(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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.