Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Lawn Reform

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 on January 4, 2013 at 9:11 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Lawn Reform.
Comments are off for this post

32 Responses to “How the rest of the world solves the front-yard problem? No front yard!”

  1. tara dillard says:

    When a scientific study comes along and states, “Living without turf adds years to life, reduces wrinkles & makes people skinny.” THEN there will be change.

    I’m with you girl. Got rid of my turf decades ago, only person in the subdivision without turf. Deed restrictions require bermuda lawn, said nothing about zero lawn !

    Have you read any Wendell Berry? He’s way ahead of you/me.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. Matt says:

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

  3. 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!

  4. Wild Flora says:

    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.

    Today this little house is still lived in. Google street view shows me that the former front yard has been paved, and the owners use it to park a car, which seems like a practical use of the space considering that the original plan of the community did not include space for cars. I often wonder what has become of the area behind the house.

  5. Dave says:

    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.

    • Susan Harris says:

      What DC suburbs do you have in mind?

      • Dave says:

        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).

        Growing up in Rhode Island, I thought the homes on the East Side where you literally walked out right onto the sidewalk were great. But every Halloween, we do a zombie graveyard in the front yard and get over 500 trick or treaters (Culpeper VA is strange). I couldn’t imagine giving that up!

      • Val says:

        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.

  6. UrsulaV says:

    I saw that in France a few months, back, in most of the little towns. Some had a small fenced area in front, often with decorative wrought iron, but most were straight onto the sidewalk. The effect varied depending on how good the architecture was–it gave a rather run-down feel in some areas, but an absolutely delightful one in others. And the windowboxes…!

  7. I dont think I would like to have no front yard as it would mean stepping straight onto the road or pavement (sidewalk). This is common in many villages with the older houses in the Uk but more modern houses have front gardens or varying sizes. Mine is indeed too deep and I would prefer it smaller and more back garden but so be it. I have planted a hedge, which I dont think you are allowed in the US, and that provides privacy so I can enjoy this space as well

  8. 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.

  9. Tibs says:

    “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.

  10. Deirdre says:

    I’d rather look at a garden than a house facade. I’d rather chat with my neighbors while working on the front yard than hide behind walls and hedges. I’m all for cutting back on lawns, but eliminating the front yard is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There’s nothing wrong with those North American suburbs that a few trees and shrubs wouldn’t fix (except for the ugly garages front and center).

  11. 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.

    I do not think it is the distance of the front yard that keeps Americans dedicated to their lawns, but rather our fear of regressing back into the wildness that we have recently tamed (as opposed to Europe, which has been tamed for centuries). I personally love the wilderness, but it is though the general populous needs to feel control over our wide open country. And turf just “feels” safer and easier; A very emotional reaction.

  12. 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.

    The photo that shows a housing development in Murfreeboro TN doesn’t reflect poor judgement in setback zoning , it clearly depicts a lack of imaginative landscaping.
    There’s nothing wrong with the setback at all and the author clearly misses the point if he believes that set backs are to blame for poorly designed landscapes.

    A broad expanse of lawn does not make a landscape. It makes a monoculture, and a boring one at that.
    Olmsted and Vaux ( Vaux was his biz partner ) would be pushing up daisies if they knew that their pastoral style of landscaping was being used as an analogy to the myopic use of lawns in the American landscape.
    Olmsted and Vaux were poetic socially conscience visionaries not schlock pick-up truck mow and go landscrapers.

    Their use of lawns was used to breach the 1860 city with the 1860 rural area.
    They felt that all classes of people deserved a park like retreat and when asked to design newly emerging suburban areas they used the lowly lawn to bring a sense of egality to the suburbs.

    ( so call my small bit of lawn a socialist statement ) :-)

    Fairsted, ( the name of Olmsted +Vaux’s landscape design home/office) philosophy when laying out a landscape was to emphasize natures most beautiful aspects by infusing a site with knolls, trees, shrubs, lakes, ponds, architectural artifice and evergreen ground covers, including the use of lawns- whether it be an analogy to a meadow or simply using the ground cover as negative space to enhance the sense of space/ place.

  13. Carol says:

    As a gardener, a mother and a suburbanite, I appreciate big yards and wide streets. We have the space in the US to build sub-divisions with both a back and front yard. And everyone in the suburb has a car and needs a place to drive it and park it. I like having the road-space to navigate when I’m driving past parked cars on both sides and a game of street football being played by the neighborhood kids. It’s safer.

    I also don’t want to live right on top of other people. Yards provide privacy and some sound mitigation. A little separation makes good neighbors, in my mind.

