Site design 📐 USA Today Article: Backyards are highly overrated

ColoGI

Cyburbian
Messages
2,565
Points
18
My personal experience they are wrong - both growing up (we had woods) and as an adult.

It's an opinion piece, written by a city person. Not everyone is a city person nor wants to be one.
 

Tide

Cyburbian
Messages
2,719
Points
24
I actually think front yards are overrated and all planners need to shift building envelopes forward. I don't need a 30 foot front yard and a 35 foot backyard, give me a 15 foot front yard and a 50 foot backyard I can actually throw a ball in. The exception to this is very busy thoroughfares where you would want a front yard setback, but a 25 MPH subdivision, 15 feet is more than enough to park a car in front of the house and off the road (unless you use on road parking) then make it 10 feet.
 

ColoGI

Cyburbian
Messages
2,565
Points
18
...all planners need to shift building envelopes forward. ...give me a 15 foot front yard ...15 feet is more than enough to park a car in front of the house and off the road (unless you use on road parking) then make it 10 feet.

I agree this is what we are told we should want.

Yet shortening front setbacks eliminates large-canopy trees in the ROW or private yards; these public goods - large-canopied trees - ameliorate the urban heat island, slow stormwater runoff, shade streets which lengthens pavement longevity and reduces VOCs from parked vehicles in warm months, intercept and filter air pollutants, (too close to the structure will) impede the solar access plane on the roof of structures on the north side of streets (and both E-W sides), slow traffic, create identity, are views from a window, increase property values, restore attention, and on and on for many more benefits, but you get the idea.

The CNU, LEED-ND and LEED [STRIKEOUT]fads[/STRIKEOUT] systems do a poor job at understanding and designing for these basic facts.
 

Cardinal

Cyburbian
Messages
10,069
Points
34
It is probably true that a lot of people do not spend much time outside in their yard. Then again, there are those of us who do. This past week my family gathered for a birthday party and many of us spent half the time outside. On Monday and Tuesday I spent 2-3 hours each day outside. Wednesday was particularly nice so I sat outside for an hour in the afternoon reading with the dogs. Thursday I was again outside working in the yard for a couple hours. Friday I spent an hour in the vegetable garden. Despite it being cool, I will probably get out again this morning. Some people will say I spend most of my time outdoors working in the yard. Work? Yes, I suppose, but for me gardening is also a recreational pusuit, hobby, and passion as well as helping to keep me relaxed, sane, and happy. It is a reward each time I step outside, even if it is just to let the dogs out.

As one of my college profs used to say, n=1. My example may just be anecdotal, but I also see my neighbors doing the same. I start to wonder about the sampling of the study participants. Los Angeles may not have been the best choice, where people have excessive commutes, weather may be sunny but very hot, yards are often small, and the people are Californians. Normal people, perhaps, behave diffrently.
 

Tide

Cyburbian
Messages
2,719
Points
24
I agree this is what we are told we should want.

Yet shortening front setbacks eliminates large-canopy trees in the ROW or private yards; these public goods - large-canopied trees - ameliorate the urban heat island, slow stormwater runoff, shade streets which lengthens pavement longevity and reduces VOCs from parked vehicles in warm months, intercept and filter air pollutants, (too close to the structure will) impede the solar access plane on the roof of structures on the north side of streets (and both E-W sides), slow traffic, create identity, are views from a window, increase property values, restore attention, and on and on for many more benefits, but you get the idea.

The CNU, LEED-ND and LEED [STRIKEOUT]fads[/STRIKEOUT] systems do a poor job at understanding and designing for these basic facts.

Um, I assume you've been to NYC or some other large city with zero front yard setbacks that still have tree lined streets? Setbacks don't necessarily start at the curbline, sometimes they start at back of the ROW which can include the sidewalk and green strips with street trees. Still, 10 feet setback, with a tree planted near the front property line would allow for a near 20 foot canopy.
 

ColoGI

Cyburbian
Messages
2,565
Points
18
Um, I assume you've been to NYC or some other large city with zero front yard setbacks that still have tree lined streets?

Of course. And I was just in Montreal and Quebec City studying their spatial arrangements as well. Nevertheless, the problems with most of NYC's tree lined streets is the subject of another thread and shouldn't be held up as an exemplar.

