America’s Perverse Yard Mandates

Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 19 2013 4:36 PM

Get Off My Lawn! (I Don’t Even Want a Lawn!)

If outside space is so great, why is it legally required in so many places?

Backyard party
One of the great privileges of living in a free society is that on a sunny day we can each choose, freely, whether to take our lunch outside or sit on a proper chair with a roof over our heads

Photo courtesy Tama Leaver/Flickr via Creative Commons

I’m a big fan of lunch with colleagues, but as I explained last week, I think that eating lunch outside on nice days is overrated. The responses I got were varied and mostly heartening. Many agreed with me, and wrote gratefully that now proponents of eating outside could come out of the closet (or retreat back into the air conditioning). Others said I was nuts. But where we can all agree is that one of the great privileges of living in a free society is that on a sunny day we can each choose, freely, whether to take our lunch outside or sit on a proper chair with a roof over our heads. This is the kind of thing that makes our country great. And yet it raises the question: If outside is so great, why have the proponents of outside taken so many drastic steps to make inside space illegal?

It’s rarely commented on, but with few exceptions, the American landscape is not only dotted with back and front yards but with legal requirements that homeowners maintain such yards. This is, perhaps, an expression of the mainstream view that outside is a great place to be. But if outside is so great, then surely renters and homebuyers alike will gladly pay for the privilege even without legal requirement.

Yet America’s zoning codes appear to lack such faith. I live in what’s known in D.C. as an R-4 zone, generally consisting of rowhouses composed of one semi-basement level and three above-ground floors. Many of these structures, including the one I live in, have been subdivided to accommodate two (in my case) or sometimes more dwellings within a single rowhouse. And as legally required, we have some outside space, because the rules require “a maximum lot occupancy of 60% for row dwellings” and specifically the “rear yard requirement is twenty feet.”

This is by no means unusual in D.C. In an R-1 or R-2 zone, the maximum lot occupancy—in other words, the amount of the property’s land area that can be dedicated to inside space—is 40 percent. And in addition to requirements about the rear yard, there must be side yards of at least 8 feet on either side of the structure.

Of course, a city wouldn’t be a city if it were full of enormous backyards. These outside space requirements are rather modest and, tellingly, it is quite rare to see people voluntarily obtaining much larger ones. But in suburban America, the backyard mandates are more stringent. Out in Fairfax County, Va.’s Residential Estate zones, you must have a front yard of 50 feet, a rear yard of 25 feet, and side yards of 20 feet. And so it goes. In Palo Alto, at the epicenter of Silicon Valley’s affordable housing crisis, the last mobile home park is being turned into luxury apartments. But you cannot turn grassy yard-rich land into rowhouses. Side yards, backyards, front yards, and rear yards are all required. This is how it goes in zoning codes all across our fair land—detailed government mandates about the minimum quantity of yards that must be attached to a home.

These yards aren’t all bad, of course. Over the course of the summer I’ve enjoyed the chance to grill and to host hungry burger-eaters. I’ve also availed myself of the yards of others for similar purposes. Given a yard, one finds the way to use a yard. To enjoy it, even.

Then again, if a city ordinance required me to subscribe to Showtime, I’d probably watch some Dexter episodes. Enjoy them, even. But that wouldn’t make it a reasonable mandate. We expect cable channels to sink or swim in the marketplace. Why should backyards be any different? They’re fun and clearly all things considered most people would like to have one. But most people would also enjoy more closet space, a larger kitchen, an extra bathroom, and any of the myriad other forms of inside space that exist. Balancing out how much of your land area should be inside and how much should be outside seems like a decision people can make for themselves.

The fallacy here perhaps is that because yards are generally full of plants, people think of yard requirements as being in some sense “green.” A small yard, however, is not a wilderness refuge. In fact, water use associated with suburban lawn care can be a substantial source of environmental strain.

More to the point, a world without yard mandates isn’t necessarily a world in which everyone would live in bigger houses. The other strategy would be to fit more houses on the same patch of land. Homeowners in expensive areas, in other words, might save money by owning smaller lots. Without side yards, a given block can accommodate more houses. With smaller—or absent—front and back yards, a given square mile can accommodate more blocks. Either way, by giving up on yard space people can get more affordable homes. That kind of “less lawn, more density” approach is unambiguously eco-friendly, as it would reduce sprawl and leave more space for real nature outside the outer boundaries of urban development.

And of course plenty of people would still have yards. Big yards, even. In fact, the average yard-size of genuine yard-lovers might go up if those indifferent to outside space weren’t occupying so much of it. But there’s no reason people who don’t care for outside lunch should have to get a yard to live in the neighborhood of their choosing.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.