Wednesday, October 1, 2014

To setback or not to setback, that is the question

As a kid growing up in a suburb, in a bungalow on a roughly 650-square-meter (around 7 000 square feet) lot, I learned young that the house I wanted in the future was one without a lawn. I thoroughly hated mowing the lawn and saw it as completely useless. Especially the front yard, that I saw as "too public to be an effective private space, and too private to be an effective public space". Yet bylaws made sure every house had to have a large front yard because of a mandated minimum setback, a distance between the building and the curb, and a duty to respect a building line to maintain harmony so that houses' facades are built on one single line.

From the point of view of creating a good cityscape, massive setbacks are counter-productive. Not only do they often reduce density by imposing deeper lots, but they go against the feeling of enclosure that makes walking and even just being in a place comfortable.
Sapporo, a low-rise residential area with great enclosure

Vaudreuil-Dorion, weak enclosure due to large setbacks and absence of mature trees
So, I'd like to ask a question:

To setback or not to setback?

First, what might the point of a setback be? When looking at the front yards of most North American homes, the answer seems to be: nothing. They are extremely rarely used for anything. Back yards are more useful and often house pools, parties with friends and the like, but the front yard is most often an empty space, just a bit of lawn, maybe one or two trees, and a driveway.

However, setbacks do serve some purpose even if they're not actively used.

For one, they provide a space between the street (public space) and the building to protect people's privacy. If you have no setback and you reside on the ground floor, you will be compelled to close the shutters in order to protect your privacy. This is seen especially in France where it's not rare for single-family homes to have essentially no setback despite having deep lots.

The result is that houses are almost built like besieged castles, with windows, at least on the ground floor, shuttered to protect the occupants' privacy. The walls are often bare of details. This is especially true in places where pedestrians are limited to sidewalks, thus being forced to hug the walls of buildings. With shared, narrow streets, this issue is less important as pedestrians can walk farther from buildings and are not forced to walk within arm's reach of the house's front wall.

The second purpose of the front yard is as a public facade. It allows people to participate in shaping the environment, for instance by decorating for Halloween or Christmas, or creating pleasant facades of their houses, like creating a display for themselves, some personalization of their home. I think it may be a very good thing to have in order to create a feeling of community and openness.

So I see the point for a setback for single-family houses, since there is a single owner of both the house and lot, the front yard is theirs to arrange how they see fit. For multi-family houses, setbacks aren't as important, most people tend to live over the ground floor and so do not require a setback to protect their privacy and the status of the front yard as a shared property or as the property of a non-occupant owner means that if there is one of some size, it is likely to be completely unused (a reversed tragedy of the commons if you will).

However that leaves the question about how large should a setback be?

Front yard or buffer?

It seems to me that most of recent setbacks are at least twice as deep as they need to be to fulfill their actual role. Looking at old single-family houses in North America built before the car, we can see that setbacks were much, much smaller, even when lots were very deep.
Burlington, Vermont
Charlesbourg, near Québec City
Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, a village in the Laurentides
Winston-Salem in North Carolina
In all these previous examples, we can see similarities. There is a setback in most cases, but it's about 3 meters on average (10 feet). Many of these houses also have porches as a physical buffer between the public realm (the sidewalk) and the private realm (the house).

 Now let's look at more recent developments:

The setback has basically tripled, from 3 meters to 10 meters on average (10 feet to 34 feet). What's interesting is that, though the space has increased, people will very rarely use that additional space, when they do some work to make their facade look good, they will concentrate on the area right next to their door and leave the front half of their front yard completely bare, or with only one tree.
The owner has planted flowers and shrubbery near the stairs to the door, but left alone all the rest of the front yard, apart from a single tree planted in the middle

What happened?

I think the car happened. This increase in the setback is no longer there to protect our privacy or to provide some space to build a facade, it exists to create a buffer between the building and the traffic on the street. Sometimes, they are used to park cars, but many houses have driveways built not in front of the house but to the side.

But still, cars happened in Japan and Europe too, yet they tolerate much smaller setbacks than we do, why? And why does it seem not to bother them?

The Netherlands

Sendai, Japan

United Kingdom
What do we do that is different from these countries and that leads us to build these huge buffers?
I think the main reason is that we have frequently built residential streets to the standards of highways, with lanes 3,5-meter wide (12-feet) plus shoulders, which is absolutely ludicrous in areas where there is plenty of off-street parking and therefore cars will only rarely be parked on the street. Shoulders as a whole do not belong in urban areas.

