How to de-fragment the land

By Tom Chase

Habitat fragmentation poses one of the most difficult problems for communities adapting to climate change. Where the landscape is broken up by housing development, industry, agriculture, and roads, it becomes increasingly difficult for plant and animal populations to move to suitable habitat as the climate dictates. Biodiversity and bio-abundance declines, and with them ecosystem services the render, such as pest and pathogen reduction, soil development, water purification, pollination and so on. For these reasons, conservation biologists have placed great emphasis on creating corridors for species to move. But what does a community do when those potential corridors have already been developed? I addressed one solution in my essay, “How to undevelop land.” Here I discuss another way to help restore ecosystem function: to make small fragments of land more productive than they naturally would be. This was my goal in helping to develop three programs.

Two of the programs were created while I was working for The Nature Conservancy ( The first was a community-based pilot program on Martha’s Vineyard, called the Vineyard Habitat Network, created with my colleague Matt Pelikan. The second was web-based program co-developed with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, called the Habitat  Network (( program is active any longer, which led me to ponder how a community-based program might be rendered sustainable – both financially and institutionally. Based on experiences gained from both programs, Village and Wilderness collaborated with BiodiversityWorks to create a program intended to be both replicable and sustainable at the community level, called Natural Neighbors (

Programs like these are emerging everywhere and are part of a larger movement to convert small fragments of land into useful habitat. They may have different but often overlapping goals, such as landscaping with native plants, creating habitat for pollinators, providing urban shade, protecting groundwater, or helping targeted species such as Monarch butterflies and bats. However, because there is no central resource, many emerging programs are forced to reinvent strategies that have already been tested elsewhere. Even well-established programs have programs have problems, but not solutions, in common. For some, there are examples of solutions. Others remain to be created. Example of both include the following:
  • How to fund a program
  • How to develop a sustainable supply of local-genotype nativeplants
  • How to remove invasive species
  • How to develop a volunteer labor force
  • How to build a socially contagious program
  • How to monitor ecological impacts, at both the property and
    ecosystem scales
  • How to effectively work in disadvantaged communities

Village and Wilderness is developing a network of practitioners, be they from established or emerging programs. We will survey the practitioners to prioritize problems and identify the solutions that have already been proven successful, and those that have yet to be developed. Our goal is to develop a portfolio of case studies of different solutions, from which programs can pick those that best suit their community and circumstances. We will report those on our Tools and Insights page. Another goal is help to help partners develop new strategies. A third goal is to encourage collaboration and the exchange of ideas and expertise across the network (more information may be found on our Contact page).

What we report here is summary of the Village and Wilderness approach, the threads of which run through all the programs we have helped developed. To see how the Natural Neighbors is evolving as that program evolves and adapts, I encourage you to follow their progress and newsletter (

Our Approach:

Theory of change

In all our programs, our theory of change was that if enough owners managed their yards correctly, then a community could produce enough “workhorse species” to restore ecosystem functions in a fragmented landscape, even as climate changes.

Restoring ecosystem function, not natural communities

Though possibly unavoidable, the word “restoration” is slightly problematic here. Our goals were easily confused with those of ecological restoration, which typically aims to restore plant and animal communities in natural areas. While many yards can indeed be beneficially landscaped with the plants that were formerly native to it, most are too small to support enough of the constituent animal species to sustain a natural community. Besides, the surrounding landscape is, by definition, not natural anyway. (Mary Reynolds coined a apt term for re-naturalizing small spaces to the extent possible: “arking” Our goals for Natural Neighbors were to restore ecosystem services not in individual spaces, but through the aggregated impact of many yards across the fragmented landscape.

Restoring ecosystem function, not natural communities

Our training in wildlife management and habitat restoration naturally biased us towards rare species. However, in Natural Neighbors we were trying to restore ecosystem function, and that meant a focus on those species that did the bulk of the ecosystem’s work. Examples include pollinators and small predators that were normally abundant in natural areas, but which had declined significantly in the fragmented landscape. (Rare species are important for biodiversity but often play a minor role in ecosystem function, because they are, by definition, rare. Also, they often required larger and more natural communities.) Exceptions in our management recommendations did occur, for example, when a rare plant was discovered in neglected corner of a yard, or where a property was found to host an endangered animal, such as Northern Long-eared bats or a locally rare snake species. This happened more often than we had at first imagined, a benefit of close inspection by trained biologists. While sometimes we recommended practices to benefit selected species, in practice we most often advocated three general practices where space allowed: provide water, cover and a diversity of native plants.

