A front yard has a curious quality. It’s private property, yet feels public — or at least permeable — to passersby. It may be bounded by a low hedge or mounds of hosta, but such an edge seems more a border than a barrier.
Ursula Lang says that yards are “a kind of connective tissue” for a street, individual spaces that somehow seem part of a whole.
We know which yard bristles with small American flags on national holidays, which one hosts the bouncy castle for the block party, which has a water dish for passing dogs and which sports the first snowman.
Yet this shared knowledge is so ordinary, we tend to underestimate its value.
Lang, an instructor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota, studied the social life of yards for her dissertation, “Cultivating Everyday Life: Yards, Nature and Time in the City.”
Academically, she was observing “cultural geography,” or the study of how people and spaces interact. She then discovered that few researchers had studied yards.
Lawns? Oh, please. We’ve long dissected them as windows into our psyches, parsing mowing patterns, chemical philosophies, landscaping tastes and economic standing.
A yard, Lang said, is different. While a lawn is an expanse of grass, a yard is a space, from street curb to treetops to the front steps. For generations, she said, people had yards because they needed a place for outhouses, or to dump coal ashes. During the Cold War, a yard offered a place to dig a bomb shelter, and became a property to defend.
Today, yards have evolved from a necessity to a lifestyle choice.
But they still have purpose.
Touching, always touching
“Yards can be understood as places of encounter,” said Lang, whose urban focus meant that the yards in her study were modest in size.
A front yard offers a stage for the curious relationship that plays out among neighbors. They may not be dinner-party friends, yet they likely see one another more often, sometimes even glimpsed in their bathrobes. They may have wildly disparate livelihoods, yet have a common interest in these shoulder-to-shoulder plots of property.
Sitting on a front porch can put residents at some remove, with neighbors waiting for a beckoning wave. But plopped in the grass pulling weeds or taking a breather while mowing signals sociability.
“A back yard is a private oasis,” Lang said. “Front is for the neighbors.”
Lang began by identifying three distinct neighborhoods in northeast, north and south Minneapolis. She handed out fliers, asking if people would be open to talking about what they did in their yards. She ended up with about 50 self-selected owners.
“Basically, I began every visit by saying, ‘Show me your yard,’ and then followed them around,” she said. She noted what they considered important and what they glossed over. Almost always, she noticed a physical bond between people and their yards.
“Touch was so important,” she said. “People were always touching their plants as we walked, cupping a flower or running leaves between their fingers.” She saw that through the physical connection that comes with its cultivation, a yard becomes more than a place of chores, but of retreat.
As Lang wrote: “These experiences point toward the importance of a need and desire for pause points in daily life — times to notice things, to be in and of the landscape, to think about plant bodies, to watch and wait and be attuned to surroundings, and to simply be outdoors. Yards become places of and for everyday inhabitation.”
Sharing a collective pride
As part of her study, Lang would sketch their garden plans and help them mulch. She asked them to keep a yard journal of what they did in a day. (Weeding, mostly.)
She returned to see how the yards changed with the season or the time of day, and sat out front as neighbors passed, chatted, moved on.
One epiphany: “Property boundaries of yards are not as firm as legal boundaries. People shared tools and divided plants. Some opened their fences to create a shared space with their neighbors.”
Becoming a confident gardener emerged as a concern. Lang found that everyone knew the knowledgeable neighbors to whom they could turn for advice, and looked to them to set the tone for what a nice yard looks like, whether inspirational or aspirational.
Neighbors even took a collective pride in living near a yard known for its garden design, its front gate, its welcoming arrangement of lawn chairs. “There was the neighborhood sense of ownership, of being related to each yard.”
Likewise, there was a somewhat unexpected absence of resentment toward those who struggled to keep up with an avenue’s standard.
“I was sort of surprised at how compassionate people were about a yard if someone couldn’t maintain it,” Lang said. “Some people are under so much pressure, maybe there are family or health issues.”
Then she smiled: “At least that’s how it was explained to me as an outsider.”
If you run with Lang’s image of yards as the connective tissue, then a street begins to feel like a living thing, like something to greet whenever you turn onto it.
This feeling is a privilege, of course. As Lang hastened to point out, having a yard means that you can afford to have a house. Granted, the apartment and condo markets are surging with people who vow to never (or never again) do yardwork.
But on the flip side are those who aspire to pulling dandelions, tracing a strand of creeping Charlie to its gossamer roots or just mowing the grass.
“I’m hesitant to say it’s hard-wired in us, but there’s a great degree of pleasure and emotional connection in a yard,” Lang said. “It offers us a moment to pause and listen and smell and touch.”