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Apr. 29, 2014

Strategic Landscaping

By Erica Rascón, Contributing Editor

Since 2007, multifamily has enjoyed a market that favors owners. High demand and limited supply placed negotiating power in the hands of leasing agents and landlords. In cities such as San Francisco, San Diego, New York, and Seattle, long waitlists minimized the need for creative resident retention strategies.

As building permits increase this year and healthy competition is restored, multifamily must revisit resident retention practices. Luxury amenities, home automation technology, and quarterly vacation giveaways will certainly get tenants through the doors but none of those features are sustainable. Amenities and technology quickly become outdated, requiring costly upgrades, and it’s hard to find room in the budget for spectacular vacation packages.

What feature can increase tenant retention over the long term without significantly raising costs? Greenery. A series of studies suggests that renters can feel better about their communities and happier with themselves through strategic landscaping. Since most multifamily communities already have a line in the budget for landscaping, effective resident retention becomes a matter of additional planning rather than additional expenses.

According to a study released by Kansas State University, views of nature contribute to resident satisfaction by making residents feel happier and healthier. Research by Thomas Herzog, Stephen Kaplan, R.S. Ulrich and numerous others has concluded that residences in natural environments and urban environments with greenery are preferred to residences without nature nearby. The lush landscaping and interactive green spaces in such residences enhance tenants’ sense of health and wellbeing by reducing stress and anxiety, invigorating the senses, and ameliorating urban harshness.

The beneficial effects of nature apply to tenants of all ages. In “Visual Landscapes and Psychological Wellbeing” by Ulrich, green spaces demonstrably improved students’ focus, productivity and confidence before taking tests. Greenery also decreased students’ stress levels. Housing that can offer students better academic performance and stress mitigation will be an easy sell in a competitive market.

Mental Health and Function by University of Washington departments of Urban Forestry and Urban Greening Research compared seniors living in apartments with greenery to seniors without access to nature. Overall, seniors preferred greener communities. Seniors living near greenery used such spaces for recreation, exercise, and social interaction. As a result, they felt that green spaces contributed positively to their wellbeing, happiness and vitality. Seniors revealed a positive correlation between access to greenery and a diminished sense of loneliness, fewer cases of depression, and lower mortality rates.

Greenery can also improve resident retention by promoting peace among neighbors. In “Environment and Crime in the Inner City: Does Vegetation Reduce Crime?” Frances Kuo and William Sullivan discovered that tenants living in urban communities with vegetation nearby demonstrated significantly less aggression towards their neighbors than tenants living in urban environments devoid of nature. Likewise, Mental Health and Function released by University of Washington suggests that “a neighborhood that incorporates easily accessible green spaces into its design may also improve social cohesion and interaction” and “useable and safely accessible gardens or green spaces not only foster a sense of community, but also provide psychological benefits among its members.” This could be because greenery reduces stress. (More than 100 studies have demonstrated that stress reduction is a noted benefit associated with time in green spaces.) Less stress amongst residences leads to a more cooperative atmosphere in the community.

Residents who feel happy, healthy and in harmony with their neighbors are less likely to leave their rental communities. Even the occasional delayed maintenance visit or noisy neighbor can be taken in stride rather than causing residents to seek presumably greener pastures.

In some communities, though, crime is the leading cause of turnover. Kuo and Sullivan’s research also proposes that greenery can minimize violence and enhance residents’ sense of security. When the team examined apartments in inner-city neighborhoods, they found a correlation between a lack of vegetation and a high crime rate.

University of Washington departments of Urban Forestry and Urban Greening Research also explored the link between greenery and crime in Crime and Public Safety, determining that “public housing residents with nearby trees and natural landscapes reported 25 percent fewer acts of domestic aggression and violence” and “public housing buildings with greater amounts of vegetation had 52 percent fewer total crimes, 48 percent fewer property crimes, and 56 percent fewer violent crimes than buildings with low amounts of vegetation.” The studies conclude that “vegetation can be managed to create a reassuring environment, reduce fear, and increase citizen surveillance and defensible space.”

Ulrich’s “Visual Landscapes and Psychological Wellbeing” supports the notion that natural scenes reduced resident fear while creating a sense of safety and peace. Strategic landscaping could minimize resident turnover by actively dissuading crime and promoting an atmosphere of safety.

Lastly, Mental Health and Function proposes that contact with nature may help humans forge a connection to their biophysical environment; people feel greater loyalty to a space with greenery. If tenants feel that a building and its accompanying green space is part of their social environment, a positive place where they can thrive, they will feel a stronger connection to that building and they will be less likely to abandon it.

While scientists agree upon correlations between nature, health, and emotional wellbeing, there is no consensus on why such associations exist. The Overload and Arousal Theories suggest that built environments plague people with overstimulation, which leads to mental and physical fatigue. In contrast, controlled natural environments lack such stimulation and prove to be more relaxing and enjoyable. Learning and Cultural Theories propose that we learn to associate nature with positive memories like playing outside as children, sports teams, vacations and adventures. Conversely, we learn to associate built environments with noise, pollution, and crime. There are also theories that trace our interest in nature back to evolution, with nature being our home long before built environments. In any case, property owners can use the benefits of landscaping to their advantage with the assurance of positive results.

New construction will soon provide competition for existing properties, nudging resident retention strategies back into the foreground. Before you create a line in the budget for a dozen Alaskan cruises, consider the budget that you’ve already allocated for landscaping. Examine how you can enhance your existing greenery, adding practicality and visual interest. Also consider ways to transform unused space on the property into interactive green space such as a community garden or meditation pond. These small changes can offer big rewards, resulting in residents who are healthy, happy, amicable, and glad to call your multifamily community home.

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