It is time to rethink the virtue of residential setbacks. Drive out to the suburbs and it is hard not be struck by land utterly wasted in their name.

Ask your local planner why you need to push your house 15 feet inside the lot line and he is likely to say it has to do with protecting against environmental degradation and keeping interiors sufficiently supplied with light. Noise and fire may also have a hand in the matter. These are all legitimate concerns but they can be solved with less waste and more thoughtful design.

More likely, setbacks are the product of fears that left to their devices Americans will inevitably screw up the integrity of the built environment. When John Locke, the 17th century philosopher and intellectual force behind the Declaration of Independence, pegged the role of government on that of protecting property, he in effect knew that, left unregulated, one's property will be corrupted. His "life, liberty and the pursuit of property" made it clear that in land and house, among other individual achievements, lied the source of self-reliance and the ability to manifest your own destiny. Jefferson cleverly tweaked the statement, replacing "property" with "happiness," killing two birds with one stone and letting it be known that freedom through property must necessarily also lead to happiness.

The sentiment echoed throughout American history. In the mid-19th century, Andrew Jackson Downing, the son of a New York businessman and a keen follower of English gardens, wrote books instructing the American how to build and restore to the household a dignified approach to living. Disgusted by the way rail, house and factory had conspired to create a dysfunctional and ugly world, he urged his audience to step back from the mess and position their homes at some distance from the street, ideally along a curvy driveway and nestled behind trees.

In his iconic Riverside development, a suburb about 20 miles away from the center of Chicago, Fredrick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect and father of the profession, would heed Downing's call. He insisted on a 30-foot separation between home and street, filled with enough grass and trees that no hideous structure could bring the American project down. In his words: "we cannot judiciously attempt to control the form of houses which men shall build. We can only take care that if they build very ugly and inappropriate houses, they shall not be allowed to force them disagreeably upon our attention as we pass along the road."

Yet hideousness persisted, leading to a situation in the 1920s in which building badly was not a mere matter of aesthetics but one that effected the economy. No bank was going to loan against a property that looked and behaved in a way that promoted carelessness. This is when Herbert Hoover, our 31st president, an engineer by training, established a division of building and housing in the commerce department, and through it legislated standards, including setbacks, 20-feet deep, "to ensure that light and air would reach every room in every structure."

We owe our current codes to him, similarly fearing that left alone the American will foul up the built environment. Our concerns are well founded but we should also like to think we have progressed since the '20s, learning from mistakes and generally becoming more sensitive to environmental issues.

Throughout the country and in our schools, there now exists as part of architectural and policy curricula multiple courses on responsible urban planning, offering critical guidelines about how to share space, minimize footprint and live well under much tighter conditions than before. Do we really need the wasteful instrument of setbacks to keep us in check anymore? Can we replace harmful rules with dialogue, facilitated through review boards based on an open and democratic exchange between city and citizen, planner and developer?

At this point, it is less clear that we keep setbacks to protect against the deleterious effect of individualism and more to protect a multibillion dollar "turfgrass" industry, which includes the sale of sod, lawn care, lawn equipment and more.

It is time to reassess our values. Do we care more about protecting the environment, including precious farmland, but also our social fabric, or more about a piece of territory that very few have time to tend but which we hang on to simply to preserve an arcane fear of excess individualism? How can we call ourselves the greatest country on earth if we can't solve this easy problem.

Ayad Rahmani has been with Washington State University since 1997 and is an associate professor in the Shcool of Design and Construction.

Recommended for you