I was catching up on posts over at The Old Urbanist, and came across his astute analysis of setbacks that many of you probably saw a while back. Focusing on the requirement for large front lawns in many towns across the country, Charlie Gardner writes:
Whether this reflects a continuing market preference is unclear, since nearly all municipal zoning codes in the United States require large setbacks (see, e.g.,Charlotte), depriving homeowners of any choice in the matter. The pattern has been replicated so relentlessly across the North American continent that alternative single-family residential designs may simply have been scrubbed from the collective imagination.
Gardner and others attribute this bland landscape in large part to Frederick Law Olmsted, and he certainly did support increased greenery in urban areas and lawns that run seamlessly across property lines. However, I think it’s important to distinguish between Olmsted’s vision and the land use regulations that have imposed some version his ideal on American suburbs. Olmsted did promote planned communities, but only local governments have had the authority to make his vision law.
of Olmsted’s planned communities of communities built in Olmsted’s style, Baltimore’s Roland Park immediately comes to my mind. This turn-of-the-century neighborhood was one of the country’s first suburbs. Of course Roland Park is far from an urbanist neighborhood, and it’s easy to fault Olmsted for overlooking the crucial civic aspect of drawing neighbors to the sidewalks and streets for spontaneous interaction. However, (and I realize this may be a minority opinion), I think that it is a lovely neighborhood, and it’s even relatively pedestrian friendly. Clearly, it has little in common with the “snout house” suburbs that Gardner discusses in relation to setback requirements.
Part of Roland Park’s charm is that it achieves the feeling of being a green enclave because it lies among denser neighborhoods of row houses. It’s directly north of Hampden, the epitome of Baltimore row house developments. Both of these neighborhoods were built before the city adopted a zoning code, reflecting the diversity that is possible when cities are allowed to develop organically without the rigidity of a master plan that dictates neighborhoods’ characters. The two neighborhoods benefit one another because the diversity in housing leads to a diversity in customers to support healthy commercial strips in each.
Urbanists can certainly criticize Olmsted for his blindness to the vitality on the streets and sidewalks of urban neighborhoods, free from isolating expanses of green grass. However, blaming him for the banality of modern suburbs is unfair. Olmsted did not enforce his vision on suburbs all across the country; rather students of his work zoned their cities in failed attempts to codify his ideal. Olmsted may have brought front lawns to the market, but without government coercion, wide grassy setbacks would be one of many styles available to residents of suburban housing, freeing developers to cater to market demand for variety. The current level of uniformity has been achieved only with the threat of jail for dissenters.