Ah the backyard – one of the most enduring symbols of suburban, middle class American life during the last 60 years. Television shows, movies, and even commercials constantly reinforce this vision as if anybody who is anybody should strive to someday have a backyard to call their own. But for people who do have backyards, do they actually use them, other than to keep it up with never-ending maintenance chores?

According to a study done last year by UCLA anthropology professor Jeanne E. Arnold and Berkeley architect Ursula A. Lang, most Angelinos indeed spend very little time in their backyards.

Some snippets from the UCLA Magazine article discussing the study:

More than half the families — including one whose 15,000-square-foot yard boasted a pool, patio, swing set, trampoline and baseball pitching machine — never relaxed or spent time there. In some cases, no one even stepped outside. These yards were often two and three times as large as families’ homes, noted study co-authors Jeanne E. Arnold, UCLA professor of anthropology, and Ursula A. Lang, a Berkeley architect, but they received “the least hours of use per square foot … Neither the parents nor families as a unit are enjoying very much time of any sort, much less leisure, in these spaces.”

Arnold points out that the CELF data matches analyses drawn from a larger sample of middle-class families across the U.S. Americans spend more than $40 billion a year to upgrade outdoor spaces — places they never actually use. The “why” lies at the intersection of culture, myth and protective self-delusion.

A national consumer survey by the Propane Education and Research Council found that “home improvement projects tend to be driven by an underlying emotional need. Building or renovating outdoor rooms illustrates our need to relax and reconnect with family and friends.” Creating an elaborate, fabulous (and expensive) back yard often “is a fantasy,” says Santa Monica landscape architect Joseph Marek, who finds the CELF findings “shocking, but not a surprise. People watch home and garden shows on TV and think ‘wouldn’t it be great to have that.’ They imagine ‘if we have a wonderful space in the yard, we’ll be out there more.’ But the reality is that everyone is too busy.”

On the other hand, part of the reason so many families don’t have time for leisure is that we’re working frantically to finance the massive amounts of consumer goods we buy — and that includes the $599 outdoor recliner, “impervious to the elements” Santa Barbara sectional ($3,890) or Outdoor Room with 65-inch pop-up plasma TV, fire pit and three weatherproof recliners — suggested retail price, $60,000.

In the end, our beautiful, empty yards have become one more casualty of life in a Digital Age. They have become, in fact, just like so many of our stainless-steel, professional quality, and equally unused kitchens: elaborate, rather sad, set pieces crafted for the lives we wish we had, rather than those we actually do.

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13 Responses to UCLA Study: People Don’t Use Their Backyards

  1. Chris Mora says:

    You know, I want to 100% agree with reasoning that people are up to the necks with bills so that is why they are working so much. Or they are sitting in front of the computer “ebaying” away.

    But I see it another way, whether I have a huge debt to pay or not, I still get home after the sun sets and I have a relatively “normal” schedule. One that over the decades has gone from an 8 hour 9-5 to a “just put in a few more hours” 9-7 job. I am on salary so extra hours do not benefit me in an way.

    This week I got home at a rare 5pm and it felt like I had all the time in the world to take my dog on a long walk and enjoy the daylight before I headed in for the night (to play video games of course… hahaha)

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  2. Ryan Sharp says:

    You’re right Chris - regardless of whether we have debts to pay or if we want to finance more “stuff”, the sheer number of hours we work makes it difficult for us to enjoy our free time.

    Two other quick points, though. Keep in mind that many people who have backyards are more likely to live further away from their jobs, which means longer commutes on top of all that work.

    I also believe that most people yearn to be around other people, and that usually means engaging public spaces over the backyard, whether that’s walking the dog down the street or spending time in a park.

    William Whyte said is best after his exhaustive studies of public spaces in NYC:

    “What attracts people most it would appear, is other people”.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Really sad, but true.

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  4. 295bus says:

    This isn’t very surprising. Houses have back yards because zoning requires it. In most US cities, you just can’t buy a house without having to buy a yard to go with it-whether you want to spend any time in it, or not.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    I have a large backyard in Pembroke Pines, I haven’t stepped more than a foot into it since 1999, excluding the hurricane preparations and cleanups.

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  6. JMD says:

    But I thought everyone wanted to live in a big suburban home with acres of green so they could spend all their time back there? (Yeah Right).
    Growing up the two houses I lived in both had small back yards and we rarely did we spend any time out there.
    Most of the time if you are in the back yard your on your porch or patio and that’s it.
    My wife and I have a nice sized patio at our apartment complex and the only time we use it besides walking through it is to use the BBQ which we do about once a year.

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  7. David says:

    I’ve also seen the same being true for condo balconies as well. Every building feels the need to have them and all buyers demand them but no one ever seems to step foot onto them.

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  8. looking up says:

    That “empty balcony” characteristic is something I have always noticed too. Even if the building is right on the ocean, I have hardly ever seen anyone in the balconies. One of the reasons I think this is so it’s because up there the wind must be almost intolerable. A friend of mine used to have some light patio furniture on a twentith floor and he would leave it at night in one corner and it would be on the opposite one in the morning. Or maybe no one wants to be in the balcony becuase of vertigo..who knows. In any case, they seem to be almost useless..

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  9. Adam says:

    Having long agreed that nobody uses their back yards, I recently moved to a house with a backyard on the river, and I use it every day! I would never meet my neighbors, except they are always out looking at the river too.

    The point, I think, is that the river is like a bustling street full of life and activity, and it is fun to watch. If I had a street with activity, I would build a giant front stoop to sit on.

    A good book about this and other interesting ideas about our cities is called _The Spaces Between Buildings_ by Larry R. Ford. I recommend it.

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  10. Ryan Sharp says:

    I think you make an excellent point, Adam. Thanks for your book rec.

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  11. willie says:

    Aside from the BBQ and occasional family gathering we hardly step foot in the yard. Must be the mosquitoes or something.

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  12. Adam says:

    I am fearing the mosquitos this summer. I think I might shell out the big money for one of those propane powered mosquito vacuums. I can’t bear spraying killer around.

    The whole “place-making” movement in America relies on giving people a shelter from the activity without doing what so many suburban and urban homes have done and totally erasing it. While I despise the “strap-on” balconies in yuppie-lofts, I absolutely love a real balcony in a building that really acts as a connection between the inside and the outside-letting you feel protected, but not removed from outside life. Those little strap-ons just aren’t comfortable to sit on because they aren’t created as an integral part of the space, unlike a nice southern plantation house or many other styles that have a huge porch as a perfect interface with the street.

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  13. Anonymous says:

    Great link, Ryan, thank you. I’m new to Miami and am wanting to like it, but my god does Miami need an Olmsted, someone to create a wide swath of destination-worthy public space (South Beach definitely qualifies). Most of Miami, esp. the Grove, is on lockdown (bizarrely cordoned off private residences with no activity aside from the multi-tasking dog-walker). I’ve also lived in an older community in Ohio where no one used the back yard, but everyone mowed it twice a week. Anyway, love your blog.

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