Sunday, May 15, 2011

Setbacks, Suburbs and the American Front Lawn

(A long post today, but a lot of pictures to keep it interesting, as Nathan Lewis recommends.  Good comments from him on this topic under the previous post.)

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.
Pollan's essay is about the historic and cultural significance of the American front lawn, not the American residential setback, but the two are in many ways inseparable.  As Pollan shows, the intent of the setback at the outset was to mandate a grassy front lawn, whether it was wanted or not  either cost, social pressure or concerns about resale value will tend to discourage creative alternatives to the bluegrass turf rolled out, for one's convenience, by the developer.  And what is the expense required to maintain all of this yard space?
While other countries routinely incorporate lawns into their detached single-family neighborhoods, it appears to be only England's colonial children — the United States, Canada, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Australia, New Zealand and a handful of other places — that have embraced the idea of large, decorative and open front lawns.

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 Rome: Just like Paris, but minus the sidewalks.  Setbacks are entirely occupied by patios.  Backyards are put to productive use as personal vegetable gardens with large balconies above.  There is zero turf lawn to be found.
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:

Murfreesboro, TN: A 35-foot roadway with 40-foot setbacks.  This despite the fact that the street is a cul-de-sac and has virtually no traffic to "buffer" against. No wall, fence or hedge interrupts the Olmstedian pastoral aesthetic of the endless meadow (and would be very expensive to construct or plant at this scale, anyways). The backyard is much smaller than it might otherwise be due to the large setback. 


Great Falls, MT: Setbacks range from 25 to 40 feet here, but the low-slung ranch "snout houses" make for an even more desolate streetscape.   

Calgary, Alberta: Snout house paradise, but denser than Great Falls.  The front lawn has been reduced to a putting green why not just pull the garages to the street and let the homes have larger backyards?



Las Vegas, NV: In a desert climate, the economic wastefulness of a huge front lawn can no longer be ignored by the zoning code, and setbacks here, at around 14 feet, when combined with small backyards, make this by far the densest of any of the North American examples.  The street width requirements are unchanged, even though the ample garages and driveway spaces leave no need for on-street parking.


BONUS - New Urbanist development (King Farm, MD): Although this development is touted as a "traditionalist" alternative to typical suburbia, the setbacks here are larger than in Las Vegas, and comparable to Calgary, but with some added landscaping.  The massive street is no different than in any of the previous examples.  Further, as can be seen in an aerial view, most of these townhouses have very small or no backyards, as nearly the entire rear of the lot is taken up for alleys, parking lots and garages.  Thus, the homeowner keeps the decorative front lawn but loses the functional backyard.

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.

46 comments:

  1. So I was reading that Nathan Lewis blog, marveling at every word and thinking, "Why haven't I ever heard of this blog before??"

    Then I realized it. It's because it's not a blog! There's no RSS feed! Nathan Lewis – if you're out there reading this, for the love of god, blogify that website! Your traffic will increase 100 fold!

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  2. Wow, seeing those photos juxtaposed really illuminates how tacky and impersonal large setbacks (not utilized as gardens, patios,etc) make a community. I like the look of Paris the most. Thanks for sharing.
    KAB

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  3. The scale of the road to the buildings, the detailing of the frontages of the private buildings, the detailing of the public frontage- from the edge of the right of way to the curb and the width of the pavement are all factors in how the urbanism works or doesn't work in all of these photos.

    A more rigorous reading of the SmartCode will show that you can calibrate a local code to create narrow streets with little or no setback, depending upon which Transect Zone you are working in.

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  4. It should be noted that a major impediment to shrinking the width of streets in most communities is the fire department. Yes, the fire department needs to get its giant vehicles through and they need arterial size streets even in typical suburban subdivisions to maneuver their vehicles. This, despite the fact that urban fire departments in cities largely built before WWII have had no problem putting out fires. It should be noted that Duany and the Congress for New Urbanism is aware of this and have tried convincing fire departments otherwise, to no avail.

