As I walk through a typical neighborhood I’m amazed at the conspicuous consumption that American front yards represent. Considering front yards are rarely used for anything other than displaying gardening skill, and considering that a home is the most expensive purchase most of us will ever make, and further considering that much of the value of an urban house comes from the land that home sits on, it seems like an ostentatious display of wealth.
Of course, this excess isn’t necessarily something we chose. In Seattle, as with most towns and cities, it’s required by law. In Seattle, your house built in a Single Family House (SFH) zone is requied to have a minimum of a 20′ deep front yard. This is likely a very old law or standard, as my 110 year old house was built with a 20′ front yard.
What if Seattle did things differently? What if 110+ years ago we looked around at these displays of wealth and instead of deciding a front yard is something everyone should be required to have, we decided to write our codes such as to minimize front yards? What would the city be like today?
Let’s start with the 150,000 single family homes in Seattle today, assume an average property width of 40′, and we’ve used up 120 million square feet of our valuable land on these yards. That land could have built an extra 80,000 homes at 1,500 sf each. Ignoring the different supply and demand balance that would exist in this alternate reality, and assuming a land value of $40/sf, each house would cost $32,000 less than it does now (yes, that’s how much you paid for that front yard, ignoring maintenance costs and that white pickett fence you built illegally close to the lot line).
Of course, this is little more than a mental exercise. Maybe the beauty that front yards represent helped build Seattle into the metropolis it is today. Perhaps living close to sidewalks would be unacceptable to Seattlites. And even if this would have increased affordability, added walkability, added tax revenue, and saved everyone a huge amount of money and Saturday afternoons of lawn mowing: it doesn’t matter now since all of our SFH zones are already fully built out. But we can take this lesson and apply it to the type of development that is happening now. For instance, we can convert more SFH zones to low-rise multifamily zones that allow rowhouses.