Introducing the Yard Futures Project: Connecting Us to the Science of Our Yards

Photo © Michael Whittemore

As dawn breaks in early June, Megan Shave, a member of my summer 2017 field research team at the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), parks her car along a residential street in the leafy inner suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. She gets out, points herself into a predetermined suburban yard, and starts her watch–listening closely for birds. She records everything she sees or hears in ten minutes, then climbs back into her car and heads to the next yard.

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Photo © Michael Whittemore

Two hours later, as people in the neighborhood head off to their workdays, Megan returns and joins the WHRC’s Margot McKlveen and Michael Whittemore, and University of Massachusetts botanist Roberta Lombardi. Together they fan out into the yard as a one-day SWAT team. They record every plant species and the lawn or garden feature in which they occur. They measure the diameter of every tree. They deploy traps to measure the diversity and abundance of bees and crawling insects. They take samples of soils and deploy sensors to test for the amount of soil organic matter and soil nutrients. And they create a detailed sketch map of the yard.


Photo © Brandon Hunt, Alex Headrick

This past summer, similar teams sampled in exactly the same way in the metropolitan regions of Baltimore and Minneapolis-St. Paul; and, before the heat of the desert summer, a team from Phoenix deployed in February. Teams from Los Angeles and Miami will start early in 2018. All six city-teams collaborate as part of a US-wide project that we nicknamed the Yard Futures Project.


Photo © Benjamin Vogt

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. This question is critically important because, even as residential areas continue to expand, we don’t understand much about their ecology. We suspect, however, that collectively they could play vitally-important roles when it comes to supporting biodiversity and natural—or ecosystem—services, such as lowering air temperatures or reducing nutrient runoff.

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Photo © Christopher Neill

Within each metropolitan region, research teams visit yards that fall into four categories, or “treatments:”

(1) typical passive homeowner-conducted management without fertilizer or pesticides

(2) intensive management with fertilizer and hiring of a lawn-care company

(3) wildlife-friendly management that includes certification by the National Wildlife Federation

(4) hydrological management that includes specific activities to reduce water use or water runoff

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Photo ©

In each place, teams 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 abut [read more about why this is important]. 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 liveopen_in_newopen_in_new.

CUNY Advanced Science Research Center

Photo © CUNY Advanced Science Research Center

The 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.

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Photo © Otis Wheeler

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 more homogeneous microclimates, plant communities and nutrient cycling patternsopen_in_new. The sheer size of residential areas managed in similar ways–even across cities with very different social and cultural identities–has created, what these researchers refer to as, the ‘American residential macrosystem.’

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Photo © breanna

Our new project has another exciting collaborator—Habitat Network. Beginning with this article, members of our project’s science team will contribute insights about what we have learned—and what we are learning with our new studies—to the Habitat Network’s Learn Pages. By teaming with Habitat Network we aim to explain some of the cool things we encounter. We are geeky scientists. We like interesting stories about how people—intentionally or not—change the world around them. The Habitat Network team will help us better tell those stories and get them into the hands of the tens of 1000s of people they work with who are interested enough in these issues to participate in their own residential ecology investigations.


Photo © Habitat Map

We also aim to collaborate scientifically. Habitat Network collects information on how thousands of homeowners organize and manage their yards. But in most cases—unless a home belongs to a crack ornithologist, botanist, or entomologist (or all three)—we can’t link information on structure to how the complex arrangements of birds, plants and insects responds to that organization and management. By comparing our scientist-created “yard maps” to our detailed inventories of species and ecological responses, we aim to make Habitat Network’s ever-expanding data on yard structures a more useful predictor of biodiversity across U.S. suburban regions.


Photo © Benjamin Vogt

Ultimately our project and Habitat Network share the same broad goal—to help suburban landscapes support more biodiversity and provide more of the ecosystem services that make suburbs enjoyable places for people to live. We know residential landscapes are complicated and that the way homeowners manage in Phoenix might not have the same consequences as in Baltimore. 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–over more of the country.

Watch for our articles over the coming months…

The Yard Futures project team

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Photo ©