Little things matter

Much like anything in life, the finer, generally overlooked aspects of a project, place or thing can have a huge impact on people’s perceptions.

The same, obviously, can be said for cities.

Take the main image for instance. Notice anything about these apartment buildings? They look like standard small apartment buildings, right?

Well, look again. Big ‘ole setbacks.

Last I checked humans were the main occupants of cities (Detroit is probably bears and wild dogs), but yet we build the city as though the car is the main occupant. Don’t get me wrong, I think cars are great and extremely useful, they just don’t, ya know, pay taxes, sustain the population, etc…

Orientation of our buildings matter just as much as the building itself. In the picture below, you can see that the building actually does want to be orientated properly, but there’s no sidewalk to be had. so ultimately it’s orientated toward the car (no one would ever forget to put in a parking lot.) However, a building facing a sidewalk with a giant setback is about as good as building facing the parking lot.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 9.07.34 AM

Look at my crude photoshopping below, it’s just an idea of how things could have been done to use land more effectively and make the space more orientated toward walking. You’ve added two more apartment buildings, orientated them toward walking and added extra parking in the middle (could probably do more if you did angle parking.)

Now, it’s easy for me to photoshop stuff, I know there would be more complications in actually building it. However, it’s just a nice way for me to show you that we CAN think about things differently.

redo un apt

More importantly, this also gives the public a chance to interact with your building. Jane Jacobs was a huge fan of the stoop because it allowed for sidewalk/resident interaction–something that is key when you want to make a place a place and not just a functional area. If you don’t want to interact with people on the sidewalk, it at least gives passers-by something to look at.

My favorite instance of how we get this wrong is downtown Mankato at the intersection of 2nd St. and Mulberry.



Nothing like a bland wall to make you want to walk. Why do cars need a nice median of day lilies anyway?

Humans are lazy. If you make it hard for your resident to get to a sidewalk, they’re probably not going to take it, if you make it easy for them to get to a car, they probably are going to take that. We know that walking is critically important to a city and it’s residents, so we should think about walking first and driving second. Then we should make sure that the walk is somewhat nice, it’s the least you can do.

I’ve talked about setbacks before and how pointless I think they are. You don’t have to push your building right next to the sidewalk, especially for residential, but you also don’t need to have a chasm of unproductive grass separating your building and the sidewalk.

People like to feel enclosed, it’s why we sleep with a blanket even when it’s hot, it’s why we settled in caves, it’s probably why we settled in the river valley (obviously there were other factors). It’s called prospect-refuge. When you kill setback and orientate your buildings toward the sidewalk, you automatically create a space with definition, far more appealing than the formless subdivisions of the 20th century.

These little things matter and like debt, little charges add up to bankrupting us. We should have our zoning and building codes reflect these little things that help make a city wonderful and functional instead of in the red on placemaking.



I got this question regarding setback and I thought it was a good question that I failed to answer in the article.

Are grass and trees really unproductive? I understand your not wanting parking between streets and buildings. But grass and trees do more than add to the aesthetics of a building, something I thought was important to you, they can actually make a building, especially a residence more inviting to visitors. You can still interact with neighbors from a porch or stoop that is set back from the sidewalk. I actually find residences with no setback cold, intimidating, and uninviting. Walking along a street, either residential or commercial, is much more appealing, in my view, with more to look at than brick, stone, and siding. Look at the apartments around MSU. No trees, little grass, just buildings crammed next to buildings. Nothing to say: “This is home.” I would propose that, instead of moving the buildings up against the sidewalk, you add landscaping: trees, flowers, shrubs, because in the picture above, the grass is no more than green concrete.

Here’s my response:
 We should define what we’re talking about. Something I should have done in the article. 

If it’s a single family home, sure go ahead, put in as big of a front yard as you want. That’s a personal land owner issue. 

If it’s a high-density residential, like this, it is pretty unproductive to have this much green space around your building because it really does nothing for the property owner or the renter. However, it does hurt the city because you’re leaving land open that could be used more efficiently i.e. generating more taxes or densifying the area reducing the need for cars and ultimately the wear and tear on the roads. 

Not to mention that if you want green space you could encircle it with your building much like apartment buildings in Europe do. With a shared lawn/green space on the inside of the building making it far more private than this. 

The landscaping is another reason actually to reduce the setback, especially when it comes to apartment buildings. Usually (not always) management companies want self maintaining property. If you were to do the front of an apartment building up, you’re just creating a larger financial expense in the future. And if you were to mandate landscaping, you can be sure people would do the absolute minimum they would have to. So, it probably is better to just have a small section of grass that is low maintenance. Except for trees–it’s definitely hard to have too many trees. 

In commercial, it’s much better to pull your building right up to the sidewalk. You will do far better with customers who can see into your store and window shop then you will do with customers driving along at 40mph not giving your store a second thought. It’s Front St. vs Madison Ave. One is clearly more popular as a “place” than the other. 

But you’ve inadvertently brought up a good point about architecture. Jeff Speck refers to it as “rewarding effort.” Our buildings (generally) nowadays are so bland and dumb that you give people no reason to get near them and to check out the intricacies of the design. However, in traditional architecture, you are putting in nuanced design and actually make it fun to be near the side of a building. 

So, green is good, yes, but in a downtown it’s far more effective to not have a setback and then have say a park or a square as an anchor. 

Also, I think the image above is public housing so I expect nothing good from HUD.

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.