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  5. John: thanks for reading and commenting. I admire the goals of the SmartCode, and would like to learn more about how the calibration process works in terms of adjusting the thoroughfare assemblies to match the European examples. My initial reading of the code did not reveal any simple ways to do this, but given the pragmatism of the New Urbanists I'm not surprised to learn it's possible.

    Ryan: I actually looked up the Paris fire department while putting this post together, and it appears they have much smaller and narrower trucks than you'd find anywhere in this country -- the fire brigades seem to have adapted to the city, rather than the other way around. One of these days I'll put something together on the fire safety issue.

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  6. The American front lawn dates from far before Olmstead and Riverside Illinois. There are houses in my town from 1830s-1840s that are completely within the suburban format (farmhouse surrounded by grass including front lawn). Olmstead was one of the first I think to have a "planned community" (that's what he called it) as opposed to a more instinctual town growth.

    Despite my general distaste of setbacks, they do serve a purpose: to provide a buffer zone between the residence and the street. If you have a 100% pedestrian street, like Elfreth's Alley in Philadelphia, then you can have a house with literally no setback whatsoever.

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-apytJ7sOG8E/Tby4Kh4lytI/AAAAAAAAAGs/yO5P3aIcpU4/s1600/4353709000_011ab531de_o.jpg

    However, if you have even occasional vehicle traffic, which should be considered the norm, then people have an urge for a setback, because who wants to open their front door and have a truck passing 18" away?

    I would look particularly at the Japanese examples for single-family-detached residences, which typically include something like a wall or fence and three or six feet of garden. Or, it is possible that the building will go all the way to the property boundary but the front door itself will be recessed by a few feet.

    See photos from Seijo here:

    http://www.newworldeconomics.com/archives/2010/100310.html

    As for a blog, first of all my "essays" or "items" don't transfer well to blog form because they are long and there are many pictures. Also, I wanted to have a format that was more permanent in nature than a blog. I had a discussion forum in the past but nobody participated. If you want to convert and repost the items in blog form, be my guest. Otherwise, just go to oldurbanist.blogspot.com if you want to discuss these things.

    Even better yet, just start your own Traditional City or Old Urbanist themed blog. Charles has added a huge amount with his historical understanding of the intellectual development of these bad suburban ideas.

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  7. BTW this discussion about fire trucks is bizarre to say the least. Emergency vehicle access is one consideration, but it must certainly relate to the driveable part of the roadway, which is the asphalt bit between the sidewalks presumably, or the entire roadway if you have a pedestrian-centric street without sidwalks. What does this have to do with front lawns?

    Also, as was mentioned, you can just buy a smaller firetruck.

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  8. The suburban front lawn dates from far before Olmstead and Riverside Illinois. There are houses in my town from the 1830s and 1840s with a suburban farmhouse/front lawn format that is identical to today's suburbs. However, Olmstead was one of the first to incorporate this in a "planned community" (his term) instead of a more instinctual or organic method.

    Although I dislike excessive setbacks, they do serve a purpose, which is to provide a buffer zone between the house and the street. On a true 100% pedestrian street, the house can be literally right on the street with no setback whatsoever, but once the occasional vehicle is introduced, people have an urge to provide some sort of buffer zone. In the New York brownstone, this is typically about a three-foot setback with an iron fence, and a front door that has an absurdly exaggerated front stair. Among single-family-detached examples I would point again to Seijo, in western Tokyo, where typically there is a little fence or wall and about 3-6 feet of garden space before the front door. Even if the building is built right to the edge of the property, the front door is typically recessed by a few feet.

    http://www.newworldeconomics.com/archives/2010/100310.html

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-apytJ7sOG8E/Tby4Kh4lytI/AAAAAAAAAGs/yO5P3aIcpU4/s1600/4353709000_011ab531de_o.jpg

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  9. Nathan -- did you deliberately delete those previous posts? If not, I can restore them.

