburban residential environments homogenizes ecosystems by pushing the landscape towards similar microclimates, plant communities, and nutrient cycling patterns. By comparing our yard maps to our detailed inventories of species and ecological responses, we aim to make our ever-expanding data on yard structures a more useful predictor of biodiversity across U.S. suburban regions. With its mission of conserving and promoting New England native plants to ensure healthy, biodiverse landscapes, Native Plant Trust is partnering with us to share our research with an engaged audience.

The Yard Futures Project has funding from the Macrosystems Biology program of the National Science Foundation. Peter Groffman leads the project from the City University of New York's Advanced Science Research Center. The project team includes social as well as natural scientists because we want to understand not just what people do in their yards, but why they do it. (For the full list of our scientists and their affiliated institutions, see the drop-down box below.)

Now that our project is in its final year, we have collected and published a lot of scientific data, and we have a lot of fascinating stories to tell. We look forward to sharing our articles on this page in the coming months. 

Who We Are

Our 25 scientists are based at nine institutions across the country.

The Yard Futures Project is a collaboration of scientists affiliated with institutions from across the U.S., including Woodwell Climate Research Center, Duke University, City University of New York, University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins University, University of Minnesota, Arizona State University, U.S. Forest Service, University of Utah, University of Delaware, Portland State University, Davidson College, Clark University, Masaryk University, University of Vermont and Virginia Tech. The research focuses on homeowners and their yards in the metropolitan areas of Boston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Phoenix and includes on-site field studies, extensive surveys, and interviews. These are the contributing scientists from these institutions:

Christopher Neill,  Woods Hole Research Center, studies how changes to land use and climate alter the structure and functioning of ecosystems. 

Peter GroffmanCity University of New York, investigates nutrient cycling in forests and terrestrial ecosystems. He leads the Yard Futures Project Team. 

Christopher Ryan, City University of New York, studies urban ecology, lawns and landscapes, nutrient management, and urban greening, with the goal of increasing biodiversity and improving public health.

Desiree NarangoUniversity of Massachusetts, investigates the ecology and conservation of biodiversity in human-dominated ecosystems such as residential yards, urban forests, and agriculture.

Sarah HobbieUniversity of Minnesota, studies the impact of atmospheric changes on the ecosystem and the effects of urbanization and plant species on biogeochemical cycles.

Jeannine Cavender-BaresUniversity of Minnesota, specializes in physiological ecology, phylogenetics, and linking plant function and evolutionary history to conservation.

Kristen Nelson, University of Minnesota, specializes in environmental sociology, coupled human and natural systems, and sustainable development. 

Jesse Engebreston, University of Minnesota, works on interdisciplinary policy implementation and social science research methods for natural resource management.

Sharon Hall, Arizona State University, is an ecosystem scientist who focuses on the ecology of native and managed ecosystems and ecological feedbacks between humans and the environment.

Kelli LarsonArizona State University, studies attitudes and behaviors relating to residential landscaping practices and wildlife in cities. 

Megan Wheeler, Arizona State University, studies the ecological drivers of plant community dynamics in urban residential landscapes.

Susannah LermanU.S. Forest Service, studies human management of the urban forest and the health of native bird and insect populations.

Morgan GroveU.S. Forest Service, investigates the economic and socio-environmental factors that influence urban living.

Dexter LockeU. S. Forest Service, investigates urban ecology, urban forestry, and spatial data science, with an  interest in conducting applied research with urban natural resource managers.

Diane PatakiUniversity of Utah, studies the human-environment connection around urban vegetation, resource use, and landscape design.

Noortje Grijseels, University of Utah, studies how vegetation such as in green roofs can be used for water managemet in urban areas. 

James HeffernanDuke University, conducts research on ecology and conservation, the urban environment, water, and wetlands. 

Tara TrammellUniversity of Delaware,  investigates how urban forests respond to threats such as pollution and invasive species, and how urban forests provide ecosystem services to urban residents.  

Jennifer Morse, Portland State University, is an ecosystem ecologist who focuses on the movement of nutrients and the production of greenhouse gases in wetlands, forests, agricultural, and urban ecosystems.

Anika BrattDavidson College, studies aquatic ecosystems in urban and agricultural landscapes. 

Megan AvolioJohns Hopkins University, studies the mechanisms by which humans alter plant populations in both grassland and urban ecosystems.

Rinku Roy ChowdhuryClark University, investigates the diversity of human-environment interactions in forest-agricultural mosaics, urbanizing ecosystems, and coastal mangroves vulnerable to climate change.

Josep Padullés CubinoMasaryk University, studies ecology, botany, geography, ethnobotany, and urban planning. 

Jarlath O'Neil-Dunne, University of Vermont, studies the application of geospatial technology to environmental justice, wildlife habitat mapping, land cover change, and water quality. 

Meredith Steele, Virginia Tech, tries to understand cities and their effects on water quality, ecosystem services, and biogeochemical cycles across different regions.

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Woodwell Climate Research Center (formerly Woods Hole Research Center) studies climate change impacts around the world, and works with partners—from national governments to corporations—to identify and implement opportunities to reduce levels of atmospheric greenhouse gas. WCRC was founded in 1985 by renowned ecologist George Woodwell to take the insights of science beyond the walls of academia to where they can reflect real change. For the last four years, Woodwell Climate Research Center was named the top climate change think tank in the world by the International Center for Climate Governance. WCRC scientists have contributed to every IPCC Assessment Report and helped launch the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In 2007, WCRC senior scientist Dr. Richard Houghton was part of the IPCC team awarded the Nobel Prize. For more information please visit www.woodwellclimate.org.