Setbacks don't necessarily start at the curbline, sometimes they start at back of the ROW which can include the sidewalk and green strips with street trees. Still, 10 feet setback, with a tree planted near the front property line would allow for a near 20 foot canopy.

I'm specifically concerned in my work with setbacks that start at the back of the ROW, and where 15 feet is still inadequate. A 20 foot canopy is inadequate next to the street, and a tree with a 20 foot canopy in front of a structure less than 3 stories will impede the solar access plane. The topic is complicated and this is simply to say the standard template is inadequate to address the ecological portion of the built environment.
 

Linda_D

Cyburbian
Messages
1,753
Points
21
Of course. And I was just in Montreal and Quebec City studying their spatial arrangements as well. Nevertheless, the problems with most of NYC's tree lined streets is the subject of another thread and shouldn't be held up as an exemplar.



I'm specifically concerned in my work with setbacks that start at the back of the ROW, and where 15 feet is still inadequate. A 20 foot canopy is inadequate next to the street, and a tree with a 20 foot canopy in front of a structure less than 3 stories will impede the solar access plane. The topic is complicated and this is simply to say the standard template is inadequate to address the ecological portion of the built environment.

In most cities, at least here in NYS, the trend is to plant smallish street trees that will NOT bring down power lines in storms, will NOT heave sidewalks, and will NOT get into the sewer lines. These are NEVER going to have enough canopy to shade the street, but they also aren't going to have nasty roots or interfere with power lines, and that's what the city and most homeowners want. Here in Jamestown, if you're on a "re-tree" street (most of the big, older trees on your street have been removed because of disease), you can pick your own tree that the city will supply and plant for you for free. The choices are Bradford pears, crabapples, tree lilacs, etc. I picked a pink flowering crab.

I have an older home that was built in the 1920s and then remodelled with an addition on the front in the late 1960s or 1970s. The setback is 13 feet from the sidewalk (that's where my land actually begins). Most homes on my street have front setbacks of less than 20 feet. The sidewalk and area between the sidewalk and the street belongs to the city, although the homeowner is expected to maintain it. Even where there are no sidewalks, the city still owns that area, which is between 8 and 10 feet, so homes here are really 20-25 feet back from the street itself. I have no problem with that small a set back.

As for the article, I would point out the fact that it was one study based on one small sample from one small area. For example, certainly the age of children would determine how much they would use the backyard -- younger children will use it much more than probably even middle schoolers and certainly more than older adolescents. An upper middle class neighborhood would probably have fewer young children than a neighborhood of starter homes.
 

ColoGI

Cyburbian
Messages
2,565
Points
18
In most cities, at least here in NYS, the trend is to plant smallish street trees that will NOT bring down power lines in storms, will NOT heave sidewalks, and will NOT get into the sewer lines. These are NEVER going to have enough canopy to shade the street, but they also aren't going to have nasty roots or interfere with power lines, and that's what the city and most homeowners want.

These are all symptoms of cr*ppy infrastructure design and/or construction.
 

Hink

OH....IO
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
16,446
Points
59
This is like having a story that says public transportation is overrated. It really depends on who uses it, and what for.

Personally, I wouldn't buy a home without at least an acre of land. I guess I could build my house on the rear lot line forcing me to have an acre of front yard...

People want different things with their largest purchase. Some want connectivity, some want seclusion. Some want interaction, some want to be left alone. Is it "healthy" for a street? Who knows. But if the house sells, then it is the persons prerogative how they use it. If you want to build a home, much of that decision is based on where you can get the land. And you won't buy land where you can't build a house how you want.
 

Gotta Speakup

Cyburbian
Messages
1,454
Points
21
This is like having a story that says public transportation is overrated. It really depends on who uses it, and what for.

Personally, I wouldn't buy a home without at least an acre of land. I guess I could build my house on the rear lot line forcing me to have an acre of front yard...

People want different things with their largest purchase. Some want connectivity, some want seclusion. Some want interaction, some want to be left alone. Is it "healthy" for a street? Who knows. But if the house sells, then it is the persons prerogative how they use it. If you want to build a home, much of that decision is based on where you can get the land. And you won't buy land where you can't build a house how you want.

This is all so true. I grew up with a back yard that is about the size of my living room today - and I dont live in a big house. What was the point of it? As an adult I prefer to live in an apartment building, valuing the view over the open space. But to each is own. Why should anyone care how others live?
 