So we have too often designed residential streets as through streets rather than as access streets. They are built to allow easy car movement through an area by providing enough space to eliminate friction with other vehicles and street users. Without friction, cars move much faster, and fast-moving cars are more dangerous and noisier than slow-moving cars. It is natural that we would prefer to be further away from them. On the residential streets of Europe and Japan, cars generally go at speeds of 30 km/h and lower (20 mph and lower) because of the narrow streets and the presence of objects close to the roadway. 

Propose such streets in North America, and many people panic... yet, we have plenty of access streets that are also shared spaces in our cities, with narrow lanes and solid objects surrounding them. Want to know what I am talking about? This:

If this were a public street, it would be illegal, but it's a private access alley to a parking lot, so it's okay! Am I the only one who thinks that with a couple of trees, this would look great?

This entry into a parking lot is less than 6-meter wide, with curbs and fixed objects right next to the travel lanes

The average parking lot alley is about 6-meter (20-foot) wide, with cars right at the extremities, leaving a narrow corridor in which two cars passing each other will have to slow down. This corridor is also shared with pedestrians, making parking lot alleys a shared space. Yet in most cities, proposing 6-meter wide streets with trees right on the other side of the curb, that cars have to share with pedestrians, would likely give a few planners and engineers heart attacks. But these same people would likely have come to the meeting in cars, driven and walked in such "streets" without noticing when they parked their cars and walked to the building.

Granted, there are quite a few accidents in parking lots, but almost all of them involve cars parking or getting out of parking. Otherwise, the area is safe enough that people do not feel afraid of walking through parking lots, else no one would be driving anywhere!


Human-scaled setbacks are probably a good design for single-family homes in order to provide more privacy and a customizable space to the owner to allow them to participate in making the public realm more appealing, including participation in community celebrations (Halloween, Christmas, National days, etc...). But in most North American cities, most setbacks are much too deep as their true purpose is to create a buffer between traffic on the street and where people live. Much could be gained by narrowing the streets to make them access streets rather than through roads and reducing by half or more the current setback. Though hard to apply to built areas (well, you can narrow streets, but reducing setbacks would involve rebuilding every house), this needs to be taken to heart for new developments.

If anyone says such narrow streets are unacceptably dangerous, point out to parking lot alleys which are designed in almost the exact same way, but which no one seems scared of.


  1. Perhaps because so many places in North America are utterly car-dependent, driving tests are much easier than they are in Europe -- could that be one reason why US residential streets are so wide, to be safer for motorists with poor driving skills?

  2. I'd also add that the zoning codes which require such excessive setbacks also usually forbid anything but a very short and mostly transparent fence. You can't build a wall in your front yard to give some privacy or to buffer the traffic noise, which is something you do see a lot more of in Europe, at least on the busier streets. There's also much less of a tradition of hedgerows here, another effective screening measure.

  3. I vote "not setbacks"... or at least minimal setbacks. I live in a neighborhood with huge setbacks which actually get larger as you go down the street to the end of the cul-de-sac.

    The result is that neighbors don't know each other, everyone spends their weekends mowing, any decorations (flowers, pushes) tend to abut the houses not the street.

    No one trick-or-treats on the street even though there are plenty of households with children, and any halloween or xmas decorations that there are, are on the houses but rarely is there anything in the yards.

    1. I come from the same place... except Boucherville wasn't so bad, there were few cul-de-sac and plenty of trees, the average lot was around 20-meter wide (67 feet) and residential streets were 7- to 9-meter wide only (23- to 30-foot) so kids do trick-or-treat by walking. Well, they used to in my neighborhood, but the entire area was built in 2 or 3 years, so kids aged at the same time, and now there are hardly any kids left, most houses are occupied by empty-nesters.

      However, I've seen the other extreme and it's not necessarily nicer. In the older areas of Québec City, there is a lot of places with narrow streets and houses built on the curb, with doors opening on the sidewalk or the street. In the touristic Vieux-Québec, most of these areas are pedestrianized and have retail, but go into old working-class areas built the same way but where cars go through frequently and park on the street, and the story is VERY different. Since pedestrians are forced to hug the walls by the narrow sidewalks, property owners shutter the windows, transforming the houses into blank walls. There is no place to hang around, barely enough place to walk, and neither side, nor the houses nor the parked cars, are welcoming to humans. However, in Montréal, there are setbacks in early 20th-century areas, and sidewalks are larger, it's much more welcoming even if there is even more cars parked on the street.
      See this article I wrote earlier:

  4. Interesting post! Are you on twitter? I just shared it and wanted to tag you.

    1. Brandon, I have a subreddit which tries to aggregate a lot of these sorts of articles. If you're interested, check it out at

  5. In certain European countries (as well as Japan) where self-building is still common and where compact lots are offered for sale without any setback restrictions, front, back or rear, contemporary single-family or small multifamily homes still tend to have slight setbacks, but these are rarely planted with grass (it is typically either a stone patio or a parking pad, perhaps with some potted plants or ivy to soften it), and generally a substantial fence or wall is built along the property line, thereby maintaining an unbroken street wall.

