Last edited 15 Jan 2021


In terms of land use, in the United States, ‘setback’ refers to the minimum distance a building or structure must be from something else. Typically, this is the distance from a road, highway or land boundary, but it can also refer to a river or other watercourse, a shore, flood plain, railway tracks, fencing, landscaping, septic tanks, and so on.

Setbacks are created by the zoning restrictions, ordinances and building codes laid out by local governments. A zoning law may, for instance, specify a 3 m setback, which means that there must be at least 3 m between a road and any building. The purpose of setbacks is to ensure security, privacy, a uniform neighbourhood (i.e. with buildings set at the same distance), and environmental protection. They also allow public utilities to access buildings.

Special approvals may be granted in some cases to allow a building to be positioned in front of a setback line.

Before zoning laws were introduced in 1916, many cities did not have prescribed setbacks, and early setbacks were generally much smaller before the rise of the automobile in the 1920s. Setbacks for large front lawns were criticised by some, including the urban theorist Jane Jacobs, for contributing to car-dependent, low-density cities that encouraged urban sprawl.

Urban Design Guidelines for Victoria, published by The State of Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning in 2017, defines setback as: ‘The distance of a building wall from any lot boundary. A building front setback can add to the perceived width of the street, provide additional public or private space, and allow space for landscaping. A building set on the front property boundary has zero street setback.’

Setback might also refer to:

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