OfficialPlanner

Cyburbian
Messages
944
Points
24
This is all so true. I grew up with a back yard that is about the size of my living room today - and I dont live in a big house. What was the point of it? As an adult I prefer to live in an apartment building, valuing the view over the open space. But to each is own. Why should anyone care how others live?

My background is also very similar. As a child, I would hang out at the nearby school park more often than the backyard. These days I'm looking for a townhome without a yard or a condo with a view. All I need is enough space for a BBQ and a patio table, and that's it. My personal belief is that backyards are overrated since people rarely use the entire space. The size of one's lot is seen as a status symbol I guess. The time and expenses spent maintaining a lawn are maddening to me. But to each his own.

The below development was built in the late 90s. A racetrack occupied the site before it was redeveloped into this subdivison. My opinion is the developer was drunk off the New Urbanism kool-aid, but nevertheless they sold very well from what I remember.
http://maps.google.com/maps?ll=43.6...=Ua4wGDeL2QQe1NqqKEyGDw&cbp=12,324.52,,0,-8.9

Today they resell from over $750,000 CAD, and that's for the narrow ones. Most of of these homes utilize the rooftop space as a patio to entertain guests. I've seen the same concept in Chicago. It's an innovative use of space where land prices are at a premium.

http://www.inthebeach.com/34jdinteractive.html
 
Last edited:

btrage

Cyburbian
Messages
6,427
Points
27
I live in a suburban subdivision and our backyard, which is the largest in the entire sub, rarely gets used. The kids in the neighborhood would rather play in the front yards or be by the sidewalk and streets where they can ride their bikes. I don't typically like big back yards, and we weren't necessarily looking for one, it just happened to go that way. I will try and find ways to reduce the size of my backyard. Pool anyone??
 

ColoGI

Cyburbian
Messages
2,565
Points
18
I live in a suburban subdivision and our backyard, which is the largest in the entire sub, rarely gets used. The kids in the neighborhood would rather play in the front yards or be by the sidewalk and streets where they can ride their bikes. I don't typically like big back yards, and we weren't necessarily looking for one, it just happened to go that way. I will try and find ways to reduce the size of my backyard. Pool anyone??

Most of the people in our subdivision spend almost zero time in their yards, including directing the lawn service about every two months. We often remark on how the land around here is wasted. I'd expand the veggie garden and landscaping into their unused yards if they'd let me. This is the reason why I think the ROW can have 8-10 foot treelawns and a little deeper setback and big trees can serve the public. Few want to maintain large private trees (although they are needed too) every 10 years at 3-4-500.00 a pop.
 

Streck

Cyburbian
Messages
609
Points
18
When I was a young man, all I wanted was a balcony big enough to put a barbque grill on.

When I was a married man, I wanted a decent front yard for appearance and a patio for entertaining.

When I was a married man with children, I wanted a big back yard for the children to safely play away from the street.

Since the children have gone, I want a back yard to putter around with garden vegatables, and enough space for an occassional grandchild to visit and play.

As a retired person, I enjoy the color of our flowering trees, and the shade and gentle murmur of our mature trees in our front and back yards, and sitting on the patio deck and listening to the gurgle of our stream bed as it cascades into our koi pond.

Having the advantage of the experience of living through these phases of life, and now looking back, I find that I would not change those desires for space and serenity.

Maybe that is why we have different size lots, different size houses, and different size set-backs as we go through life.

Peace.
 

mike gurnee

Cyburbian
Messages
3,065
Points
32
When I was a young man, all I wanted was a balcony big enough to put a barbque grill on.

When I was a married man, I wanted a decent front yard for appearance and a patio for entertaining.

When I was a married man with children, I wanted a big back yard for the children to safely play away from the street.

Since the children have gone, I want a back yard to putter around with garden vegatables, and enough space for an occassional grandchild to visit and play.

As a retired person, I enjoy the color of our flowering trees, and the shade and gentle murmur of our mature trees in our front and back yards, and sitting on the patio deck and listening to the gurgle of our stream bed as it cascades into our koi pond.

Having the advantage of the experience of living through these phases of life, and now looking back, I find that I would not change those desires for space and serenity.