    Like this:

    That seems to be the extent of the "market demand" for front setbacks where they aren't mandated. Generally, people prefer a larger house and more usable outdoor space when given the choice to make freely.

    The point about streets is well taken, although the idea of the large grass setback in the United States even predates the car. It was a uniquely American aesthetic vision of individual homes scattered among a single field of mown grass promoted by Alexander Jackson Downing and Frank J. Scott. It ultimately took two developments -- the legal development of mandatory setbacks via covenants and zoning, and the economic development of cars -- to make it a reality on a large scale.

    1. > Like this:

      That google maps link great not just because it shows more sensible urban sebacks and street widths, but because it also shows how the Japanese (tend to) build homes piecemeal instead of a huge tract developments at a time. As I understand it, empty plots will sometimes become ad-hoc parking spots until its bought.

      > It was a uniquely American aesthetic vision of individual homes scattered among a single field of mown grass promoted by Alexander Jackson Downing and Frank J. Scott.

      As I understand it, their inspirations were English estates which had long drives leading to the manor hour, and the pattern was cloned in miniature to smaller and smaller lots in the US.

    2. That reminds me of a cartoon I saw once or twice, maybe back in college, but which I haven't been able to find a copy of anywhere. It showed a typical suburban colonial revival like you'd see in a1970s subdivision. Each part of it had a little "dream bubble" of what it was trying to be but failing at. The front porch dreamed of being a grand Greek temple portico, the piers flanking the driveway dreamed of being a massive entry gate, the driveway dreamed of being a winding lane, the front-facing two-car garage dreamed of being a stately carriage house, the front lawn dreamed of being a rolling meadow, etc. Quite poignant.

    3. LOL, I just realized that the google maps was in Sicily, not Japan, but it looks rather similar, except for the wider and more poorly-paved street.

    4. That Sicily image could just as well be Mexico: some of the cities have wide streets, but houses tend to be built with minimal setbacks, and if anything, there's just a patio in the front, separated from the street by a wall.

    5. Here's a street view from Japan:

      Regular houses mixed with a small apartment complex, sitting next to empty lots awaiting new houses or apartments or businesses. Setbacks are small, houses are distinct, not cookie-cutter, but share some common patterns.

    6. Indeed, when people self-build, there's a tendency to sacrifice the front yard to have a bigger house or a bigger private back yard. Especially when there are already houses built very near the curb. In Japan, fences are extremely common, but it's extremely rare that buildings are built to the curb, they tend to be set back to provide a small front yard... except when the lot is too small and/or the owner chooses to set back the house by a good 6 meters (20 feet) in order to get two or three parking spots in a driveway pattern. You can see examples of this in Sendai here:

      (BTW, I must remember that place in Sendai, it shows perfectly the Japanese approach to density where it matters... the area is almost all single-family houses, except in the center, where the grocery is, where an 8-story big apartment bloc is built, and 4-story apartment blocs are built right across the street, and the street also has bus stops. Density where it matters, the highest density of people right next to the stores and the transit connections)

      Anyway, I think the large mandated setbacks in North America are quite excessive, but setbacks and front yards aren't all bad. The front yard is like a piece of the public realm that people own and can fashion as they wish. Practices like decorating the outside of the house for Halloween and Christmas I think are good at fostering some community spirit. And I could fathom some making the economic argument that a small setback regulation would be justified by the coordination problem and to avoid free riders: basically, when people beautify their front yard, they beautify the public realm, other people benefit from it probably more so than themselves, as they can hardly see their house when they are inside. So since it is an effort that benefits others, some may opt out and yet reap the rewards from the efforts of others that beautify their neighborhood.

      I'm not necessarily saying that legally-mandated setbacks are great or even good... but I'm more open to the idea that they may not be so bad than I used to be. But a 30-foot setback is more likely a buffer than a front yard, and is just wasted space. A 10- or 15-foot setback I feel I could live with.

      Especially since I saw what residential areas built to the curb with cars parked on the street look like. Quite frankly, they're terrible. I spoke more about it here:

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  7. Simon, I think the difference with the 6m Sendai setback is that the property line is the edge of the road, so it seems much smaller than a North American 6m setback because there isn't the extra 2-3 metres of grass boulevard between the property line and curb. That space, so beloved by engineers putting in servicing, is an especially damaging no man's land that often ends up with long grass and weeds (see UK example above).