    In any event, to respond to your point about large lawns preceding Riverside -- while that is true, I was trying to narrow the focus down to mandatory setbacks: the front lawn made a matter of legal compulsion, not simply aesthetic preference. This as much as anything else was what shaped all the suburbs that were to follow.

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  10. I was struck how much the first 5 all looked alike.

    Has the social aspect, men working in yards and meeting neighbors in the vast expanse of suburbia been explored? In these large housing tracts, mowing the lawn is one way you meet your neighbors. The first sunny weekend of May in Vancouver the amount of activity in front yards mowing, weeding etc was impressive much like hibernation had just ended.

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  11. Anonymous -- according to some figures I found, only about 2/3 of Americans actually mow their own lawns (don't know how that compares to Canada). And in my experience, mowing with a gas lawnmower is not conducive to sociability, given the noise and fumes (unless one has an old fashioned reel mower, but most suburban lawns are too large for them). Gardening is another issue altogether, and really does draw people to socialize, but home gardens are not all that common in American suburbia.

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  12. Hi Charlie,

    The posts are disappearing automatically.

    I think my example of Seijo is a better one, for this sort of detached SF house with cars model, than the European ones. See here:

    http://www.newworldeconomics.com/archives/2010/100310.html

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  13. Stephen smith said ...

    > So I was reading that Nathan Lewis blog,
    > marveling at every word and thinking, "Why
    > haven't I ever heard of this blog before?"

    And I was looking at the "Other urban links" list and wondering why Cyburbia was missing. We've been around since 1994. C'mon ... :)

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  14. Inexcusable omission corrected! Thanks Dan.

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  15. @ Steve Smith:
    simply copy the url into your reader -.-

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  16. Interesting thought about the firetrucks, although I wonder if roads are being made so wide in North America because people now drive such honking big trucks? Well, in Calgary they do, anyway.

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  17. I enjoy a big yard as do millions of Americans. And after living in Germany for six years, I'll take American homes and yards over those any day.

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  18. Canadian roads tend to be wider because of snow storage issues. While I don't like large setbacks either, around here we do need some space to shovel six months of the year.

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  19. Inner ring suburbs (and outlying parts of the city proper) in the Midwest have small setbacks and pretty much no side yards. Very little work; none if you plant ground cover. The somewhat larger back yards are actually used for vegetable gardening quite a lot.

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  20. Being from the Northwest, I've got to say I find the idea of living in either the European or American examples you posted somewhat horrifying.

    Where I live we have setbacks, but we also have actual vegetation. In fact, the city I live in has legal limits on how much you can reduce the tree canopy on your property. Cutting trees above a certain size without permits results in stiff fines. I do have a small lawn (maybe 10' by 10'), but I just bought the place, and I'm already trying to figure out what to replace it with.

    Here's a random photo I googled up of a property in the city, viewed from the street. It's fairly representative of a good percentage of the homes around here: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_zi-4nBGBO2U/SLy37T_bWUI/AAAAAAAACo8/KcCaooC7TMA/s1600-h/street.jpg

    And no, I don't live in a rural area. This is a suburb of Seattle, about a 20 to 30 minute drive from downtown. Lots average 10,000 to 30,000 SF. It's all about zoning, tree preservation, and priorities. It's a small city (almost entirely residential), and as soon as you step outside of city limits in any direction the lots get smaller and 2/3s of the trees disappear.

    Anyway, I just wanted to remind everyone that there are alternatives to European density and American lawn sprawl. Well, at least there are in places where cities weren't unnaturally built in the middle of deserts.

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  21. Only 2nd time here at this blog, but a long time reader of Nathan Lewis' excellent commentaries on Traditional Cities - good to see the discussion going on here.

    I want to say that it is not quite fair to say that all rear laneways are evil, I think they can be quite useful. They put the garages at the back, out of sight and out of mind. The garbage collection happens there, the utilities are located there, the power lines etc.

