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Operationalizing the social-ecological system framework to assess residential forest structure: a case study in Bloomington, Indiana

Mikaela L. Schmitt-Harsh, Department of Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies, James Madison University
Sarah K. Mincey, O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University


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Many actors, from the individual to neighborhood to municipal scale, influence the management of trees, grass, and other vegetation on residential properties. Recent work has been directed toward understanding the ecological characteristics of residential landscapes and the human drivers of landscape management; however, much of this work remains disciplinarily focused and at a single scale of analysis. This study employs a mixed-method approach to examine household- and neighborhood-scale drivers of urban residential tree species richness and tree canopy structure. A stratified sampling design was used to capture households in homeowners associations (HOAs) and neighborhood associations (NAs) to better understand the informal and formal institutions having an impact on residential tree management practices. We used the social-ecological system (SES) framework to build a classification system for identifying significant variables that influence residential tree composition and cover. Results of this work demonstrated tree species richness and canopy cover to be positively related to tree abundance and housing age, which is suggestive of the legacy effect. Governance variables were more strongly correlated with tree species richness whereas variables reflecting socioeconomic status and education were more strongly correlated with canopy cover. Rule compliance and fitting in with neighborhood landscaping norms was significantly more important to HOA households than NA households. Conversely, opportunities to work together to solve community problems were viewed more positively by NA households than HOA households. For all parcels together, compliance with city and HOA/NA rules was negatively related to tree species richness and canopy cover, a finding that may implicate the nature of rules that focus on tree removal practices and barriers to plant (what and where). This work is timely given the rapid expansion of neighborhood associations in urban areas, which parallels establishment of rules governing residential yard practices. If current arboriculture and urban forestry standards are considered during rule formation and implementation, such rules have the potential to promote species diversity and the sustained provisioning of ecosystem services.

Key words

institutions; interdisciplinary methods; residential tree diversity; social-ecological system (SES) framework

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087