Converting ecological sinks to sources

Our goal was to convert yards from population sinks into population sources for workhorse species. Put another way, our goal was not simply to attract wild species to yards (as the popular media often puts it) but to export their progeny. We had to create metapopulations of workhorse species that could move across the fragmented landscape to fulfill their ecological roles, reproduce, and shift with the changing climate. The obvious problem was that the landscape surrounding most yards was highly lethal. And, because we could not connect yards into contiguous habitat, we had to make each yard’s productivity rate outpace the fragmented landscape’s mortality rate. For example, if a busy road might result in 9 out of 10 young turtles being crushed, and at least two are required for the population to persist, then the goal of the Natural Neighbor’s yard might be to produce 20.

To achieve this, our approach was to make properties “hyper-productive,” mimicking the concentrations of abundance and diversity one sees in natural communities.  We did this by juxtaposing the resources that a species needed to reproduce, thus minimizing the need for adult breeders to emigrate.  In practice most property recommendations were generic: provide water, cover, and increase the diversity of native plants.  However, in many cases, where there were species of interest in the yard or the neighborhood, we would recommend practices targeted for them, such as installing hibernacula for bats for snakes.  (See below on how we customized recommendations.)

The ecological scale: the local landscape

Our concern was where landscape fragmentation impacted ecosystem function, that is, within the geographic range of most workhorse species, and at the scale where human communities acutely feel the impacts of a changing climate. This scale may range from small ecosystems (such as islands) to large watersheds. This influenced our program in two ways. One, we did not consider habitat connectivity over very large ecosystems (e.g., the inspiring Yellowstone_to_Yukon_Conservation_Initiative). Two, while we recognized the importance of large-scale ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, we avoided exaggerating the benefits of practices, such as tree-planting, in small spaces. Critical though such practices are to mitigate climate change, they are more authentically achieved in large scale applications, such as forest and wetland protection. The practices we promoted were those that could be implemented in the individual yard and, in the aggregate, effective at the landscape-scale.

Customized Recommendations

One of the shortcomings of the online Habitat Network was that we could only supply generic information and advice, such as landscaping with native plants or how to manage for pollinators. However, plants native to the desert are different from those native to the Eastern Woodlands. Pollinators that might thrive in a suburban yard are different than those that might survive in an urban lot. And we couldn’t expect someone with a snake phobia to install a hibernaculum, or someone with few means to hire a landscaper designer. We reasoned that the most useful recommendations would be customized to the local ecosystem, the neighborhood, the targeted species, and the interests and capabilities of the individual property owner. Thus, we hired and trained biologist to analyze the neighborhood’s potential, visit individual properties with the owners and customize the optimal recommendations.
Another reason we opted for highly customized recommendations was to encourage follow-through. We found that participation was greater when owners had locally-specific information. For example, general suggestions to landscape with native plants were less helpful than naming individual species. And suggesting where to find them (such as “ask your local native plant society”), was more like to be acted on when we gave the name of the nursery.

Accentuate the positive

A tenet of our programs has been to assiduously advocate for practices we encourage and not against those that are notoriously harmful, however grating they may be. Examples are property owners who let their cats roam free, provide nest boxes for nonnative birds or plant invasive plants. The quickest way to alienate a property owner is to make them feel judged. The surest way to encourage them is to recommend practices that won’t be countered by these negative behaviors (e.g., don’t feed birds where cats are loose) and, simultaneously, show them the benefits of other recommendations (bees that increase with more native plants). Sometimes, once someone sees how much good can come of a positive practice, they are individually motivated to curtail a negative one. Conversion of properties from sinks to sources is as much a personal as it is an ecological journey.

Related, we have found it important to not let property owners feel shamed because the don’t have a large yard, or because they acquired a very manicured one.  We emphasize that anyone, anywhere can contribute to restoring ecosystem function.  A few plants grown on a balcony can yield hundreds or thousands of seeds for other sites.  An urban site can be an excellent lot to grow plants that are otherwise preferentially over-browsed by deer in a suburban setting.

Sustainable Funding

Customizing recommendations to the individual property is labor intensive and, therefore, expensive if one is hiring staff to do it. For the Vineyard Habitat Network, this raised the question of where to get donations, a problem that was further exacerbated because our program aimed at the fragmented and least affluent parts of our community. We directed our attention there first, even though the properties with the highest biodiversity were the larger ones. However, we feared that if we engaged those generally wealthier owners at the outset, then the program might get branded as an elitist initiative and impair our ability to engage less affluent and ideologically conservative owners. As it happened, however, the program spread by word of mouth to more affluent property owners on its own, many of whom were pleased to donate to the program not only for its ecological goals but also for its egalitarian approach. In the first year the program registered over 100 participants, representing over 400 acres of land, and yet its popularity increased in with working class neighborhoods. Conceivably, in less affluent areas, one might staff a program volunteers, who might be trained with grant funding. However, whether short-term grants can sustain a program of sufficient duration is unknown to us.