    I think they work really well with narrow lots and terrace (row) houses. With the garage an utilitarian stuff at the back, the front of the house can have a nice - porch (as it is called in Australia), or a deck/verandah etc, like this;

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Paddington2_terrace.jpg

    Paddington, Sydney, Australia (my university city, and one place i am yet to see Nathan use..) These terrace houses are usually from 10 to 15 feet wide, but can be up to 60' deep and up to three levels and five bedrooms!

    The beauty of the front porch is it is just big enough to have a table and a couple of chairs, or a couch, or to work on your bicycle, etc. On a summer evening, you are either on your porch, or walking past everyone else's, talking to them. It makes for a very sociable community.

    The houses can be as narrow as 10' and up to 60' deep. The backyard is just right for a bbq, a few raised beds, but not big enough you ever need a lawnmower!

    type "69 Windsor Street, Paddington, NSW, Australia" into google maps (I used to live there!) and see what I mean. Now, the streets are not Really Narrow Streets - they didn't get that part right, but still, most of it is "place"

    The terrace houses and front porches make you *want* to go for a walk along in front of your neighbours, just to say g'day. Many will leave the front gate and door open, which means just walk in - how many American suburbs, even the "new urbanist" style, do that?

    The on street parking still gets used, as not every house has a garage in the back, and some have had small cottages ("granny flats", or "laneway housing") built there.

    Still, if designing from scratch, I would make the streets with parking on one side only, and make them one way - halving the effective width. The footpath is on the parked car side, giving a buffer from the traffic (there is not much anyway) and on the traffic side, you have the cycle path.

    In any case - almost *zero* front lawns, but by no means unwelcoming...

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  22. At first I was ready to get all huffy and defensive about this as a relatively new lawn owner. But really my lawn is very small (maybe 10 feet) and about half is patio and vegetable garden. Plus I only have a push mower. It's the street end of a townhouse complex.
    Backyard grass for kids to play in or gardens seems the way to go. Front lawns always seemed like a waste to me, particularly when I was a kid. You really couldn't play in it, but you had to mow it.

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  23. All these USA houses in all of these pictures are probably worthless, most of them will be scrapped. They cost too much to operate when fuel, car, road, military costs and finance are added together. Except for a few run a rooming houses, none make any money for their owners.

    This is why 'real estate' and the banking/finance industries are crashing. The costs of toys/design fads and the auto habitat are too high.

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  24. @Steve: Thanks for the comment. I agree. Most of these houses are designed essentially as disposable consumer products. Resale value is not really the developer's priority.

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  25. @Paul Nash: Sorry to be just responding to your comment now. Those are some exquisite terrace houses -- really outstanding design. The lanes are, or can be, wonderful narrow streets in their own right (the intersection of Hargrave and Taylor shows this format, with two rowhouses of zero setback on a street less than 15' wide -- and it works beautifully, with a height-to-width ratio of slightly more than 1:1):

    http://maps.google.com/maps?q=69+windsor+st,+paddington&hl=en&ll=-33.885068,151.235834&spn=0.000001,0.00077&hnear=69+Windsor+St,+Paddington+New+South+Wales+2021,+Australia&t=h&z=21&vpsrc=6&layer=c&cbll=-33.885068,151.235834&panoid=tOAbV4Bsv9eErlxFtrRMrA&cbp=12,57.33,,0,4.47

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  26. If the New Lawn grasses can cope up with the stress, it will be healthy and dense and will be able to resist disease. Sometime the disease may spread and it becomes out of any control. However, the disease resistant cultivars can be implemented to avoid future problems.

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  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  28. I´m from southern Europe and I really envy your suburbs. I love the wide spaces and the green everywhere. You have no idea how lucky you are. Most Southern European suburbs are small and without any trees or vegetation, most of them are really depressing.

