Part 2: Easement Gardens Around town growing for environmental, aesthetic reasons


I interviewed U-M Natural Resources professor MaryCarol Hunter in 2012, who conducted a study where she noticed the relationship between “urban forests” in Ann Arbor after the Emerald Ash Borer outbreaks.

Hunter uses the terms “urban forest,” “easement gardens,” “e-gardens,” and “street-side gardens” interchangeably.

“I began to notice street-side gardens that were interesting to look at and often harbored butterflies and birds. I also noticed that the easement gardens seemed to pop up in pairs or be clusters on certain blocks,” explained Hunter.

“This intrigued me because this strip of land between the street and sidewalk is a rough environment for gardening,” Hunter described. “For awhile I suspected that my perception of easement garden clustering was a product of my own bias. You know, once something interesting comes to your attention you become over-sensitive to its presence. I had to find out what was going on because if e-gardens truly occurred in clusters, there was valuable research to be done on why this would be the case. If it turned out that social contagion was in play, there would be implications for using neighbor to neighbor transmission capacity for the spread of this and other behaviors that support urban ecosystems and sense of place.”

Prof. Hunter gathered a scientific sample of over 20,000 properties in Ann Arbor. She found 10 percent of these properties had easement gardens.

Hunter also targeted specific Ann Arbor residents with mailed surveys. She discovered that the e-gardens were not a response to the loss of the Emerald Ash Borer, but then inquired about other possible reasons. One possibility might be that people have become more environmentally conscious again, another possibility might be e-gardens simply allowed them more room for a recreational hobby.

One of the more important requirements is that regarding flowers’ height: “Flower tops of plants may extend as high as 42 inches, provided viewlines are not obstructed.”

Hunter said that her study might be used to see how such e-gardens might be promoted in other areas.

“The results of our study of easement garden distribution can be used to think about what might constitute efficient ways to amplify the culture of sustainability behavior in urban areas,” according to Hunter. “The clustering of easement gardens and their potential for contagious expansion along the street corridors of a city like Ann Arbor suggests a way to support the known benefits of urban nature for human wellbeing and environmental health. The collective action of the community can contribute to the development of a more ecologically resilient urban green network.”

There are more specific details that Hunter has noticed in her studies of e-gardens as well.

“Three-quarters (of e-gardens) were dominated by flowering herbaceous perennials while the remaining 25 percent were more structurally diverse, holding a mix of herbaceous perennial, shrubs, ornamental grasses and edibles. There were some very interesting non-plant design components occurred in 15 percent of the e-gardens,” according to Hunter. “Additions included statues or reflective balls (15 percent of all gardens), borders of rock, brick, or rubber (29 percent of all gardens), and decorative mulches (35 percent of all gardens). Then there were the gnomes (difficult to count because they always seem to be on the move).  One of the most striking additions occurred on a corner lot property which was dotted from end to end with huge boulders of diverse geologic origin. In general, anything that revealed personality or non-traditional creativity was perceived by me and my field research team – Samantha Gibbes and Julia Gankin, as distinct sign of effort and care.”

There were also areas that have more e-gardens in Ann Arbor then others.

“I will say that there is a high density of easement gardens on the Old West side, starting around 1st– 2nd avenue, beyond the ice cream shop,” according to Hunter.

In the future, e-gardens could be part of what helps save cities around the world.

“Social contagion might be exploited to support the spread of stewardship activity in cities. Understanding the factors that encourage the spread of gardening within cities may help planners facilitate healthier and more biodiverse urban communities,” according to Hunter. “Since an increasing proportion of the world’s population lives in cities, the collective per capita effect of environmental stewardship efforts by city dwellers could have a greater impact on sustaining natural systems than conservation and restoration efforts in the wildlands.”

This is Part 2 of a three-part series from WeLoveAnnArbor by local writer Donna Marie Iadipaolo focusing on the growing number of easement gardens proliferating around Ann Arbor.   

Donna Marie Iadipaolo (M.A., M.S.) is a professional educator and journalist and a regular contributor to 

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