Ambiguity and clarity in residential yard ordinances across metropolitan areas in the United States

Jesse M. Engebretson, Kristen C. Nelson, Kelli L. Larson, Riley Andrade, Megan M. Wheeler, Susannah B. Lerman, Dexter H. Locke, Tara L.E. Trammell, Peter M. Groffman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Despite the social and ecological importance of residential spaces across the country, scant research examines urban yard management policies in the U.S. Governance scholarship points to the implementation challenges of navigating policy language. Our research provides an exploration of yard ordinance language, with implications for communities across the U.S. Specifically, we sought to determine whether—and in what instances—vegetation- and groundcover-related yard ordinances in the U.S. are ambiguous or clear. Our findings suggest that ordinances are often ambiguous when referring to the state or quality of the constituent parts that make up the residential yard (e.g., “neat” or “orderly”). Yet they are clear when providing guidance about what plant species are or are not allowed, or when articulating specific requirements regarding the size or dimensions of impervious surfaces and plants. We discuss the policy implications of these findings, especially in the context of how such policies may invite the subjective judgment by enforcers, leaving open the potential for discriminatory enforcement, especially with regard to marginalized communities where different cultural values and esthetics may be expressed in yards.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1022-1039
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Urban Affairs
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Urban Studies


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