Maybe that is why we have different size lots, different size houses, and different size set-backs as we go through life.

Peace.

Exactly.
 

Gotta Speakup

Cyburbian
Messages
1,454
Points
21
Again, the answer is choice: a community should provide a diversity of housing that accommodates as best as it can people with diverse needs and wants.

I will bring up the problem of externalities. If too many people want big lots, then traffic will increase, more greenhouse gasses are produced, and there are needs for greater public services (more roads, etc.).

Of course one can argue that there are increased external costs of higher density housing as well.
 
Messages
3,049
Points
26
-bump-

Re: Backyard use during the pandemic.

Have people used their backyards more during the pandemic?

Are there large, statistically significant studies to prove/disprove that backyards were used more in 2020?

Once the pandemic is over, will people will go back to their backyards' pre-Covid use--or will there be permanent changes in backyard use?

 

RandomPlanner

Cyburbian
Messages
1,832
Points
28
Oooh, interesting topic.

I grew up in a hamlet on 4 acres of land with most of it being in the back yard (directly behind my house and my neighbors' houses). Our house was about 60' from the edge of pavement (I just measured it; thanks google) which was fairly typical for my neighborhood and, even now, doesn't seem excessive there in rural Upstate NY. We were also across the street from a municipal park.

Thinking of my childhood, we spent the majority of outdoor leisure time in the backyard but also used the front yard and the park (or the actual street for biking and Red-Light-Green-Light) as alternatives.

Now, thinking from a planner's mindset, I could argue that a front yard setback is really not necessary and I wonder how a large front porch with a small front yard setback would have changed my childhood. Mine was very social with people and parties happening pretty consistently but those people weren't generally my neighbors.

Would we have been friendlier/ closer friends with our neighbors if we had lived in a different style of neighborhood? Would we have cared to be close with our neighbors when we had such a large group of non-neighbor friends?

From a COVID perspective, my mom is still having people over although they are smaller gatherings not parties, per say. She mainly keeps small events to outdoors right now and they gather around the bonfire or in the open space of the back patio and surround and are able to visit while staying 6' or more apart.

At my house in a city, we haven't had people over in almost a year. Do I think her mental health is better than mine right now? Yes. Is that dependent on her front yard setback? No, it's partially dependent on her acreage though.
 

DVD

Cyburbian
Messages
15,523
Points
53
I argue the front yard is wasted space. Most of us never use the front so why not push the house up closer and give people a bigger back yard. About the only thing I do in the front yard is park an extra car in the driveway. I would be much happier with what RP is saying. Put a big porch out there so people have a reason to use it. Of course growing up in Phoenix the pools were all in the back yard so they kind of got used. The front yard was typically rock with a couple plants. Not much fun there.
 

bureaucrat#3

Member
Messages
131
Points
8
I've had conversations with a planner who felt that rear alleys reduced social interaction. He moved from a suburban style neighborhood to a new urban neighborhood. He felt that he had more interaction with in his front driveway than the rear alley. He thought it was because the front yard and street felt like public space and open, where the rear alley was more private space. He was also shocked how little people used their front porches compared to how big a deal planners/architects make it in TNDs.

I've always wondered if he was because he was older with kids out of the house, where the family had grown up in the suburban home.
 

Maister

Chairman of the bored
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
30,173
Points
74
I value both my front and rear yards for different reasons. Front is where a residence says 'welcome' to the world. One of the tenets of NU is that front porches close to sidewalks invites interaction with the neighbors and community. Rear yards can be useful spaces for both public and private functions. Typically, we host cookouts with neighbors in the back yard (well, we USED TO pre-covid) and private family cookouts, but the space is also useful for kids to play in as well. Lastly, the rear yard is ideal for growing food/gardening.
 

mendelman

Unfrozen Caveman Planner
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
15,559
Points
60
That's beautiful. I looked at the alleyway behind it. People here would freak out. It would take five tries to get the standard truck here in one of the garages. We have to talk fire and trash off the ledge over some of the existing 18 ft alleys.
Well that’s been the standard urban form for basically all of Chicago’s history, so I’m sure they’re well adapted to it.
 

Bubba

Cyburbian
Messages
5,909
Points
47
A lot of the setbacks in my suburban 'hood were apparently dictated by topography and the developer wanting to keep as many mature trees as possible.
 
Top