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  • Writer's pictureJena Skinner, AICP

Do the old ways of doing site design = improved social distance in the time of Covid-19? Yes.

In our communities, it's always bothered me that front setbacks are so large, and rear so small. Why would that bother me? Front porch socialization and families hanging out in backyards.

It's an old tradition to sit on your porch and wave, smile, keep your eyes on kids riding their bikes down the sidewalk, and, well now, a chance to feel less isolated during this pandemic. Our streets have gotten wider. Our front doors are hidden, recessed, or designed as "just a door" without a place to hang out in the front. Luckily, I am blessed to have a front porch, but it's disconnected from my neighbors due to its location being set back far from the road - a major artery. Understandable, then. But what about conventional subdivisions with low traffic volumes on side streets?

This recent article really brought me back to the old "front setback" debate I have in my head. Traditional design has merit. Why did we stray from being safely social?

Remember feminist planning theory, architects? I would guess no, because if that were the case, kitchens would always overlook the backyard so parents can keep an eye on their kids and families as they have backyard barbeques- a perfect activity during COVID. I can't remember being in a new home that has the luxury of being outside, but enjoying the outside while someone is doing the dishes. So, why did front and back setbacks swap?

It is my opinions that kids should be playing in the back yards away from cars, but why have rear setbacks shrunk to only a small percentage of the dimensional limitations? Who decided to change the value of privacy of a front setback vs. the rear? Well, I believe someone thought it was a good idea- at the time.

This is what I found on Wikipedia (no source/author provided Read Here ):

Setbacks. Homes usually have a setback from the property boundary, so that they cannot be placed close together. Setbacks may also allow for public utilities to access the buildings, and for access to utility meters. In some municipalities, setbacks are based on street right-of-ways, and not the front property line. Nonetheless, many of the world's cities, such as those built in the US before 1916 and the beginnings of zoning in the United States, do not employ setbacks.

Zoning –and laws pertaining to site development, such as setbacks for front lawns– has been criticized recently by urban planners (most notably Jane Jacobs) for the role that these laws have played in producing urban sprawl and automobile-dependent, low-density cities.

Older houses have smaller setbacks between properties, as walking was a primary mode of transportation and the distance people walked to actual destinations and, eventually, streetcar stops had to be kept short out of necessity. Distances of one to five feet at most are common in neighborhoods built in the United States before 1890, when the electric streetcar first became popular. Most suburbs laid out before 1920 have narrow lots and setbacks of five to fifteen feet between houses. As automobile ownership became common, setbacks increased further because zoning laws required developers to leave large spaces between the house and street. Recently, in some areas of the United States, setback requirements have been lowered so as to permit new homes and other structures to be closer to the street, one facet of the low impact development urban design movement. This permits a more u

sable rear yard and limits new impervious surface areas for the purposes of stormwater infiltration.

In the time of walkable streets and increased bike lanes- and now social distancing, maybe ALL jurisdictions should also consider going back to the old ways? Isolation-living

is demanding it, and no matter what, humans are social creatures, after all.


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