Why Do We Mandate Front Yards?

Today's post is an actual question. I am hoping readers will come to the forums and post answers!

Setbacks, yards, etc. Almost every zoning code mandates that you don't build your buildings RIGHT up to the property line if you aren't downtown or in a special downtown-like district.

Durham refers to these areas as "street yards" (in the front), "side yards", and "rear yards".

The logic behind side yards and rear yards is that having your building RIGHT next to your neighbors' property could infringe on their property rights (when you think in the single family home context).

I get that argument. We can discuss what the setbacks should be and how much is too much, but it is at least an argument I can wrap my head around. But...

Why do we mandate front yards?

A building close to the street is not close to anyone's private property. There is a full street right-of-way between you and your neighbor across the street, which is certainly a longer distance than whatever your side yard setback requirement is.

I have asked this question in the past and these are the responses I have gotten:

"It allows the city to widen the street if necessary, or add sidewalks or bike paths at a later date. Easier to take that land rather than bulldoze the entire property if changes to the street need to be made."

I have never heard of imminent domain for front yards, but maybe? Mostly, I see the public right-of-way land extend FAR beyond the roadbed and sidewalk, providing room to expand or add bike lines without getting into people's yards.

"A front yard gives a property space to... [park a car, park a bike, have a front garden, have a patio, etc]"

Sure, there are plenty of reasons why people might want a front yard that I can wrap my head around, but that would be something that the builder and buyer (aka the market) decides. It doesn't address why they are mandated by cities. 

"It was a tool to reduce density in response to overcrowded cities during the middle of the 20th century. The larger the setbacks, the less dense you can build."

Now this feels more believable to me. But if we are trying to thicken up our neighborhoods now, why do front setbacks still exist?

Admittedly, not everyone wants to incrementally thicken up neighborhoods. Perhaps this reason rings true today, just as it did in the 50s and 60s.

I'd love to hear more reasons for why Durham should keep front yards. I still feel as though I must be missing a major part of this story. I'd love to hear people's thoughts in the forum!

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