On Arizona State University's (ASU) Polytechnic campus, graduate student families in the cluster of six houses abutting lush lawns and ornamental bushes spend time together talking while their kids play outside. Meanwhile, the families in a nearby cluster of six homes barely know each other. But that may be in part because their homes sit on native Sonoran desert, not nearly as conducive to recreation as the lush microclimate researchers created in the first neighborhood. Social scientists and biophysical ecologists are finding that environmental surroundings may play a significant role in human social interaction, serving either as a social lubricant as in the first case, or as a barrier.
David Casagrande (Western Illinois University) and Scott Yabiku (ASU) and colleagues are part of the Central Arizona-Phoenix long term ecological research project. In 2004 and early 2005, the researchers installed residential landscapes at 24 of about 152 virtually identical housing units in the "North Desert Village" of ASU's campus. The scientists selected five "mini neighborhoods" (groups of six houses) and altered four of them, leaving the fifth as a control with no landscaping. The four landscaping styles were:
* mesic: shade trees and turf grass, dependent upon flood irrigation for their high water demands
* oasis: a mixture of high and low water-use plans and sprinkler-irrigated turf grass
* xeric: low water-use plants (both native and non-native), individually drip-watered
* native: Sonoran Desert plants and no supplemental water
"We wanted to explore how the surrounding landscape affects people, both in terms of their perceptions and their behavior," explains Yabiku. "Since human behavior ultimately transforms the environment, the feedback people get from their surroundings is important to understand."
The spectacular growth of Phoenix--which doubled twice in population size in the past 35 years--gives researchers a unique opportunity to monitor human-induced ecological transformations.
"Experimental approaches are rarely used in studies of human-environment interactions,' says Casagrande. "By combining research approaches from both the social and biophysical sciences, we can gain new insights into how peoples' surroundings affect them."
The study will run until at least 2010, but the results thus far suggest that even those individuals who grew up in the arid environment of Arizona prefer a more lush landscape conducive to recreation and social networking. In addition to the social interactions resulting from the different landscape designs, the researchers are also looking into residents' level of ecological knowledge, overall environmental values, and perceptions of landscapes. Yabiku and Casagrande hypothesize that residents' knowledge of flora and fauna will increase more in the mesic than in the native desert cluster.
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