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We Are What We Landscape

Desert plants or lawn? Communicating identity through our front yard

No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns. Abraham Levitt (developer of Levittown, NY)

Unsplash, Vadam Sherbakov
Source: Unsplash, Vadam Sherbakov

Home and business owners in drought stricken California are painting their brown lawns green. With the wave of a sprayer wand, parched blades of grass instantly turn emerald. It's like dying grey hair back to its original hue; we read youth and vitality into colored locks.

What messages do we see in a lawn? Some scholars believe that the attraction is primal. Lush green foliage requires water and so do we. Perhaps the visage of a lawn with shrubs and trees gives us comfort because it signals that we can survive in this place.

Lawns have social meaning too. In the 17th century, European lords planted acres of grass, in part, to advertise their wealth, power, and the fact that they, unlike their subjects, had time to play. In her New Yorker article, Turf Wars, Elizabeth Kolbert quotes Abraham Levitt, American developer of Levittown, New York: “A fine carpet of green grass stamps the inhabitants as good neighbors, as desirable citizens.” From this perspective, we are what we plant.

Recently social psychologist Rebecca Neel and her colleagues (2014) tested this idea by exploring the meaning of low-water-use residential landscaping in desert cities in the southwestern United States. First, they surveyed the personal characteristics study participants attributed to fictitious people who favored dry or thirsty landscapes. University students aged 17-30, read a vignette about a man, woman or couple who were trying to choose a home. Half of the properties were landscaped with cacti and other desert plants (xeric) and half had grass, trees, and shrubs (mesic). The decision to purchase a home was ultimately based on the buyer’s landscape preference. After reading the story, participants were asked to rate the decision maker on several attributes and found that those who chose grass filled yards were deemed higher in status, more attractive, family oriented, more social, agreeable, creative, open, extraverted, and conscientious. Participants in a second study made similar appraisals across working, middle, or upper socioeconomic neighborhoods.

What happens if you reverse the perspective and measure what people believe they are saying about themselves through the design of their front yard? You get similar results. When 53 participants completed a survey asking whether they would choose mesic or xeric landscapes to convey a specific trait, they were more likely to choose grass, trees, and shrubs “to communicate higher social status, a more positive general impression, family orientation, political conservatism, femininity, religiousness, youthfulness, agreeableness, extraversion, and prosociality.”

Although Neel et al.’s (2014) three studies did not measure actual behavior, they illustrate that our choices seem to be energized by a need to broadcast our identity and be accepted by our friends and neighbors. We want to be Leavitt’s “desirable citizens.” For now, in the dog days of desert drought, when the cultural pulse still beats fast for grass, lawn painters may well be busy.

*Neel, R., Sadalla, E, Berlin, A., Ledlow, S., Neufeld, S. (2014). The social symbolism of water-conserving landscaping. Journal of Environmental Psychology 40, 49-56.