Duration and Funding

To have meaningful ecological impact, we imagined that creating a network of source habitats would be a long-term process, perhaps taking generations of time.  This perspective imposed two considerations.  One, that our goals were not simply to recruit enough yards, but to engage enough people over time to influence what we called a “culture of stewardship” in the community.

Two, we abandoned the assumption that yards, like conservation lands, must be permanently protected to be of value.  We realized that when properties are transferred to new owners, the re-naturalizing work may be destroyed in some.  While we were gratified to see evidence that re-naturalized properties tended to attract like-minded new owners, we didn’t count on it.  Instead, our goal was to continually increase the number of participating properties over time so that, for example, if one property was lost two others might be created.  The point was to grow a network of source habitats to restore ecosystem functionality, not to preserve individual lands.

Duration and Funding

Just as recommendations need to be customized to each property, each program needs to be customized to its community. What works in an affluent, relatively natural, and generally liberal community like Martha’s Vineyard may not work well in an urban center or in ideologically conservative communities. Therefore, there is no “right” way to re-naturalize a fragmented landscape. Each program needs to start where their community and its people are now, and grow both their naturalized fragments and culture of stewardship from there. For example, in some urban areas the culture change may start with street scaping with shade trees. Communities and ecosystems fragmented by agriculture may start with providing habitat for huntable game or pollinators. It is for this reason that Village and Wilderness will present as wide a portfolio as possible on different strategies suitable for different communities and circumstances.

The case for humility

In all three programs that we have been part of, recommendations have been made with increasing humility.  One reason is ecological.  For reasons that are not clear, some plants and animals prosper in one yard but not in a seemingly identical one nearby.  We have sometimes speculated that it has to do with soil conditions, microclimates or the level of stewardship provided by the property owner, but we don’t know.  All we do know for certain is that much of our training has been developed in the well-established fields of wildlife management and habitat restoration of large lands and wild populations.  As a field, we know very little about how to make the most of tiny fragments of land, and yet most property owners look to us as “experts.”  This leads to a second reason for humility, and that is that quite often an enterprising property owner will develop a technique, undertake a practice, or see something that hadn’t occurred to us.  Re-naturalizing the fragmented landscape is a field ripe for the contribution of citizen science and skilled naturalists. If we listen to the property owners as we listen to what the land itself is telling us, then the community itself becomes an expert.

Outstanding questions

Many ecologists are understandably wary of advocating for practices that have not yet been thoroughly vetted by scientific research.  For example, how many yards are needed, and in what condition, to restore ecosystem function is unknown – assuming it is possible at all.  We make recommendations based on the best available evidence such as Desiree Narango’s research (, which showed that yards landscaped with native plants produced more chickadees than those without, so it follows that more yards can be more productive.  But how many yards need to establish practices to have meaningful ecological impact at the landscape scale is a critical question.  Analogously, how many community participants will it take to make re-naturalized landscapes socially preferable?  How long will they have to participate to develop a culture of stewardship?  What are the most effective means of marketing these programs?  The answer to these and many other questions will benefit from peer-reviewed research in both the social and ecological spheres.  In the meantime, all programs may benefit from the sharing of experience and best practices among the practitioners themselves.

On the horizon

The world population will soon exceed 8 billion people who are increasingly moving towards the cities and their surroundings (  Habitat fragmentation is no longer a fringe suburban issue, but a global phenomenon – and a threat to biodiversity, ecosystem function, climate adaptation and ultimately human welfare.  In response, there appears to be a large movement underway to convert small landscape fragments into useful habitat.  The scale, goals and audience of related programs are quite diverse, ranging from community-based to national, general environmental to species-specific, urban to rural.  As varied as they are, these programs face similar problems such as how to fund, market and staff them.  There are myriad technical problems that remain to be solved, ranging from how to develop a reliable source of native plants, or how to monitor the effects of practices from the scale of the individual site to the surrounding landscape and ecosystem.

The case for a network of community-based programs

For reasons I’ve outline here, Village and Wilderness believes that there need to be more community-scale programs, for both ecological and sociological reasons.   International, national, and statewide programs are essential for achieving the broadest reach to the individual property owners, but the most effective recommendations will be customized to the local ecosystem, community, and individual property.  A problem with such local customization is that no two communities are alike.  Therefore, there needs to be menu of strategies that both established and aspiring programs can draw from to create programs that fit their individual circumstances.  Likewise, there needs to be a source that can help programs develop new strategies and share them.  That is Village and Wilderness’s goal, to build a platform for a network of practitioners, scientists, and other experts to develop new strategies and share best practices.  If you or your program – be it established or still just and idea – would like to join this network, please reach out to us via our Contact page.

Thank you for reading.