From an old Michael Pollan essay comes more support for the idea that the mandatory residential setback, featured in the previous post, owes its origins in part to the 'pastoral' landscape aesthetic championed by such men as Central Park-planner Frederick Law Olmsted:
"If any individual can be said to have invented the American lawn, it is ... Olmsted. In 1868, he received a commission to design Riverside, outside of Chicago, one of the first planned suburban communities in America. Olmsted’s design stipulated that each house be set back 30 feet from the road and it proscribed walls. ... In Riverside, each owner would maintain one or two trees and a lawn that would flow seamlessly into his neighbors’, creating the impression that all lived together in a single park."
|Rare honesty in advertising.|
- $40 billion spent annually on lawn care
- 800 million gallons of gas annually for lawnmowers (not much compared to cars, however)
- 25 hours per year spent on lawn care by average homeowner
- 21 million acres (an area the size of Maine) devoted to home lawns. The contribution to low-density growth should be self-evident.
Whether this reflects a continuing market preference is unclear, since nearly all municipal zoning codes in the United States require large setbacks (see, e.g., Charlotte), depriving homeowners of any choice in the matter. The pattern has been replicated so relentlessly across the North American continent that alternative single-family residential designs may simply have been scrubbed from the collective imagination. Yet, if any tourist were to wander outside the historic center of any European city and into the late 20th century suburbs, an entirely different picture would emerge. Let's explore, bearing in mind that these are all post-automobile era suburbs, most dating from after 1950:
Suburban Paris: A 14-foot roadway and 10-foot setbacks, with garages tastefully integrated into house facades. Setback areas have been enclosed by walls, fences or hedges, and made into functional patios ornamented by planter boxes. A spacious and private yard lies behind the home. There are no rear alleys. This simple design, of which there must be hundreds of thousands of examples in Paris alone, would be illegal under most American zoning codes.
Suburban Frankfurt: What appears to be a 1920s-era suburb, but vastly different from any American example from that time period. Away with the setbacks altogether! A hedge or two and some flower boxes in the windows provide all the front-facing "greenery" that is needed, at a fraction the cost and space of a front lawn.
Suburban Prague: Seeing a pattern yet? Small, well-maintained yards and gardens lie behind each of those houses.
BONUS - Suburban Rio De Janeiro: Myrtle trees, climbing vines, rooftop decks and trellises, embellished garages, with Cristo Redentor off in the distance.
Now for some more familiar examples:
If it's possible to create a single-family neighborhood of detached houses with backyards and universal car ownership while maintaining a density high enough to support urban life, the first five examples are interesting ones to consider — if the addiction to the idea of the front lawn can be broken.