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BACKYARDS ARE HIGHLY OVERRATED
by: Laura Vanderkam
With the housing market perking up, we’re mostly in search of the home with outdoor space. Problem is, we spend more time indoors.
After a dreary few years, the housing market is showing signs of life. A mid-September report from the National Association of Realtors found that home resales rose 7.8% in August from a year before. New housing starts are up, too, which has people thinking about what kind of space they’d like to live in. One major focus of this question? The great outdoors.
According to a survey by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), 64% of architecture firms are reporting increased interest in outdoor living spaces: places for adults to relax; places for the kids to play. People want “a luxurious outdoor world, to get away from their everyday lives at home instead of having to go somewhere,” says Janet Bloomberg, with KUBE Architecture.
There’s just one problem: Evidence shows that for all we lust after outdoor sanctuaries, such retreats have little to do with the lives we actually live. Neither adults nor children spend much leisure time outdoors, and in making the trade-offs to have private outdoor space, we could be making ourselves less happy overall.
Anyone who studies how Americans spend their time eventually comes to a stark conclusion: Impressions and reality differ a great deal. A fascinating book published this summer, which came to a similar discovery, was Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, the result of an anthropological study of middle-class Los Angeles families. Researchers from UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families recorded hours of footage, documented possessions, and clocked how people spent their days to the minute.
Few of those minutes turn out to be spent outside.
Children averaged fewer than 40 minutes per week in their yards. Adults spent less than 15 minutes of time per week in their yards. These families had sunny Southern California weather. They had nice porch furniture, trampolines, even pools. They just didn’t use them. Many families told researchers that they used their backyards all the time, but then were rarely observed out there in this multiyear study.
THE GREAT INDOORS
Jeanne Arnold, one of the lead researchers, pinpoints two main culprits: first, general busy schedules (work, school, activities); but second, the prevalence of media options, which “seem like magnets, whether it’s television or computers or video game consoles.” Rather than use their outdoor retreats, people would retreat by turning on a screen. People don’t like this image of their lives. So they don’t acknowledge it -- to researchers, or with their budgets.
“They’re willing to spend to sort of perpetuate that illusion,” says Arnold. By having nice yards, pools and decks, they could “attempt to project something that’s not necessarily going on, but is clearly ideal” -- a family that spends time together outside.
All this would be humorous, except that yards come with externalities. A family moves to the exurbs for a private patch of green. But to buy less than six minutes a day of play and 2 minutes of adult leisure, the parents pay with increased commutes. The Census reports that the average commute is about 50 minutes a day, and battling traffic seldom makes people happy. One 2004 study in Science of Texas working women found that commuting ranked at the absolute bottom of the happiness scale on any given day.
To be sure, even if a backyard isn’t used, it can still bring happiness. Leonard Kady, chairman of the AIA’s Small Project Practitioners group, notes that “you’re always looking into the space.”
But the broader point is that, while a private, beautiful yard seems part of the American dream, Americans spend little time using those yards we pay dearly to get and upgrade. If the kids are just going to play Nintendo, or you’re just going to watch TV, better to live close to work, even if there’s no yard, so you can be home more to enjoy the screens.
Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.