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  29. THIS seems to be a very good blog for New Lawn but we have extra information for
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  30. I live in a 75+ year old house in an older town in Alberta, Canada. My house is about two feet from the sidewalk with a wide street in front of that. I do have to admit that my house was built a bit low and anyone walking by can look in the my front windows. I find that most of the people walking by don't look in and a few might take a sideways glance. Even if my house was setback farther but still low, they could look in (just from a greater distance). If I want privacy, I could tint my windows which makes it almost impossible to look in. My van has the reflective tinting and it is fantastic. I just close the curtains when I wish to have privacy. I was unsure to this scenario at first, but now would not have it any other way. I have a small flower garden in the front and an expansive back yard to enjoy in privacy. I still meet my neighbours over the fence in the back yard. I could put a garage in the back and still have plenty of room.I have created a little park with a garden in the back yard. How many people sit on their carefully manicured front lawns to visit with their neighbours over a couple of drinks and a barbecue in the eyes of the public?n How many neighbours would like that in the first place. I say let's move on up and enjoy a larger back yard.

    I like the pictures of the houses closer to the street much better than the ones with the large setbacks.

    Nice article and well done.

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  31. It's not the expansive lawn vs. the tiny set back, its the lack of imaginative use of the space.
    an old addage that applies : It's not how big it is, its how you use it that matters. ;-)

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    Replies
    1. I agree, Michelle, but doesn't a small space better lend itself to the realization of that imagination, since the project is of a manageable size? It's possible to creatively re-imagine a large front yard, but unless you have a team of landscapers at your disposal, or a stout back and countless hours of free time, that vision isn't likely to come to fruition.

      Delete
    2. Charlie,
      I'm a practicing landscape designer and land planner so the size of the space doesn't limit my imagination or creativity.
      Usually I get more excited about a design project when confronted with limitations or restrictions that I must creatively find solutions for . It pushes the creative and administrative process out of the box and that is when the practice can really be fun.
      I usually do have a team of landscapers at my disposal. It's how my business works. A lot of site analysis, code research, creating relationships with the property owners, building and planning dept. officials and the fine craftsmen and artisans who build the landscape.
      It's threw this teamwork that the projects come to fruition.

      Delete
  32. Let me get this straight. If the garage is out front, it's ridiculed as a snout house. If the garage is out back, the required alley and driveway is a waste of space. Sorry, like it or not, the reality is we need some place to put cars. My personal preference would be to have the garage in back whether it is accessed by a long driveway or an alley..

    I'm with Deviant Deziner. I'm not a fan of giant front lawns, but I am of front yards. I'd rather look at gardens than house façades. If I didn't see and talk to my neighbours while we are working on our front yards, I'd probably never see or talk to them at all. I don't consider that a good thing. All those hedges and walls seem very unfriendly and insular. I like nothing better than sitting on the front porch and greeting my neighbours as they walk their children and dogs.

    PS. Wide streets provide better access for firetrucks than narrow streets.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Anonymous -- a snout house I would say is a term for a particularly egregious type of frontal garage placement, rather than any house with a front-facing garage. The Parisian houses you may notice almost all have garages in the front, but these are tastefully integrated and not nearly as obvious as those in the American examples. An alternative, especially common in Japan, is simply to keep the car in parking pad in front or alongside the house, rather than in a garage.

      My feeling is that even the snout house typology is superior to the rear alley arrangement, since it minimizes paved surfaces and preserves private space in the rear of the home. As I've said in other posts, if you are going to have an "alley" that is entirely sufficient for parking access, why not then dispense with the fronting street entirely?

      I don't have anything against lawns necessarily, but I do have a problem with dictating to people the dimensions of that lawn, and what they must plant in it. Some of these European examples feature tables in chairs in front patio spaces, which should encourage contact between neighbors.

      Delete
  33. I think front lawns foster communities and backyards emphasize not knowing your neighbors.

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