Ambiguity and clarity in residential yard ordinances across metropolitan areas in the United States

Jesse M Engebretson, Kristen C. Nelson, Kelli L. Larson, Riley Andrade, Megan M. Wheeler, Susannah B. Lerman, Dexter H. Locke, Tara L.E. Trammell, Peter M. Groffman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite the social and ecological importance of residential spaces across the country, scant research examines urban yard management policies in the U.S. Governance scholarship points to the implementation challenges of navigating policy language. Our research provides an exploration of yard ordinance language, with implications for communities across the U.S. Specifically, we sought to determine whether—and in what instances—vegetation- and groundcover-related yard ordinances in the U.S. are ambiguous or clear. Our findings suggest that ordinances are often ambiguous when referring to the state or quality of the constituent parts that make up the residential yard (e.g., “neat” or “orderly”). Yet they are clear when providing guidance about what plant species are or are not allowed, or when articulating specific requirements regarding the size or dimensions of impervious surfaces and plants. We discuss the policy implications of these findings, especially in the context of how such policies may invite the subjective judgment by enforcers, leaving open the potential for discriminatory enforcement, especially with regard to marginalized communities where different cultural values and esthetics may be expressed in yards.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Urban Affairs
StatePublished - Apr 14 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the Macrosystems Biology Program (US NSF) under Grants EF-1065548, -1065737, -1065740, -1065741, -1065772, -1065785, -1065831, and -121238320 and the NIFA McIntire-Stennis 1000343 MIN-42-051. The work arose from research funded by grants from the NSF LTER program for Baltimore (DEB-0423476); Phoenix (BCS-1026865, DEB-0423704, and DEB-9714833); Plum Island, Boston (OCE-1058747 and 1238212); Cedar Creek, Minneapolis–St. Paul (DEB-0620652); and Florida Coastal Everglades, Miami (DBI-0620409). We also thank Ashlee Tziganu for compiling ordinance data. The findings and conclusions in this publication are those of the authors and should not be construed to represent any official USDA or U.S. Government determination or policy.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Urban Affairs Association.


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