By Allison Ude

Neighborhoods and towns were planned according to specific, accepted patterns for hundreds and thousands of years. Then, around the end of WWII, for various reasons, those time-tested patterns were abandoned, and the building industry began using new methods and practices to build the generic modern American landscape that has come to be known as suburban sprawl. Now that architects and planners are witnessing the failure of that long experiment, they are going back to pick up where town and neighborhood planning left off before WWII. The New Urbanism is not a nostalgic recreation of the past; rather, it is a continuation of those patterns that worked for thousands of years and is carrying them forward with new tools to handle the new challenges of today. We are again starting to create places that have the charm, social connectivity, beauty and pride that many thought was reserved for America’s older cities.

In this regular column, we consider some of the features and principles of the New Urbanism—or Traditional Neighborhood Development—that make places like Westhaven stand out from the conventional subdivisions around Franklin and the rest of the nation.

What is it?

A setback is the distance between a lot line (usually where the lot meets the sidewalk) and an elevation (usually the front of a house). It’s the space between the sidewalk (or street) and the house. A setback affects the sense of enclosure in public spaces such as streets, squares, or plazas. It defines the outdoor space in a similar way in which a room  is defined by its walls.

Setback standards are assigned only along streets that are required to provide an excellent pedestrian experience (residential streets or main streets). Other streets that are assigned to secondary or support functions are exempted from setback requirements. Those are the streets where you find such things as open parking lots, unmasked parking decks, and drive-throughs.

NOTE: Open porches, balconies, bay windows, overhangs, and ramps are usually allowed within the setback.

Why is it important?

Building setbacks can be designed to reinforce the edges of the street and create a sense of enclosure where appropriate. The building’s relationship to the street has a great deal of impact on the streetscape. This is important in Westhaven, because the streetscape (outside our homes) is the public realm where many residents enjoy spending time with family and friends. You may have already experienced the social benefit of walking down the sidewalk in Westhaven and talking to a neighbor sitting on a front porch.

Buildings with shallow setbacks make walking interesting and safer for pedestrians. In rural areas, where traffic usually travels at a higher speed, a larger setback is appropriate because it acts as a buffer between the building and the thoroughfare. However, in Westhaven, where our streets are built for slow traffic, large setbacks are not necessary. Sometimes people think a large setback provides more privacy, but moving the home closer to the street with a shallow setback actually provides for more privacy in the rear of the home where most people prefer their privacy. At the same time, it helps maintain a good connection to the public realm in the front for the times when you want to be neighborly.  Note that when homes are set very close to the street, privacy for those inside the house is provided by raising the first floor a few feet above the level of the sidewalk.

Setbacks are an important consideration for retail and commercial buildings as well. You may have noticed that many buildings in downtown Franklin have shallow setbacks. For businesses, the objective of building placement is to attract customers, not necessarily provide privacy. Thus, a shop owner downtown typically would not want the building set back too far or the first floor to be raised. He or she would want potential customers to see inside the shop from the sidewalk. A building pulled right up to the sidewalk with windows at eye level is better for a business establishment.

Where is it in Westhaven?

In Westhaven, you’ll typically see shallower setbacks closer to the neighborhood centers, such as those near the forthcoming Acadia Park. On Pearl Street, the facades of homes are quite far away from each other. However, Pearl Street still has a sense of enclosure because of the tree line down the middle. The trees act like the opposite side of the street, which helps to create a sense of enclosure for both sides of Pearl street.

As you walk through Westhaven and drive through other places in Franklin, notice how the streets in Westhaven have the comfortable feel of an “outdoor room,” and notice how natural and easy it is to connect with neighbors when one of you is on the porch and the other is on the sidewalk.

This website is the property of Diane Balciar who is a contracted agent of Kerr & Co Realty and is in no way affiliated with Westhaven Realty or Southern Land Company. Westhaven is the registered trademark owned by Southern Land Company, LLC.