Last edited 19 Jul 2018


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.

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