    The examples that really work for me and have a nice balance between privacy and a sense of enclosure are the Japanese and German examples, where a solid fence is directly adjacent to the curb, without any "green space" between. In addition to reducing maintenance and wasted space, it provides visual interest and enclosure for passing pedestrians, and also forces vehicles to drastically reduce speed due to the same "enclosed" feel. It also allows the homeowner to choose from a range of yard choices in the 2-3 metres between the fence and the house. I saw many beautiful gardens during my years in Japan, but I also saw many low-maintenance gravel yards that acted as surplus storage - the benefit being that passers-by saw little of what was behind the fence except in cases where an avid gardener wanted to show off beautiful bonsai-style trees or other flora. This model also reduces the whole unkempt looking single-family yard problem in North America, where missing one week of mowing makes even the nicest house look a bit rough.

    The one thing I really would like to know is how the Japanese and Europeans get all their servicing in those narrow streets. My in-laws in Japan live in a subdivision with a ~7m right-of-way from property line to property line, and they seem to fit the services in just fine (underground electrical included). Here in Canada my municipality is having a fit because we can just barely fit it in to 11m. Although of course we insist on on-street parking...

    1. A particularity of Japanese residential areas (Hokkaido being an exception) is the lack of sidewalk or curb. The entire street is a shared street for pedestrians, cars and bikes. As a result, from what I've seen, pedestrians tend to walk a bit further from the properties than they would if they were stuck on a narrow sidewalk. That helps a bit, I think. It also means that pedestrians don't have to contend with the slanted sidewalks and ups and downs of frequent curb cuts.

      Having fences next to the road indeed slows cars down and create enclosure. At the same time, maybe it's my cultural upbringing, but I like trees a lot in cities, they provide shade and a canopy, they are gorgeous in Fall and I love the sound of wind in the branches in all seasons. But that's a personal preference. I'd be absolutely fine with a 2 meter buffer between a sidewalk and a property line if it had a line of trees, big trees, on it, rather than just a bit of useless weed. Likewise, from my childhood in Boucherville, where a bylaw forces property owners to have at least one tree in the front yard (and many have 2 or 3), I learned that trees are a great way to compensate for the desolate effect of huge setbacks. And indeed, even suburbans seem to agree, one of the most contentious issues with densification by replacing old houses is the removal of mature trees from neighborhoods. It doesn't compensate for lack of density and use separation, but it does great things to create enclosure and create an interesting walk. A lot of people walk for pleasure in Boucherville.

      As to servicing, I don't know the specifics. I know however that:

      A- The vast majority of Japan doesn't have underground electrical wiring, it's mostly in the air

      B- Underground services shouldn't require that much space anyway, the problems with 11-meter ROW is probably regulatory limits, not actual technical problems. Most streets in my home suburb of Boucherville are 7 to 8-meter wide. There hasn't seemed to be any problem with underground services.

      C- Japanese cities have extremely porous street grids with very small blocs in residential areas. In Sendai, I think most blocs are roughly 100-150-meter long and only 35-40-meter deep. If you have to close a street entirely to do underground work, the detour imposed on residents is really, really small. Compare that to the sinuous street grids of many Canadian suburbs where detours are not evident, especially not in culs-de-sac where if you cut off the street, there is no way to get to the houses there! Or to the megablocs of Winnipeg which are maybe on average 400-meter long and 80-meter deep, cut one of these streets off and the detour can be nearly 1 kilometer.

    2. My in-laws subdivision (by Sekisui House) in Kyushu is a nice example of combining street trees with a narrow street:

      Somehow I doubt this would be acceptable in North America. At the very least the trees would need a raised curb, a bollard on each side and a huge chevron sign. I also really like how they accomplished the lateral shift in the roadway with the combination of paving differences and tree placement.

      The more I consider all the aspects of Japanese urbanism, the more I see how well thought out much of it is. Despite Japan's lack of habitable land usually being seen as a negative much of the time in the media, it looks like it has actually forced them to think hard about how they build their cities, and they're better off for it. The "shared" residential streets especially, as you note above, solve many of the problems that many NA cities have with their equivalent local roads, such as poor urban design, speeding, lack of pedestrian focus, etc.

      As to servicing, yes the problem is entirely regulatory, with mandated separation distances between the various services pushing things wider and wider apart...

    3. That's a gorgeous neighborhood your in-laws live in! Google maps seems to not have a lot of businesses listed for Japan - seemingly mostly shrines/temples, and hospitals. I'm curious if there are many shopping stores and other home-range sorts of businesses within walking distance.

      I noticed that it also more close-loop streets like a North American suburb (but at least no endless tree of cul-de-sacs!) compared to e.g. Tokyo where its more just an organic grid, and - as you said - very porous.

  8. I'm sure you have seen this, but some of the street/tree combinations in Nathan Lewis' post are have really nice big trees separating trees and houses: