Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Laneways and Setbacks

Stephen Smith at Market Urbanism has been following Vancouver's experiment with the legalization of so-called "laneway houses," accessory dwelling units constructed along the lanes (or alleys, or narrow streets, depending upon one's viewpoint) frequently found running through the grid blocks of 19th and early 20th century single-family residential areas.

The potent combination of 1) minimum lot sizes and 2) mandatory front, side and rear setbacks has, in nearly all other North American cities, effectively forbidden this common sense adaptation and repurposing of neglected public ways in residential areas.  In their absence, many owners would no doubt have long ago sold off the portions of their parcels fronting on the lane, or have constructed the main dwelling closer to the street line so as to allow a larger accessory building to the rear.

The laneway law, for all its benefits, addresses neither of these fundamental constraints on the free use and alienation of land.  The laneway house that may be built cannot be deeded to a new owner and must therefore remain a rental unit (purportedly to limit increases in property values).  Further, the laneway law comes with its own new setback requirements which have caused unintended consequences in certain zoning districts

Although the history, purpose and impact of minimum lot sizes has been covered by various writers and researchers, histories of setbacks are extremely rare.  I find this a bit surprising since of all land use regulations, setbacks are arguably closest to a pure "taking" of land, in that the municipality deprives a landowner of all, or virtually all development rights to a substantial proportion of his property, with no compensation and often to no clear purpose.  If modest side and rear setbacks might be given some vaguely plausible health and safety justification, large front setbacks, in residential areas with very wide streets, are more difficult to rationalize. 

Urban Review STL, which has put together the only history of setbacks that I could find, contains a link which suggests that some setbacks, in residential areas at least, originated in a William Penn-like overreaction to disease and fire-prone conditions in the early 19th century city (although these early setbacks, implemented by restrictive covenant, generally had sunset provisions).  Today, typical zoning codes offer the following justifications:

"In general, the purpose of setbacks is to ensure that the use of a property does not infringe on the rights of neighbors, to allow room for lawns and trees, for light and sunshine in the home, for space for recreation outside the home, and to serve as filtration areas for storm water run-off." Calvert County, MD.
 Specifically addressing front setbacks:

"[The setback regulations] require larger front setbacks than side and rear setbacks to promote open, visually pleasing front yards." Portland, OR.
Is it possible, then, that this complete deprivation of an owner's right to build upon the front of his lot reflects a purely aesthetic judgment?  That judgment being, impliedly, that a patch of Kentucky bluegrass, to be forever mowed and fertilized, is more "visually pleasing" than the house that would otherwise be located there, and furthermore that his aesthetic concern overrides all competing concerns, including those of land values, efficient use of land, property rights and alternative notions of good urban design.  Vancouver architect Graham Barron, whose blog Stephen links, concludes that the setback requirements of the laneway law were similarly motivated by aesthetics, or more accurately, one particular aesthetic viewpoint.

If anyone knows of a study which has looked at the economic implications of setback laws on development patterns and/or land values I'd be very curious to read it.  Certainly it's an area which could use more discussion.

6 comments:

  1. I'd love to know more about the history of setback ordinances. In California, the legislation enabling cities to regulate setbacks was apparently passed in 1917 (chapter 735, statutes of 1917) "so that buildings will not encroach upon space needed for the public."

    It was already common at the time to give buildings, especially residential ones, setbacks of a few feet, though, so it seems unlikely that reservation for public use was the only rationale on people's minds.

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  2. Thanks for that, Eric. In commercial areas a "public space" rationale seems to have been common where future road widenings were anticipated -- the setback was essentially a preemptive taking of value so as to make future takings of title less costly. But this does not seem to have been the case in residential areas.

    Since the first large front yard setbacks appear to have coincided with the first large-lot suburban development in the middle 19th century, it seems likely to me that it was just one more part of the overall ruralizing aesthetic that went into these early suburbs.

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  3. Setbacks have two main functions today:

    The first is purely aesthetic: it maintains the "farmhouse surrounded by grass" format which has been the preferred residential format in the United States since at least 1780 or so.

    The second is primarily as a buffer between the building and the automobile traffic.

    There is a lot of talk about "access to light and air" and "green space" and so forth, but oddly nobody considers building parks or courtyards, the traditional means of providing these things.

    People are for the most part unaware of these reasons, so they tend to make up reasons. While a firebreak is actually nice to have, this is best accomplished by the occasional "arterial" street of 30+ feet wide. The idea that a setback prevents disease is, of course, stupid, except to the extent that lowering density is one way to reduce the effects of poor plumbing and trash collection. "The solution to pollution is dilution."

    Much of the problem stemmed from the introduction of the automobile into 19th Century Hypertrophic cities, mostly in the 1920s when autos became cheap. Before the automobile, the super-wide Hypertrophic streets were rather empty and quiet. However, once the automobile arrived, they were full of automobile traffic. When people talk about "congested" urban areas, they mean, without exception, excessive automobile traffic. However, the automobile also provided the solution -- it was no longer necessary to live within walking distance of work, shopping, schools and the train station. You could live twenty miles away, in the suburbs surrounded by your grassy "setback," and drive to wherever you needed to go.

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  4. I would say that the urge for "setbacks" represents the engrossing American urge (even, I would say especially, among the misnamed "New Urbanists") for the "Small Town America" format of a freestanding farmhouse on a quarter acre. This has been the American ideal since basically 1780.

    This urge for the suburban farmhouse, over 230 years, was not only "carrot" driven, but also "stick" driven -- for many people, the 19th Century Hypertrophic City was unacceptably unpleasant, not only because of its inherent design which is not human-friendly at all (immense roadway and a tendency toward very large buildings), all of which became even more unpleasant with the advent of automobiles creating "congestion," but also due to historical factors such as exploding population growth and the waves of new immigrants into large 19th century cities. To this we could add some other factors, such as, potentially, poor sanitation and sewage, crime and so forth, none of which is necessarily characteristic of the 19th Century Hypertrophic City but was in fact a common problem.

    To make a long story short, urbanism was a failure in the U.S., and they wanted to go back to their Small Town America suburban farmhouse fantasy ideals. They also wanted to make sure that their suburban ideal neighborhood wouldn't change in the future. So, they made it impossible, via regulation, to build anything but a suburban farmhouse, with minimum lot sizes and setback requirements on all four sides.

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  5. As for "light and air," remember what a 19th Century Hypertrophic City (let's say Chicago, Buffalo, etc.) was like in 1900 or 1925. A thick black coal soot hung over everything. Factories were clanking away, "dark Satanic mills" in the words of observers of the time, and everyone worked ten hours a day, six days a week. Perhaps, in the case of Chicago for example, the factory buildings housed huge slaughterhouses, which probably didn't smell too good either. Sanitation (trash removal) and sewage were likely a problem. Then, in the 1920s, came the automobiles, putting this clanking and deadly machinery not only behind factory walls but right outside your front door all day. Automobiles stank too, as there was little in the way of emissions controls in those days.

    Thus you could see the urge for the small town America suburban farmhouse fantasy, and how this could represent "light and air" for those people. Very dense and compact Traditional Cities, like Florence, parts of Paris, Venice etc. you would think might have a problem with "light and air," but in fact none of the millions of tourists who visit these places every year seem to have any complaints. This despite the fact that, often, the lack of public parks is a real deficiency (most classic Italian cities have almost nothing by way of parks).

    So, I would say that the urge for "light and air" is not a characteristic of even the most dense and compact cities, but rather a characteristic when the stuff outside your front door is inherently unpleasant. Even today, people living in suburban places on perhaps a quarter of an acre feel an urge to move to even more ruralized, whether an exurban neighborhood or into real rural areas. When the city is an unpleasant place, you can't get far enough from it, and no buffer-lawn is so big that you wouldn't prefer an even bigger one.

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  6. Due to the Blogger outage, previous comments on this post were lost. They are reposted below:

    Nathan Lewis:

    "Setbacks have two main functions today:

    The first is purely aesthetic: it maintains the "farmhouse surrounded by grass" format which has been the preferred residential format in the United States since at least 1780 or so.

    The second is primarily as a buffer between the building and the automobile traffic.

    There is a lot of talk about "access to light and air" and "green space" and so forth, but oddly nobody considers building parks or courtyards, the traditional means of providing these things.

    People are for the most part unaware of these reasons, so they tend to make up reasons. While a firebreak is actually nice to have, this is best accomplished by the occasional "arterial" street of 30+ feet wide. The idea that a setback prevents disease is, of course, stupid, except to the extent that lowering density is one way to reduce the effects of poor plumbing and trash collection. "The solution to pollution is dilution."

    Much of the problem stemmed from the introduction of the automobile into 19th Century Hypertrophic cities, mostly in the 1920s when autos became cheap. Before the automobile, the super-wide Hypertrophic streets were rather empty and quiet. However, once the automobile arrived, they were full of automobile traffic. When people talk about "congested" urban areas, they mean, without exception, excessive automobile traffic. However, the automobile also provided the solution -- it was no longer necessary to live within walking distance of work, shopping, schools and the train station. You could live twenty miles away, in the suburbs surrounded by your grassy "setback," and drive to wherever you needed to go."

    Eric Fischer:

    "I'd love to know more about the history of setback ordinances. In California, the legislation enabling cities to regulate setbacks was apparently passed in 1917 (chapter 735, statutes of 1917) "so that buildings will not encroach upon space needed for the public."

    It was already common at the time to give buildings, especially residential ones, setbacks of a few feet, though, so it seems unlikely that reservation for public use was the only rationale on people's minds."

    ReplyDelete