Urban design gone wrong: Setbacks
Friday, April 06, 2018
This is the first part of a series on urban design gone wrong.
Woe the fate of the poor urban designer. Forced to wander the streets of our cities, painfully alive to all of the errors of our design history, the sort of things that most of us walk past with barely a glance.
In this series of articles, we will be looking at a few of the things we have been getting badly wrong when designing our cities, and that we are now scrambling to rectify. That will mean throwing light on a series of often unglamorous details and the surprisingly powerful role they play in our everyday environment.
This week: setbacks.
What are setbacks?
As the name suggests, setbacks are spaces built into neighborhoods that "set" the building "back" from the property line — that is, where the building meets the sidewalk or road. They are designed to provide harmony to the street line.
A close-but-even-less-useful cousin of the beloved American lawn, they also hover awkwardly on the border between public and private space, often ending up serving little role for either.
Setbacks are a prime example of one of the many apparently mundane regulatory issues imposed by planners on buildings, apparently only to pose administrative obstacles. But their consequences for how we live in communities are quite stark.
Conversations on your street
The key to understanding how an urban designer sees setbacks is to understand how a building is "in a conversation" with its street. The ideal is that a good building should respond positively to its immediate environment.
To make things more clear, we might compare images of, say, a bustling residential street in Paris, Rome or even Boston's Beacon Hill with an image of a neatly turfed Californian suburb with houses set 30 feet back from the sidewalk.
Which of these streets would you like to stroll down? When we walk the alleys of Paris, a large part of their charm is the sense of enclosure that the narrow setbacks create, how the street feels alive. In contrast, walking through a suburban expanse of green can easily feel desolate, despite the best intentions of builders to integrate "green" to boost well-being.
Once you start to think in those terms, you will begin to see that while two rows of townhouses with zero setbacks start to look like two friends leaning in and having an intimate chat, the suburban housing in California is more likely to bring to mind two people sat either end of a park bench hoping the other won't notice they are there.
The illusion of privacy and the myth of security
You might think setbacks are getting too hard a rap here. After all, setbacks have historically been seen as a logical way to guarantee privacy, to provide a "buffer zone" between the housing and the street and to prevent prying eyes. However, the reality is that unless your windows are at the end of a substantial drive, I can probably peer past your setback into your living room.
The other commonly cited argument by setback advocates is that they make us more secure — the modern suburban equivalent of a moat, keeping our enemies at bay. But do setbacks actually make us secure?
Security has evolved to become more sophisticated since the age of moats. When the British police put together their Secured by Design guidelines, the focus was less on setbacks than on the "natural surveillance" that is made possible when more densely laid-out houses have what Jane Jacobs would call "eyes on the street." They recommend that dwelling frontages should be open to view.
How to set it right?
It is unlikely that you will have any choice about how far your home is set back, which is prescribed by planning regulations. However some of those planners — often inspired by movements like the New Urbanists — are beginning to tentatively move away from the mandatory residential setbacks of the past.
Of course, regulations will vary by zoning district. We would not expect a residential street to comply with the same rules as a commercial high street. For commercial frontages, the idea is to mandate "zero setback" in order to achieve what is known as a strong street edge and encourage peering into window displays.
Conclusions: Making close communities legal
Much of our inclination toward setbacks in the U.S. and other Anglo-Saxon countries comes from our long-harbored fear of density — a fear some trace back to deep-rooted cultural memory of the slum cities of the Industrial Revolution. Or, more likely, examples of high density being done badly in the 1960s.
Brits and Americans regularly wax lyrical about the charm of European towns when they come back from their vacations, but the reality is that the kind of layout that creates that atmosphere is probably illegal under their own country's zoning codes.
That might take time to change. But the important thing is we are asking the question of what kind of communities we want to live in, and accepting that our beloved setbacks are distancing us from each other both physically and socially.
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