A Minor Setback for Pedestrians

Michael Lewyn's picture

Municipal zoning codes and comprehensive plans often require buildings to be set back far from the street.  As a result, the metropolitan landscape sometimes looks like one giant strip mall; every building is separated from the street either by a parking lot or by some form of greenspace. 

These rules inconvenience pedestrians in a variety of ways.  First, setbacks artificially reduce density by reducing the amount of land available for housing and jobs.  Since good transit service requires a minimal level of density (at least five units per acre for hourly bus service, and more for higher-quality bus service or rail), lower density means less transit service.  Second, setbacks also force pedestrians to spend more time walking between buildings and sidewalks, thus making their commutes longer and more inconvenient. Third, setbacks make pedestrians feel less enclosed, making walking a less pleasant experience.

So why do cities still have these rules?  Seattle's comprehensive plan makes a variety of arguments for mandatory setbacks.  First, the plan claims that setbacks "ensure access to light and air."  But all human beings breathe air no matter where buildings are placed, so "air" is irrelevant.  Access to "light" also exists no matter where buildings are placed (with the possible exception of very tall buildings* that might cast shadows). 

The plan also claims that setbacks create a "sense of privacy."  This argument is so subjective that it is immune to verification.  Having said that, I have lived in buildings that are near the sidewalk and those that are not, and I don't feel like I have any less privacy in the first situation.

Finally, the city claims that setbacks "provide adequate transition between zones of different intensities."  This argument would justify setbacks for buildings at the border of two zones, but not for other buildings. 

In sum, all of the city's arguments for setbacks appear to me to be unpersuasive.

*Living in midtown Manhattan, I notice that even streets occupied by very tall buildings (like Avenue of the Americas) sometimes have ample sunlight, depending on the time of the day and the side of the street at issue.  So even in the "worst case scenario" of a skyscraper-dominated street, it is not true that buildings that front the sidewalk reduce sunlight.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Setback legality

I agree whole-heartedly about the destructive potential of setbacks. Are you saying that you believe setbacks serve no legitimate public purpose and are legally indefensible?

Wrong title?

Mr. Lewyn, I think you chose the wrong name for this essay. Minor setbacks can be used to provide an inviting entryway to a building or property. Major setbacks, however, can be ruinous for pedestrian scale design, and help turn a walkable street into what Charles Marohn terms a "stroad" - trying to be a both a street and a road, yet succeeding at neither.

Missing Puzzle Pieces

A well argued piece, Michael. A bit more planning context and geometry might help strengthen its logic.
Hippodamus, Vitruvius, Howard, Unwin and Corbusier all considered light and air important elements in city planning. Not the air that surrounds us but that which cleanses the city from its malodorous by-products (e.g. horse manure, effluents, garbage etc) – Vent-ilation. Narrow, old, back lanes are a vivid example of sufficient air but insufficient ventilation. The city air we breathe is a soup of all of what is clean and also impure; often unsavory and sometimes pernicious (e.g. monoxide and particulates). Wide right-of-ways with generous setbacks can accomplish the cleansing easier.

As for light, any east-west street with tall buildings on its south side, that form an enclosure facade, will have its north side buildings receiving little or no DIRECT SUNLIGHT particularly their lower floors (in latitudes like New York, Toronto etc.). Sunlight is vital for physical and mental health as it is for plant growth and for obliterating bacterial growth. The geometry of the street section should accommodate it, and many cities have bylaws requiring the stepping back of tall buildings for this reason. Wide ROW plus setbacks and modest height buildings accomplish it easier.

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