Question of the Week: Why Are Building Setbacks Sometimes Undesirable?

Every week, we take one of the best questions submitted to the Strong Towns Knowledge Base, and we answer it here. This week’s question: Why are setbacks—the requirement that buildings be a certain distance from the front, sides, or rear of the property line—sometimes a bad thing?

The Knowledge Base is a crowd-sourced repository of your questions and answers about how to build a strong town. We on the Strong Towns staff chip in when we can, but we can’t get to everything—which is why we encourage all of our members and readers to head on over and add not only questions, but comments with any additional advice, useful links, or wisdom you have to offer!

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setback is the minimum distance that a building is required by local law to be set back from the edges of whatever piece of private property it sits on. These requirements are a common feature of modern zoning codes, and may vary by the location and type of building. You can have side, rear, and front setbacks.

Here's an illustration by Sarah Kobos (from this popular Strong Towns article, "Kick The Tires on Your Local Zoning Code") that shows what each type of setback might look like on the site plan for an individual piece of property, and how setbacks reduce the portion of the lot that a building itself can cover.

Setbacks in the Traditional Development Pattern

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

In the traditional development pattern, front setbacks are usually rare to nonexistent, at least on main streets / commercial streets. This is true worldwide: check out this photo essay by Johnny Sanphillippo for examples of the same basic development pattern, in which buildings hug walkable streets, from Japan to Turkey to America.

This became the case for a few reasons:

- Traditional development makes productive use of scarce land. This has been important for much of human history, when cities were compact because they were scaled to people who walked. It is only very recently that our society has had the technology (the automobile) and the ability to accrue debt to expand our cities and their infrastructure outward at an unprecedented rate—what Strong Towns calls the suburban experiment.

- Traditional development tends to be small-scale (or "granular" - read about that here) with the city subdivided into very small lots. On a small lot, even a modest setback can dramatically reduce the amount of land you're allowed to build on.

- True, required setbacks can lead to beautiful front gardens or patios. But they can also lead to non-places, like a barren expanse of grass that isn't used by either the property owner or the public. Here's an essential essay by Andrew Price explaining the concept of non-places, which add no value but push the locations humans actually want to spend time farther apart from each other.

- In a pedestrian-oriented business district, local shop owners want customers on the sidewalk to be enticed into the store. What better way than to have them walk right by the windows, where they can look inside?

Photo by Andrew Price

- Architects and urban designers talk about the psychological benefit of having no setbacks: it causes a continuous row of buildings to "frame" the street, which creates a sense of enclosure, like you're in an outdoor living room—as this photo from Puebla, Mexico illustrates. This is a type of environment that most people find instinctively comforting and interesting to walk through.