Thursday, February 22, 2007

A UCLA Anthropologist's Study of Urban Land Use by Middle Class People in Los Angeles

Have you ever wondered what anthropologists do all day long? When I meet faculty from other departments, I often ask myself this question. What do you do? What is the hard part of your research job? Below, this post will reveal the answer for one set of social scientists.

This is interesting on a couple of different levels. Can you figure out what I mean?

L.A. Region's Garages and Backyards Suffering from Major

Identity Crisis, UCLA Research Shows

Forget hot tubs beckoning sybaritic adults, garages brimming with
impressive cars and families frolicking on verdant lawns. From their
clutter-strewn garages to their mostly lovely but abandoned yards, busy
Southern California parents who own their homes rarely use residential
outdoor spaces for the purposes for which they were designed, said a
UCLA anthropologist who participated an in-depth study of how the
average dual-income family really lives in Los Angeles.

"Middle class families in Southern California don't live the way you
might expect," said Jeanne Arnold, an anthropologist with UCLA's Center
for the Everyday Lives of Families and a UCLA professor of anthropology.
"Most parents in dual-income families never spend leisure time in their
yards, their children play outside much less than expected and most cars
can't fit in garages because they're too full of clutter from the

Five years ago, Arnold and a team of researchers set out to follow 32
families, all with young children, and with each parent holding a
full-time job. For four full days, Arnold's team tracked these families
at home, from the moment they rose to the moment they went to bed,
scrupulously documenting the ways they used their homes, yards and time.
In addition to videotaping family members at home during the four days,
including weekends, the research team recorded the activities and
whereabouts of each family member in the home at 10-minute intervals.
They produced photos and floor plans of the houses and yards, and family
members made self-narrated tours of their homes. The team accumulated so
much information that just processing the records took more than a month
per family. The first "material culture" analysis of these records will
appear in the March 2007 issue of the Journal of Family and Economic

Despite the fact that contemporary Americans now control the largest
amount of private space per person in the history of urban civilization,
the team documented what Arnold calls "a storage crisis" among the first
24 of 32 families studied.

"From construction materials to excess furniture and toys, storage of
material goods has become an overwhelming burden for most middle-class
families," said Arnold.

"We found items blocking driveways, cluttering backyard corners and
spilling out of garages," said Ursula Lang, an architect in Berkeley,
Calif., and a study co-author.

The trend is fueling an "identity crisis" for the region's garages,
which rapidly are being converted into multipurpose storage spaces for
household goods or people, "pushing cars once and for all out to the
driveways and streets," the study warned.

"Rarely do cars see the inside of the garage," Arnold noted.

Just six - or one-quarter - of the families tracked were able to use
their garage in the traditional manner by parking at least one car there
regularly. And of those, only three families parked both of the parents'
vehicles in the garage. The other three families were able to squeeze
just a single car into the garage before turning the remainder of the
space over to storage.

About one-third of the families had converted their garages in part or
in whole into living spaces. But almost every garage that was still
recognizable as a garage was "dominated by, if not overtaken by,"
storage needs, the study stated. In two-thirds of these cases,
researchers characterized the density of items stored in these garages
as "high." The only family that did not use its garage for storage of
some sort was upper-middle-class and owned a large home with two
generously sized interior storage spaces.

"The findings show that about 75 percent of middle-class Los Angeles
homeowners use garages in ways that preclude parking cars there," Arnold
said. "This pattern differs a bit in the harsher climes of the East and
Midwest, where families more often protect cars from foul weather and
where many homes have basements that can absorb some of a household's
demand for storage. But increasingly we think the pattern may emerge
there, too"

Ironically, much of the garage-stored material goes unused. Half of the
families never even visited the garage spaces during the study, and more
than half of those who did spent 10 minutes or less among the
possessions sequestered at such a considerable trade-off. The routine
raised flags for researchers.

"Trapped in an energy-draining work-and-spend cycle, many young
dual-earner families seem to fuel their stress and frustration by buying
more possessions than their homes can absorb, adding to their debt and
routinely conscripting crowded garage spaces to function as chaotic
storage rooms," Arnold said.

If garages were overused, the yards of middle-class homes had the
opposite problem. While the average backyard was two times the size of
the homes' interior, and families often invested in special features and
carefully maintained the spaces, use was limited.

Adults were barely recorded in their backyards during the observed
times, and when they did step through their backdoors, they did chores.
In fact, 13 of the 24 families - or slightly more than half - did not
spend any leisure time at all in the backyard during the four days of
observation. This finding included both parents and children.
Interestingly, researcher logged little or no use of the priciest
improvements (pools, play sets, and formal decks and patio spaces).

Parents in only four families - or one in six - spent an hour or more
eating or playing outside with their children or visitors. Children
didn't fare much better. In only six of the 24 families - 25 percent -
did youngsters spend an hour or more in the backyard during the four

"Relaxing in the backyard and extended play by children in the yard may
be cherished ideals, but they are rarely achieved among today's
time-stressed, electronically oriented families," Arnold said. "The
harried week of the dual-earner middle-class family - with job, commute,
keeping up the home, and structured activities for children on many
afternoons and weekends - allows little time for leisure outdoors."

Front yards were no more popular. Beyond fleeting exchanges between
neighbors or brief instances of children playing with a bike or ball in
the front, 20 of the 24 participating families spent no time to speak of
in their front yards. Only one family socialized on the front porch, a
once familiar activity in small-town America.

When families did linger in the front yard, they mostly carried out
chores, such as planting, weeding and pruning. And children who did
venture into the front yard tended not to play on the lush lawns that
the families went to great lengths to keep up. Against expectation,
little ones gravitated toward paved surfaces.

"Most kids' play in the front is on asphalt driveways, streets or
concrete sidewalks," Arnold said. "There were only a few instance of
play with tree-swings or bats and balls that carried onto the front
lawns. Indeed, the manicured lawns and formally landscaped areas in
front of quite a few of the houses seem to actively discourage play and
other rambunctious activity. They seemed to invite passersby to admire
the owner's good taste and conformity with neighborhood ideals."

Together with the low backyard use, the front yard patterns set off
alarms for the researchers.

"By any measure of intensity of use of middle-class homes, yard spaces
receive the least hours of use per square foot," Arnold said. "But the
disparity between the intensity of use of middle-class homes and the
yard space that surrounds them has probably never been as great as it is
today. More and more, the outdoor spaces at home do not seem to serve as
a regular outlet for the release of the stresses and strains of daily
life, especially for younger dual-earner parents."

To see an online version of the study, go to