How on earth did we end up with ‘front boundary setbacks’?

Over my years as a town planner specialising in development assessment, I’ve assessed and gained approval for literally thousands of new houses and house extensions. Through that time, setbacks have always been an issue. In my opinion, all reasonable requirements include: a 1-2m side boundary setback so houses aren’t built on top of each other; a 4-6m rear boundary setback to allow for a decent yard to play in; however, the requirement for a 4-6m front boundary setback has always perplexed me.

Looking at the Performance Outcomes through a range of planning schemes in the South-East Queensland region, the following are re-occurring themes:

A front boundary setback that is:

–         Consistent with the intended character of the streetscape, precinct and zone;

–         Compatible with that of adjoining premises; and

–         Depending on where the Council is located, it might have something relating to protecting movement networks and providing for an area for on-site car parking.

Within the context of front boundary setbacks in the SEQ region, it seems that we’re after a setback that offers on-site car parking, and also doesn’t stick out within the street. Makes sense.

Using Brisbane City Council, I’ve run through the past few planning schemes and have made the following summary:

·      1965, the prescribed requirement is no less than 20ft (6m).

·      1978, no front boundary setback requirements, only side and rear.

·      1989, could not obtain a copy of the planning scheme document.

·      2000, where a small lot (<450m2), 20% of the average, or 6m where the adjoining is >6m, or 3m where no adjoining buildings, and 3-4m for >450m sized allotments.

·      2014, where a small lot, 6m or the same as the least setback adjoining where less than 6m but not less than 3m. 3m where no adjoining dwelling, and 3-4m for >450m sized allotments.

Historically, Brisbane City Council has always wanted 6m. Why? Well, the average length of a car is around 5.2m, and with reference to the dominant Performance Outcomes throughout SEQ, it appears that the intention is to provide for enough room within the front boundary setback for a car to be parked and the requirement to provide a consistent setback prevailing in the street is just a consequence of the 50+ years of planning schemes requiring space for a car park.

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Two questions:

Firstly, if the front boundary setback has been created to allow for cars to park, why, throughout the majority of planning schemes in SEQ is there a requirement to ensure car parking is not visually dominant to the streetscape?

Secondly, now that we’re pushing into a direction of hiding our cars, should we not be pushing for smaller front boundary setbacks wherever possible to force cars to be integrated into the design of a building?

Using a normal SEQ sized allotment of 450m2, if we removed the front boundary setback and allowed for buildings to be within 1m of the front boundary (with garages/carparking to be integrated into the buildings) we would gain 60-75m2 of additional square metres on each allotment. This could either contribute:

–         to a much larger backyard space (eg. for backyard cricket 😉);

–         allow for smaller lots to be established to increase the density and promote infill development (e.g. <300-350m2 minimum lot sizes?); or

–         allow for larger houses to incorporate intergenerational household groups (and help aid the ever-growing housing affordability crisis).

Given the chance, would you move your house forward?

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From spending an hour on Google street view, it has become apparent that where 6m setbacks are enforced (or already established), there seems to be a higher visual dominance of garages and car parking – there is literally a 6m space, dedicated for cars to be parked in front of the house, why wouldn’t you?! In areas where the setback is 0-3m, car parking is more well-hidden and the beauty of the architecture shines through – people are forced to find a reasonable space for their cars. It seems that we’re stuck in this never-ending loop of a 6m front boundary setback which started to allow for cars to be parked within the front boundary setback, but has stayed because of the character that the 6m provision created.

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Generally, it seems that people don’t like seeing cars when they drive down a street, and it is apparent that the less the front setback, the less visual dominance a car will have on the street, the more backyard we’ll have, and the higher density we’ll create. My question is, why do we need a front boundary setback? Are we sacrificing good planning overall outcomes for the sake of making a visual transition between 6m to 0-2m setbacks? To not upset a handful of landowners, we’re trapping ourselves into the same loop and missteps that we’ve been making since at least circa 2000? If we let one house move forward, will it ruin a streetscape? Yes, for sure, in some instances it would, but not always and I can foresee some areas ripe for change.

Let’s discuss! What do you think?

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