Social scientists and ecologists in the Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES) and Central Arizona-Phoenix (CAP) long term ecological research (LTER) projects have investigated the social-environmental dynamics of residential landscapes for the past 20 years. Our ability to examine these landscapes emerges from the integration of hi-resolution landcover (<1m) and hi-resolution landownership data (parcels) for the entire urban mosaic. We have further focused on residential parcels using a combination of household surveys and ecological field surveys and monitoring. While residential lands may appear to be common, mundane, and uninteresting, they manifest fundamental social and ecological structures and processes, and exhibit multi-scale and long term behaviors that are surprisingly good opportunities for testing and integrating basic social and ecological theories.
Contrary to urban stereotypes, our analyses of urban landscape structure found that most trees and grass areas are found on private, residential lands and not public lands such as street trees and woodland and mown areas of parks. If we consider these trees as forests, and grass areas as an agricultural crop, then the dominant forester and farmer in urban areas is the residential landowner. Given other research showing that the extent of urban forests and urban lawns rivals the extent of rural forests and agricultural production in corn in the United States, it is quite possible that we have a new class of stewards of American lands. Further, our research shows that these lands are ecologically and socially significant. Residential lands are productive in terms of carbon and nutrient cycling, associated with plant diversity, and have microclimate effects. These lands also reflect past landuse histories and practices. The ecology of residential lands are also closely connected to social structures and processes. Formal and informal social norms affect residential land management practices and potential practices that might be adopted. Neighborhood cohesion and satisfaction are higher in areas with higher canopy cover. Social disorder, in terms of levels of crimes, decreases with increases in canopy cover and with levels of land management. Understanding these complex social-environmental dynamics may be key for promoting the stewardship of a potentially overlooked yet dominant component of the American landscape.