This article is part 2 in a 2-part series. Read the first part here.
Urban design is best seen as a bottom-up discovery process rather than something that can or should be imposed from the top-down. To concretize this point, let’s examine one aspect of urban design: front setbacks, or how far back buildings are located from the public street or property line. How can cities naturally discover optimal front setbacks, instead of presupposing the answer?
In most cities, front setbacks are determined by regulations which require that buildings sit a certain minimum and/or maximum distance from the front property line. These standards typically vary for every land use and are often binding on new development. The block below, from a residential district in eastern Queens (subject to a 20-foot front setback) is a typical example of the urban design output of this system. Its aesthetic value is subjective: one man’s positive externality—an image of order—could be another man’s negative externality—an image of banality.
Historically, front setbacks were regulated toward reasonable ends: they were designed to reserve right-of-way (or land through which anyone can freely travel) in the event that the municipality needed to widen a road or lay new pipes in the future. Beyond that minimum set aside, buildings could be as close to or far from the street as local conditions required.
This earlier system kept the power to discover the “right” front setback depth with people who had a stake in the project. With every building, developers and architects had to ask: How much of a front yard do I need to to sell or lease out this space? As with all pre-zoning land-use regulation, the answer was discovered through a distributed, trial-and-error process. Based on local conditions like land costs, demand for floor area, and cultural norms, a developer would guess and check at different front yard depths. Successful guesses could be replicated, while unsuccessful guesses could be phased out.
If you live in a city with a lot of development from the pre-zoning era, you can go and see physical evidence of this trial-and-error discovery process. As an example, let’s look at Astoria, Queens, a neighborhood that was partially built out before the adoption of zoning in 1916.
What’s going on here? Subject to the constraints of land costs, developers were trying to discover just how much of a front yard residents needed. Along this block, front setbacks on a single street could range from five to 15 feet. Some of these guesses might have been wrong and provided lessons for future development. Alternatively, many of them might have been right, with different residents having different desires regarding a front yard. In any case, what’s clear is that the neighborhood is engaged in an active process of trying to find the right front setback depth.
This isn’t to say that a self-designing neighborhood only produces messy results—far from it. For all the diversity on this pre-zoning block in Long Island City, Queens, in terms of land use, lot coverage, and heights, the front setbacks are noticeably consistent in approaching zero. High land values in this area pushed residential uses to the front of the lot to economize on land, while the natural needs of commercial and industrial tenants drew setbacks down as a matter of preference. Industrial tenants simply wanted more space and were largely uninterested in front setbacks. Meanwhile, commercial tenants were deeply interested in tiny front setbacks, as they depended on street level engagement to draw in customers.
For this reason, the pre-zoning transition from residential to commercial is easy to spot, as front setbacks are the first thing to go in the transition to commercial. You can see this on streets as diverse as Madison Avenue (left) and Hillside Avenue (right):
Nobody had to master plan or design these streets—the front setback naturally evolved in response to changing preferences and market conditions. One or two shopkeepers discovered that a closer storefront got more business, and the rest followed over time.
This discovery process doesn’t only take place across different land uses or individual tenants. It’s also necessary unfolds across time, as land prices and economic circumstances constantly rise and fall, with implications for what people can and can’t afford.
Take the block front from the Upper East Side depicted here. This eclectic mix of buildings don’t line up. What’s going on here? To put it bluntly, one-hundred years of the city naturally responding to changing land values is what’s going on. When the green house was built in 1866, it was an outer suburban manor. Land prices were low, and its owner could afford to profitably set aside a modest front yard. As Manhattan moved uptown, and land prices increased, buildings inched forward, and by 1989 (the building on the far left), astronomical land prices required that developers economize on land and scrap the front setback altogether. This process couldn’t have been designed and it doesn’t need to be designed.
We realize in the front setback—as you might realize in any number of other urban design trends—that cities naturally possess the power to understand and reformulate themselves as conditions change. This occurs not through evolution in the best-practices of planners, but through a much messier and more organic process involving millions of decentralized decisions. To be an urbanist, I suggest, is to be curious about this process, to try and understand and cultivate it, to lightly intervene only when it clearly fails, and to practice a great deal of humility before proclaiming what urban patterns are “right” and “wrong.”