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Fall 2023: Biodiversity

Perspectives: Norm-Shifting for Win-Win Change

Kalyani Robbins


  • Discusses how societal progress requires change and letting go of the “norm.”
  • Looks at how the author constructed a biodiverse garden of native perennials specifically for butterflies and other pollinators. 
Perspectives: Norm-Shifting for Win-Win Change
thethomsn via Getty Images

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My family owns a home in Evanston, Illinois, a not-quite-suburb of Chicago. Evanston has a lively mixture of urban amenities, apartment buildings, and homes with sizable yards in portions of the town. We are fortunate to live in such a home, which sits on a busy corner for pedestrian traffic. Evanston is a socially progressive town, and the residents tend to be actively engaged in promoting equality and fighting oppression in all forms. People here are aware that societal inclusion benefits everyone, making it the type of win-win deal we should all strive for. This type of change may require, for some, letting go of the norms they grew up with, and accepting new ideas. Clinging to old ways of thinking and looking through outdated societal lenses makes something difficult that should be easy. Progress requires a fresh look.

Similarly, biodiversity can benefit from win-win changes requiring a bit of lens adjustment and norm shifting. This brings me back to our lovely Evanston yard. When we bought the house, the front yard was landscaped in classic American style, with an unsustainable monoculture lawn requiring constant and expensive maintenance lest it be overtaken by the powers of nature. Without our interference, nature might win that particular battle, but we humans have time and again demonstrated our dominance over nature in controlling our own parcels of land. In the suburbs, submission to nature for even a month can also result in a costly citation, as the human dominance over nature is systemically entrenched in city ordinances and homeowner association rules.

As if this awful lawn, with its onerous caretaking needs and boring appearance, were not bad enough, it was surrounded by box-cut hedges all the way around. As an experienced hiker, I can tell you that square is not the shape of any plant I have ever seen in the wild. In addition, these hedges were so high that if you sat in a chair the entire world was blocked from view. Forget people-watching to pass the time and forget saying any friendly hellos as people walk by on the sidewalks. You were fully enclosed in a fortress of monotonous green, where not even a butterfly would visit you.

I knew what I had to do as soon as we moved in; I ripped it all out and started over. After placing a walkway of irregular shaped stones through the now bare dirt, with two areas of added stones for benches, the entire yard was then filled with native perennials. I selected a mix of favorites for butterflies, favorites for bees and other pollinators, and some of my own aesthetic favorites—all of which will come back year after year with very little maintenance or expense.

This beautiful garden has grown in the two years since we planted it and has brought with it great diversity of wild inhabitants. It is just one spot, but it serves many, and in that way makes a small difference for biodiversity. This difference would be spectacular if enough homeowners made this type of change, which required no sacrifice. It is less expensive over time and the far more sustainable option. A garden like this brings great delight, not only to my own family, but to many other people, including the countless pedestrians who have since thanked me for providing additional beauty to the neighborhood. This native perennial landscape has been an absolute win-win deal for both biodiversity and us. There are other wild yards in the neighborhood, and I hope that ours may add to the collective shift toward including nature within the built environment.

Photography ©Kalyani Robbins

Photography ©Kalyani Robbins