From deforestation to the art of topiary, humans have a long history of altering their environments. But our environments, say scientists at Arizona State Univeristy, may also change us.

In a multi-year project called the “The North Desert Village Landscaping Experiment,” researchers transformed 24 identical family housing units on the Arizona State University campus in the Sonoran Desert, creating five mini-neighborhoods, each with a different landscape style. The multidisciplinary project, encompassing everything from sociology to ecology, allows scientists to observe how people’s behaviors and attitudes vary in response to different environmental characteristics.

“We think about how humans are always transforming the environment, whether we’re building new houses, or people in the rainforest are tearing down trees,” said ASU sociologist Scott Yabiku, one of the lead researchers on the project, which began in 2004. “But if we install different types of landscapes, will that change the way people think about their environment?”

The new landscapes are meant to represent those typically found in the Phoenix, Ariz. area, Yabiku said. For example, the “xeric” landscape contains low water-use plants, little grass, and a drip irrigation system, while the “mesic” is full of broadleaf trees that require flood irrigation. One neighborhood serves as an experimental control and remains unaltered, containing plants native to the desert.

After the landscapes were created in 2004, sociologists conducted preliminary interviews, asking residents to rate pictures of each style on a scale of one to four. They found people overwhelmingly preferred the greener views.

The results also showed landscape preference to be strongly correlated with gender: Women rated xeric and desert landscapes lower than men did. Researchers postulate that the difference in gender preference might be due to differences in labor responsibilities—such as yard work and childcare—between women and men.

The researchers fully expected these ratings to change during the course of the experiment, Yabiku said.

“We hypothesize that there will be an appreciation of landscapes now that people have been living in them,” Yabiku said. “So we expect these ratings of the desert and the xeric landscapes to increase over time.”

They also suspect that preferences are linked to factors like whether an individual recycles, or has the ability to identify birds and plants, as well as their attitudes about water issues.

The initial hypotheses being tested include whether ecological knowledge is higher in individuals who prefer native landscapes and whether more recreational activity occurs in more lush environments. 

Researchers are also analyzing how ecological factors, including microclimate and mammalian diversity, are affected by alterations in the landscape. Although not all the results are in, ecologists have already observed an increase in soil temperature during nighttime in landscapes with fewer plants. This supports the idea that surrounding a house with vegetation might lead to cooler climates, said Chris Martin, a biologist at ASU.

The study, which will continue until at least 2010, is a unique investigation into people’s social and ecological interests, which may sometimes be in conflict, said Scott Collins, a biologist at the University of New Mexico who is not involved in the project.

“Parents don’t like their kids going out and running into cactus thorn in their backyard,” Collins said. “So there are interesting contrasts between social needs or behavioral needs and ecological needs.”

Originally published August 30, 2006

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