    I have to say I’m a little put out by the supporting suburban photos provided in the links above. I have seen many lovely wide suburban streets with deep setbacks where homeowners have made the space their own with trees, shrubs, and beds of perenniels. Granted these are older neighborhoods where the landscape has had time to mature and the HOA has lapsed allowing for more personal expression.

    And how are narrow, monochromatic roads with little to no vegetation and not even the opportunity to plant some, better than open space with potential, even if it is only lowly grass at present?

    • jeff z says:

      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.

      It’s time to be honest about what the cost of the wasting of land and space in this country has been. We have built in a way that is isolating and alienating for most people and in a way that requires ongoing environmental destruction in the form of lawn herbicide, fertilizer and weed wacking. And those of us who want to live differently find ourselves with few choices. Suburbs require building in this way, and developers build it, and we are left with few choices.

      I don’t think it’s OK, frankly. If you’re a misanthrope- fine- go live in a shack in the woods. But don’t force me to live on a half-acre plot with a mandated 40-foot setback filled with useless turfgrass.

      • I’ll have you know my shack in the woods is quite lovely, thank you. The only thing that might be considered lawn on the 3/4 acres between my shack and the scenic byway is the strip of grass that grows on the three foot wide road shoulder. The DOT mows that twice a year, but strangely my neighbor’s yard man took to mowing it on a regular basis this year as he rode his mower from one of my neighbor’s houses to the other further down the byway. I’m not sure what that’s about.

        The misanthrope wasn’t mowing it that’s for sure. It may even be possible that our kind are less fond of useless turf grass than your average social butterfly.

  14. allan becker says:

    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.

  15. No. I do not want to live that close to the road even if it is a narrower, quieter street. I do not want to live that close to any neighbor. The longer I live in the wilderness the more, almost hyper sensitive, I have become to sound and noise. Listening to all the stirrings from such a close road and packed in houses would make me crazier.

    Moving here made me realize how loud my old neighborhood on Maui was. Granted there are a fair number of people with large parrots there.

  16. Mary Gray says:

    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.

    I lived in Edinburgh for a year and it was a wonderful and exciting and beautiful city. But private outdoor space was very hard to come by….I never had even a balcony. The parks there were almost all private, locked behind gates, only for the wealthy. Plus, I missed having a car after a while. Public transportation was great, but sometimes I just want to drive away somewhere on my own.

  17. Tom Wilkinson says:

    This happened to me in July 2003 in Erie PA.

    (diagram did not paste)

    [Geometric shape ( | / ) made from 2" X 10" X 10' slotted and made into triangles with 5 foot sides and parallelograms with 4 foot sides in between the 5 foot triangles.]

    This is the lay-out of a my garden that was destroyed by the City of Erie Bureau of Property Maintenance in 2003. It was made from 2X10’s into triangles with 5 ft. sides and parallelograms with 4 ft. sides. It was double dug for French Intensive gardening. It had an underground drip watering system. It was 10 years old with fantastic organic soil and a culture of flowers, herbs and beneficial ground cover plants.
    While I was going through medical problems and staying elsewhere temporary but going to my property every couple days to tend my house and yard garden an Erie City bureaucrat considered it blight because it didn’t fit his concept of gardens and issued orders to have a machine chew the structure into bits. They left a 4 foot high swath of mud and wood chips along the side of my house. They also hauled away my gardening equipment and rain barrels. After this violation of my constitutional rights and the filing criminal charges against this bureaucrat, I made several telephone calls; call to the Pittsburgh PA ACLU for assistance; a call to the Mayor of Erie’s complaint department to file a formal complaint and a call to my Pennsylvania state representative to ask for them to intercede in this violation of my property and my constitutional rights.
    Three days later I was arrested for terroristic threats. I spent 5 months in county jail before they reduced to charges to ‘harassment by communication’. The terroristic threat charge was not applicable to my actions but my incarceration had to be justified. Five months in county jail for being ‘psychologically raped’ by a city bureaucrat.
    I spent 5 months in Erie County Prison and 2 years of 3 on probation and paid about $2,000 in fines & court cost.

  18. hk says:

    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.

  19. I think both have their own charm. I’ve just never personally cared for grass so that makes me partial to the European method. I have relatives in France, Germany and England whose homes are consistent with the set up described by that blog. You could see people sitting and tending to their potted plants in the front, sipping coffee etc. I had always felt it promoted a more close knit neighborhood.

  20. victoria cavanaugh says:

    Keeping ALL green space in the back yard has a negative impact on other residents of cities who can not afford a space with a yard. The whole neighborhood suffers overall. As a resident of Queens, New York and former resident of the Midwest, I have to say a neighborhood with some green shrubs, and room for a tree in front of houses changes a street entirely. They are priceless.

