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The term "setback" refers to a distance, prescribed by zoning ordinances, that buildings must be literally ‘set-back' from the property line or public right-of-way. While conventional zoning ordinances may still include setback requirements, many communities are replacing them with "build-to-lines," particularly in commercial areas, to encourage spatial definition and the development a street wall.

Establish build-to lines. Great streets create a sense of space and enclosure that makes it attractive and convenient for pedestrians. Build-To lines help reduce distances pedestrians must travel from the public sidewalk to building entrances and a sense of enclosure and by setbacks suggest a minimum distance buildings must be "set back" from the public right-of-way.

Zoning regulations often require commercial shopping centers to be set back 100-200 feet from the public right-of-way, thus creating a "strip" shopping center fronted by parking. Because sidewalks are located next the roadway, in the public right-of-way, the pedestrian zone is then sandwiched between a parking lot and traffic. Reducing setback requirements and locating parking on the street, behind, or at a minimum, beside buildings would help create a more pedestrian-friendly environment and encourage shoppers to walk to and between shops.

Use existing setbacks to improve the public realm. While the goal of a great streets project in a downtown area is to create a sense of enclosure through build-to lines, there are ways in which existing setbacks may be used to improve the public realm. Historic structures, for example, are assets to any street and in some cases, they may be setback from the public right-of-way. In this case, the setback may be used for landscaping, furniture, cafe seating, etc. perhaps even a pocket park or plaza that adds significant value to the street. Such spaces may be used for seasonal public events, such as a farmer's market or music festival. These spaces can also be 'recaptured' as an interim measure towards implementing great streets principles. On parcels where redevelopment is not imminent, existing setbacks can be put to beneficial public use.