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Setbacks

Article

The term "setback" refers to a distance, prescribed by zoning ordinances, that buildings must be literally ‘set-back' from the property line or public right-of-way. While conventional zoning ordinances may still include setback requirements, many communities are replacing them with "build-to-lines," particularly in commercial areas, to encourage spatial definition and the development a street wall.

Establish build-to lines. Great streets create a sense of space and enclosure that makes it attractive and convenient for pedestrians. Build-To lines help reduce distances pedestrians must travel from the public sidewalk to building entrances and a sense of enclosure and by setbacks suggest a minimum distance buildings must be "set back" from the public right-of-way.

Zoning regulations often require commercial shopping centers to be set back 100-200 feet from the public right-of-way, thus creating a "strip" shopping center fronted by parking. Because sidewalks are located next the roadway, in the public right-of-way, the pedestrian zone is then sandwiched between a parking lot and traffic. Reducing setback requirements and locating parking on the street, behind, or at a minimum, beside buildings would help create a more pedestrian-friendly environment and encourage shoppers to walk to and between shops.

Use existing setbacks to improve the public realm. In small town downtowns, it is not always necessary nor appropriate to wait for redevelopment to occur that is consistant with new zoning codes and build-to lines. Small town downtowns can benefit, regardless of existing setbacks because the urban scale is purposely low. Consider using existing setbacks for landscaping, furniture, public events, cafe seating or other uses that add to the public realm without changing the nature of the small town. Particularly in the case of historic structures, redevelopment may not be an option but the space between the structure and the public right-of-way can be put to beneficial use.