by Donna Iadipaolo
Studying Ann Arborites' relationship to their "urban forest" after the emerald ash borer outbreak, U-M natural resources prof MaryCarol Hunter became captivated by the gardens people planted in the easement between the sidewalk and street. Despite that "rough environment," she emails, "these gardens were full of personality and often harbored butterflies and birds. I also noticed that easement gardens seemed to pop up in pairs or be clustered on certain blocks."
In 2009, Hunter and her field team collected formal data on 22,562 properties. Eleven percent had "e-gardens," and as she suspected, they're often clustered. But it also became apparent that most weren't planted to replace trees lost to the ash borer, since "two-thirds of all e-gardens held at least one street tree."
This summer, Hunter mailed surveys to residents with and without e-gardens. She hopes the results will "shed some light on why the easement gardens have a contagious spatial distribution. For example, are people learning from one another or imitating one another? Is garden style based on normative views of place--that is, people's ideas about what a front lawn and a neighborhood should look like?"
One thing is certain: residents have been creating a wide variety of e-gardens for longer than Hunter has been making them the topic of scholarly study. Rose, ornamental grass, butterfly, drought-tolerant, shade, native species, and a variety of other gardens continue to proliferate in the easements around town. And, she notes, "Nearly half of the 2,500-plus gardens covered the entire easement area--suggesting great enthusiasm for the process."
[Originally published in August, 2012.]
On August 26, 2012, Kevin Hawkins wrote:
I often wondered what to call that strip of land between the sidewalk and the street since the only term I knew is one I learned from an Australian friend: a "garden strip", where "garden" is used in the Australian sense to mean something roughly equivalent to the American "yard" (as in "in our back yard"). But now the term seems even more appropriate!
In any case, those planting gardens in the easement should keep in mind the meaning of easement: a certain right to use property without possessing it. As I understand it, the local government owns the sidewalk easement and can thus plant a tree in your garden or tear it up to repave the street. So as much as I admire people's e-gardens, I wouldn't become too attached to anything you plant!