    Nothing is worse than a walk with nothing to look at. No spring flowers to greet you, no changing colors in the fall.

    Here in Queens, landlords and residents don’t always appreciate this fact and many would concrete over their small patch. It is a horrible practice. There are also streets like your picture with little or NO front yard. A small yard makes a street feel less cramped and more alive.

    There are wonderful 1930s apartment buildings with hidden courtyards. If you are not fortunate enough to live in one you never see a speck of green nature in your own neighborhood. Can you imagine growing up that way? Luckily, some of these buildings were designed to feature visible courtyards and are surrounded by flowerbeds. Today, certain neighborhoods retains a wonderful charm thanks to that.

    I do think mammoth expanses of lawn in front of homes, like in new subdivisions in Louisville, KY are a waste and boring. But please, please don’t suggest we do away front yards entirely.

    As Williamsburg, Brooklyn has been developed with massive condos filling every square inch. Some feature shared rooftop patios, but NEVER do I see a green speck at street level. So sad. Who wants to walk through concrete and walls? You can do that in Manhattan. I predict that neighborhood 80 years from now will not be valued or be a pretty sight, unlike Sunnyside, and Kew Gardens, Queens where brick buildings and attractive shrubs are priceless to the eye and feel and quality of life.

    As a gardener, I could not live without a backyard. As a citizen I have trouble living without front yards on my street.

  21. Jenny says:

    It’s all abut land. We have plenty because we are a big country. Many houses in the UK had front gardens but no garages because they didn’t have cars. Now they have 2 cars in a family and there is no where to park them. If there was a front garden then they paved it over. Now when it rains the water has nowhere to go-flooding. Many districts are now having to clamp down on this. At least we have rules here about the footprint of a house, don’t we?

  22. tropaeolum says:

    Has no one been to historic Charleston or Savannah? The Charleston single house is famed for its small side-yard gardens. Savannah was designed around public squares and houses are right on the street with small yards at the rear of the property.

  23. Debra says:

    Although I dislike lawns, I do not wish to live 5 feet off the street. Too claustrophobic. I’ve managed to landscape my front yard which is probably 20 feet deep and very narrow due to it mostly being driveway. Detached condo.

    Perhaps the deep setbacks are the norm so people can park their honkin’ huge cars in the driveway that is usually located in the front of the house. I wonder how firetrucks can navigate down some of those narrow European roads especially when there’s cars parked along side. Hmmmm. Firecodes.

  24. I ran across these kind of significant photographs regarding suburbs world wide who have not any yard for you to speak of, just usable, personal metres. This roads tend to be narrower, which in turn decreases targeted visitors and improves walkability. This turned out to be realistic with a lot more approaches in comparison with one. Simply because exactly what very little area that they ended up being just about all powering the home, many people had the ability to possess room for a vegetable lawn, and a little garden.

  25. Laura Bell says:

    What I see in the Paris & Rome photos is next to nothing to encourage walking or biking. Narrow, irregular sidewalks, if any. Little room on the road for bike & car to share, especially if vehicles are parked on both sides of a street. Not the the Murfreesboro image is better – could somebody just plant a tree, for pity’s sake? One of the goals of the organization for which I work is to convince the local governments & developers that compact develop is better. But in densifying the population, we have to make it feel attractive & safe, too. Sidewalks wide enough for groups of people, bike lanes on streets wide enough for traffic. Transit within walking distance & make that distance safe as well. Trees & landscaping (whether as planted beds or windowboxes or vines growing on building facades) to help cool the hard surfaces & make it feel more welcoming. To me, none of these images does any of that.

  26. I don’t think it has to be one or the other; what needs to change is the American mindset, not set back requirements. If people would refuse HOA’s (which boggle my mind…pay someone to tell you what to do???!!!), websites like yours and mine would have an even greater reach.

    If front yard landscaping was beneficial and edible, then it would be beautiful AND useful. I spent many years landscaping homes that we bought and sold, before I got on the edible landscaping bandwagon. One day it occurred to me that if I was going to work that hard, why not plant things that would be pretty AND feed my family? As Americans, we aren’t taught to think that way. But perhaps times are changing.

    It is much easier to plant clover, watercress, chickweed or thyme than fescue. Plant blueberries instead of boxwoods. Plant sage instead of begonias. Americans just don’t think that way…yet.

    Could you imagine if all the time and money spent on babying grass was spent growing edibles instead?

    Everything about lawns makes…me…crazy. But I wouldn’t want to live right smack up against the street, either.

  • Follow Garden Rant

    Follow Me on Pinterest RSS