Habitat Connectivity in the Yard

Photo © Google Earth

In our first article on connectivity we talked about how ecologists think about modern landscapes; introducing the concepts of patches, stepping stones, and corridors. Here we address how yards can positively contribute to the overall landscape matrixopen_in_new, sharing some ideas about how to see your yard as a part of the greater whole.

Neighborhood 2

Photo © Jinhee Ha, Ryosuke Takahashi, Haikun Xu Cornell Department of Landscape Architecture

A yard doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It always has a relationship with the landscape around it, both immediate–that which abutes your property–and more distant–that which makes-up the greater landscape in your neighborhood and town. The diagram above is an analysis of a town done by landscape architect students at Cornell University who are a part of the YardWorks project. They are looking at the town through a landscape ecologists’ lens, identifying possible corridors, habitat patches, and stepping stones in the community (if you don’t remember which is which, feel free to reread our first article on the topic). If you look closely, you can see single yards, outlined in red. Each of these has a relationship with a stepping stone or a corridor.

neighborhood 1

Photo ©

This is another neighborhood analysis. Here, some yards abut a larger habitat patch, like a park or other natural area, while other yards are surrounded by more yards. Stepping back to look at your property this way can help you make important management decisions for your yard. Perhaps your yard can become a critical stepping stone between more isolated stepping stones, increasing the connectivity for wildlife as they move between patches. The diversity of urban habitats, which often include parks, cemeteries, and residential yards contribute to overall heterogeneity, and the design and maintenance of these spaces will have important implications for their contribution to the quality of the local matrix.

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Photo © Jinhee Ha, Ryosuke Takahashi, Haikun Xu Cornell Department of Landscape Architecture

There are several ways a yard might productively supplement the existing wild landscapeopen_in_new. If a property abuts a larger patch you might “buffer” that patch by leaving as much of the adjoining yard space as possible in ‘matching’ habitat, thereby increasing the area of the patch.

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Photo © Jinhee Ha, Ryosuke Takahashi, Haikun Xu Cornell Department of Landscape Architecture

Perhaps your property sits between two stepping stones and by changing your plantings you can “connect” those stepping stones to create a corridor, increasing the flow of different organisms across a yard.

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Photo © Jinhee Ha, Ryosuke Takahashi, Haikun Xu Cornell Department of Landscape Architecture

Or, as is the case for many people, a yard more isolated from larger patches can become a stepping stone with the right plantings, creating a “bridge” between other nearby stepping stones.

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Photo © Jinhee Ha, Ryosuke Takahashi, Haikun Xu Cornell Department of Landscape Architecture

Whatever your situation, there is rarely an instance where getting your neighbors involved doesn’t immediately amplify the impacts of your yards. In many towns the spaces in the middle of blocks, where several smaller backyards come together (like those depicted to the left), are some of the largest remaining habitat fragments in urban areas. They can be valuable resources for birds, pollinators, and even amphibians and reptiles.

Working with your neighbors can be a critical way to amplify efforts at creating wildlife habitat in your area. Not sure how to get started? Read our article on working with your neighbors.
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Photo © Jinhee Ha, Ryosuke Takahashi, Haikun Xu Cornell Department of Landscape Architecture

So, consider gathering your backyard neighbors and working together to improve your space. The homeowners above analyzed the existing tree canopy on each property and proposed new native trees they could collectively plant to fill out their habitat patch. Working with neighbors has the added benefit of helping to change neighborhood norms about what landscaping should look like as well. This is important since those norms drive perception of yards as either having ‘good’ or ‘bad’ landscapingopen_in_new.

managed landscape

Photo © Jered and Alexis Hofker

Residential yards may be relatively small, but, because they make-up such a large portion of most urban landscapes they have the potential to be major players in any efforts to change the overall landscape. These kinds of spaces tend to be intensively managed (think about mowing, trimming, paving). Decreasing that intensity of management may offer one of the greatest opportunities to increase the functional area of vegetation that is often the base of natural landscapes. The yard above is a great example. Decreasing the management practices here, even a bit, would let the more diverse vegetation around the site creep in and substantially increase the area available for a diversity of organisms.

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Photo © Jinhee Ha, Ryosuke Takahashi, Haikun Xu Cornell Department of Landscape Architecture

Extending vegetative structure into a yard, especially with vertical elements increases the space an organism can utilize to forage, attract a mate, nest, or seek shelter. Great vertical elements to consider include single trees with large crowns, tree groupings, shrub plantings, and even vines growing on a trellis or other structures. Each of these could increase multifunctionality of a space. If you are worried about not meeting others’ landscaping expectations, check-out our article on tricks you can use to increase the functional area of vegetation in your yard, while keeping neighbors happy.

Part 1 of this series on habitat connectivity.

Need ideas about what to plant?

Check-out this ongoing series about great fruit-producing trees perfect for your region
Or, visit our popular best berry-producing shrubs for your region pages
Or, head over to the Local Resources Tool, where you can put in your zip code and get a planting list, birds recently seen in your neighborhood, and other goodies customized for your location.

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