It's not easy being green in Phoenix, Arizona. The desert landscape is more likely to be brown or beige, dotted with the cacti and wildflowers that have adapted to the arid climate. But drive through any Phoenix suburb, and you'll see bluegrass lawns and lush green landscaping, the water-guzzling products of residents trying to re-create East Coast or California backyards.

For years, developers in the desert have believed that people inherently prefer grass and trees to cacti and short shrubs—so they covered the desert in turf and tall maples, which edged out native plants and demanded more water than the dry climate could produce. Now, however, urban planners and researchers are wondering if all that was necessary.

"We all know we change the environment," says Scott Yabiku, an assistant professor of sociology at Arizona State University. "But can the environment change us? Can people learn to like what's around them?"

To answer that question, Yabiku and his research partner, David Casagrande of Western Illinois University, have designed the North

Desert Village Landscaping Experiment. They've re-landscaped sections of the graduate student housing complex—which often shelters students with spouses and young children—on ASU's Polytechnic campus, creating five different environments where families will live, work, and play till the year 2010. The environments range from a water-loving landscape of turf and shade trees to a collection of native Arizona plants that won't be watered at all. 

Since their preliminary research began about a year ago, Yabiku and Casagrande have found that families prefer greener, heavily irrigated landscaping. Grassy recreation areas saw 44% more activity than non-grassy areas, and participants consistently chose the most lush landscapes as their favorites.

"They tell us in interview after interview after interview, 'I have kids and I need green grass for them to play on,'" says Casagrande.

And that's a problem. Larissa Larsen, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan's Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning, notes that among landscapers, incorporating native species into gardens and yards is becoming an increasingly common practice. And while people’s preference for turf and trees helps the movements for green space in New York City and rooftop gardens on big box stores in Chicago, it hampers initiatives to work with nature in the desert.

"One of the assumptions that policy people make is that if you give people desert environments, they will eventually learn to like that," Casagrande says. "But studies again and again show that the longer people live in desert areas, the more they want non-desert landscaping."

Can the North Desert Village prove those studies wrong? Where earlier research has relied on real-world observations, the North Desert Village provides researchers with the opportunity to manipulate environments and compare them to a control group. And they've already made one important discovery: although eco-friendly types weren't willing to give up sprinkler systems altogether, they didn't prefer the greenest of the green landscapes, either.

"People are making a compromise," says Casagrande. "People are trying to reconcile these competing interests in their mind—family, what their dog needs, what they've seen in pictures, with the knowledge that it's really dumb to have a landscape like this in the desert."

Looks like the environment is changing us already.

Story by Erika Villani. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2006.

Copyright Environ Press 2006

Going native
Embracing a brown and beige landscape is the greenest option for desert climates like Phoenix.