Introducing front setbacks 1

Many cities have a front yard setback requirement, at least for low density residential areas. Washington DC does not. Why?

First – what is a front yard setback? Typically, it is a requirement that the house and other buildings be set back a certain distance from the front or street property line. DC has setback requirements, depending on the zone, from rear and side property lines, but not from the front. However, there typically is a landscaped area separating the house from the sidewalk, even in our denser rowhouse areas. This landscaped space between the sidewalk and the property line is confusingly called “parking” area (not car parking space), and is legally part of the city’s park and open space system.

So, how did this come to be?

DC’s streets are typically quite wide (yes, we know that there are some exceptions). We can thank Pierre L’Enfant for this. The 1791 L’Enfant Plan that established the street network within the boundaries of Florida Avenue to the north and the confluence of the rivers to the south had rights-of-way that ranged in width from 90 to 160 feet. The idyllic notion that the broad avenues would be picturesque carriage ways lined with double rows of trees was a nice idea. But in reality these wide streets presented a maintenance headache for the fledgling city and local government. To help the city deal with this, in 1870 Congress passed the Parking Act, which allowed the city to set aside parts of the street right-of-way as park land “to be adorned with shade-trees, walks, and enclosed with curbstones, not exceeding one half the width of any and all avenues and streets in the said city of Washington”.