Traditional Neighborhood Design: Setbacks and Scale

Walking in Manhattan is distinctly different from walking down a rural country lane, a suburban neighborhood, or a small town’s Main Street. Why? A lot of it has to do with setback and scale.

Setback refers to how far parts of a building are from the street or sidewalk. In urban areas, buildings are often right up against the sidewalk, whereas in rural areas they’re set way back. Conventional suburban development features big front yards, long driveways, and garages set closer to the road than houses. This set-up favors the automobile, and makes walking feel less desirable.

Scale refers to how large the buildings are. On that Manhattan street, with skyscrapers set really close to the street, you can feel like you’re walking through a tunnel. Rural areas feel spread out because the buildings are relatively small compared to the landscape, and placed far apart.

Small town Main Streets are somewhere in between—the buildings are close to the street, but usually no more than four stories tall. They feel accessible, “human scaled.”

Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) advocates narrow front setbacks (close to the street), with garages set farther from the street than the main building. Smaller buildings are preferred over skyscrapers, generally, unless you’re in a really urban setting.

In a lot of places, the zoning regulations require large setbacks and allow larger buildings—so TND requires a variance or zoning ordinance change.

(Photo: Aiyou Zho; Vintage Township in Lubbock, TX.)