The Significance of the Setback

Zoning Practice — June 2021

By Christine Quattro


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Since the adoption of the first comprehensive zoning ordinance in New York City, zoning codes have included minimum setback requirements for land uses and structures.

As cities fight to control sprawl and encourage infill, some commentators have blamed the setback for an underutilization of valuable space. Calls for increased density, more affordable housing, and sustainable cities are all leading to the question of whether setback requirements should be eliminated.

This issue of Zoning Practice explores the setback and its purpose in spatial planning and zoning ordinances. It presents a brief history of the setback, summarizes the key factors to consider when altering setbacks, and presents a case analysis of setbacks in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Page Count
Date Published
June 1, 2021
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American Planning Association

About the Author

Christine Quattro
Christine is a PhD Candidate at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of City and Regional Planning, where she is also a Fontaine Fellow. Her research focuses on the implications of regulatory planning tools with specific attention to environmental justice and social equity impacts. She previously served as the Director of City Planning and Development for San Antonio City Council District 1. Currently, she is the Lead Land Development Researcher for a land use law firm in Texas and a member of the Yeadon Zoning Board in Pennsylvania.