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How the rest of the world solves the front-yard problem? No front yard!

How the rest of the world solves the front-yard problem?  No front yard!

Time for a follow-up to my recent criticism of the all-turf American front yard, which we can thank Olmsted for popularizing both in parks and in front of homes.  When commissioned to design a new town, he mandated 30-foot setbacks from the street.

Outside Paris

Readers here know that front yards are the new battlefield for gardeners fighting to use that cursed space for something more productive and beautiful than turfgrass, which is still so often required.  But as boring as it is, it’s cheaper than the alternatives, and requires little skill and no imagination, so easy alternatives are hard to come by.

But guess what – in most of the rest of the world they’ve solved the problem of what to do with their front yards by simply not having them – by having little or NO setback whatever.  What a concept!

On the blog The Old Urbanist  I discovered these radical images of suburbs around the world that have no front yard to speak of, just usable, private back yards.  The streets are narrower, which slows traffic and increases walkability.  Here’s how blogger Charles Gardner describes the Paris example above:

 Setback areas have been enclosed by walls, fences or hedges, and made into functional patios ornamented by planter boxes.  A spacious and private yard lies behind the home.  There are no rear alleys.  This simple design, of which there must be hundreds of thousands of examples in Paris alone, would be illegal under every American zoning code.

Outside Rome

And outside Rome, “Setbacks are entirely occupied by patios.  Backyards are put to productive use as personal vegetable gardens with large balconies above.  There is zero turf lawn to be found.”

Outside Murfreesboro, TN

By contrast, here’s a typical American suburb:

A 35-foot roadway with 40-foot setbacks.  This despite the fact that the street is a cul-de-sac and has virtually no traffic to “buffer” against. No wall, fence or hedge interrupts the Olmstedian pastoral aesthetic of the endless meadow (and would be very expensive to construct or plant at this scale, anyways). The backyard is much smaller than it might otherwise be due to the large setback.

Gardner’s summary, that “Nearly all municipal zoning codes in the United States require large setbacks, depriving homeowners of any choice in the matter,” is infuriating.

Though not everyone has the same reaction. One commenter to Gardner’s article wrote ” I´m from southern Europe and I really envy your suburbs. I love the wide spaces and the green everywhere. You have no idea how lucky you are. Most Southern European suburbs are small and without any trees or vegetation, most of them are really depressing.”

So readers, could YOU imagine living so close to the (albeit narrower, quieter) street?

Click here for more examples at The Old Urbanist and here for still more great visuals.

Posted by

Susan Harris
on January 4, 2013 at 9:11 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Lawn Reform.

17 Comments

    • Matt
    • 29th May 2016

    While travelling in Japan last year, I noticed a similar lack of front yards

    • admin
    • 13th November 2016

    If you made me choose between the Paris/Rome and Murfreesboro streets, I’d take the Paris/Rome one for sure. Would it be my top choice given any possible configuration? No. I need much more space than that!

    • Wild Flora
    • 23rd November 2016

    My English grandparents lived in a little semi-detached house in Hounslow, in a community built for working class people before WWII. All the houses were designed along the lines you describe here: Almost no front yard, and what there little there was was enclosed by a fence. This turned out to be practical in more ways than one. Because what little land they had was all behind the house, they were able to have room for a vegetable garden, small greenhouse, berries, an apple tree, my grandfather’s prize dahlias and (during the war) a rabbit hutch. Like so many other Londoners of the time, they survived wartime food shortages thanks to this garden. Meanwhile the area in front of the house required almost no attention.

    • Dave
    • 16th December 2016

    You see that all over the country in pockets. East Side of Providence RI, the hills of southern California, immediate DC suburbs… the common thread, of course, is that most of the homes are from the ’60s or (much, much) earlier. Even if you could sell the permit store on the benefits of a zero- or minimal-setback home, would there be a market? Folks like us dig them, but, um – we’re outliers. I’d rather focus on getting people to have awesome, interesting front yards.

    • admin
    • 16th December 2016

    What DC suburbs do you have in mind?

    • Dave
    • 17th December 2016

    Susan, Old Town Alexandria for sure (down by King Street). I’ve done a couple of jobs in DC just over the river from VA (not sure what the neighborhoods were called) where the front yards were maybe 8-12′ deep but the backyards rocked (room for a pool and everything).

    • admin
    • 17th December 2016

    I’m in Arlington, VA, in a 50s era house, and I have a very narrow front yard–I believe because my street was widened at some point. I’d replace all of the grass (er, weeds), eventually, if I did not need a place to pile snow (hey, it might snow again at some point, and I don’t want to be tromping all over my perennials). As long as I have plenty of back yard to plant, I care little about the front yard. The waste depicted in the Murfreesboro photo is just depressing.

    • sensiblegardening
    • 17th December 2016

    I think it’s all about what space is available. In Europe and Asia I’ve seen the no yard concept many times because it is a necessity, and many people do what they can to beautify that little space and others do not. Pretty much the same as here, only in America we have much more land to distribute to each individual and so we do. I think most of us prefer to have our larger free spaces, it’s part of who North Americans are. If we want to live close, we can choose to live in a condo in the inner city. Now all we have to do it get more people with yards more motivated to make them beautiful.

    • Tibs
    • 17th December 2016

    “No rear alleys”? Lovely looking streets, but where would Americans put there cars. Need alleys for access to garages and parking No need for driveways for every house that are too short and the cars stick into the sidewalk forcing pecs into the street.

    • admin
    • 18th December 2016

    You will notice that in the examples from Paris and Rome that there are no trees and very few shrubs near the street. Just more hardscaping. In Tennessee, the people at least have the opprotunity to plant trees nearer the street pavement, which would do a lot to beautify their neighborhood as well as make it more ecologically friendly.

    • Michelle Derviss
    • 18th December 2016

    I’ have a few comments in regards to The Old Urbanist post.
    In regards to ‘American zoning’ codes, I believe the writer is mistaken.
    Here in the US we have hundreds of urban areas that have shallow front yards and they are most certainly code compliant.
    Walk on any number of streets from Boston to San Francisco and you’ll find homes that directly abut the sidewalk or have a 5 to 10 foot setback.

    • carolyn mullet
    • 18th December 2016

    Well said, Michelle.

    • jeff z
    • 18th December 2016

    These spaces are lowly grass at present and will continue to be. I have driven through many many subdivisions built in the 70s and 80s that continue to look like a variation on the photo of Murfreesboro. And this is in Minnesota- nowhere near Tennessee.

    • admin
    • 19th December 2016

    Missing from this erudite dialogue is a comparison of the market values between European and North American residential real estate that has made front lawns affordable for most middle class American home owners. A grass-turfed manicured front lawn, a luxury in most parts of the world, continues to be a realistic expectation in the USA – regardless if it benefits the environment or not.

    • Mary Gray
    • 19th December 2016

    I agree with the defenders of suburbia here. Remember that many of our ancestors high tailed it out of the big, crowded cities as soon as they were able. The cities were crowded, smelly, noisy, and bred diseases.

    • Tom Wilkinson
    • 19th December 2016

    This happened to me in July 2003 in Erie PA.

    • hk
    • 19th December 2016

    I think setbacks are important for areas with snow. Otherwise, where would it go but right up to your front windows? I don’t have a problem with setbacks per se but the idea that the should be unused areas of turf has to go. I do see that slowly changing.

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