3 March 2013


130303 Gate

Transitionary Element

Where I come from, building setbacks at the front are primary and irrefutable elements of the zoning code. Intrusion is forbidden up to a few inches above the ground plane, except for landscaping and the odd lamp-post. The front-yard setback is the hallmark what what is considered to be good suburban design, the semi-public space that sets a residence or other suburban building away from the activities of the street, and helps to create a pleasant and pastoral street volume.

Municipal governments and city planners see this space as being sacred in its purity of its extruded continuity, with no questions as to what is so special about this irrefutable continuity. Imagine the slice through a street profile, a cut perpendicular to the street direction. The front yard, is considered to require the same continuity and 'flow-through' as the street itself, without any sort of constructed interruption. We can sketch together the principals about how this semi-public space got to be so important; we don't want rooms right up against the parkway that forego any sort of transitionary space between public and private. We don't want walls up against the street that block all indication of life in the residence within. We want space for greenery and accommodation within the principals of the City Beautiful.

Most people accept these rules as inviolate, except perhaps when it comes to one's own property. Hedges are grown that approximate walls, the odd non-permitted arbor, or some other minor bit of construction gets constructed in spite of the rules. If none of the neighbors complain, things are allowed to stand. Views are blocked, and the elongated sausage of negative space is violated. Yet somehow, the results are lovely, that combination of the Ins and the outs, the extension of the transitionary experience from the public to the private being expressed in a variety ways.

Building setbacks, with no exceptions allowed is a silly rule, a blanket administrative dogma that helps to kill off opportunities for great designs within neighborhoods. A more productive criteria would be:
  • Allow for structures, at human height and above, that enrich the transitionary experience between the public street and the private residence of building beyond, or to solve site specific design problems, while:
  • Still requiring a substantial portion of land to be positioned between the street and the building, providing the buffer that green-belt development requires.
  • And, still requiring some transparency between the building and the street, through the semi-pubic buffer, to enrich the street, and to provide a measure of public safety.

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