The Backyardigans Save America’s Suburbs

My four-year-old loves the Backyardigans, the wonderful children’s series in which the characters (anthropomorphic animals, of course), develop adventures that they then act out–and maybe more so–in their backyard (thus the name).

But little does she realize that the show might have a partial solution for American suburbs.

Key to the whole concept is that the characters’ families share a backyard: at the end of each show, they all go into one of their houses for a snack. But I couldn’t help noticing that the backyard is all of theirs (or at least three of theirs). So who cares, aside from preschoolers (and their wonky Dads)? Well, anyone who cares about cities, or making neighborhoods transit-friendly, or reducing NIMBYism.

Whenever anyone wants to increase density, increase housing stock, etc., people scream because, among other things, this is seen as destroying the single-family neighborhood. But the Backyardigans shows that this doesn’t have to be true.

You can easily have single-family neighborhoods with greatly increased density, and the walkability and transit accessibility that comes from that, if you reduce lawn size and share some of that open space. No, this isn’t an apartment building: all the kids (animals?) live in single-family, detached homes.

When you think about it, the front lawn is somewhat of a relic of 1950’s family structure: Dad goes to work and the kids play on the lawn, supervised by Mom. But now, Mom is at work, too, and the kids are in child care. It is completely wasted space from a planning perspective–not to mention the extraordinary waste of water that comes from everyone having to manage lawns that they never use, gasoline from mowing, etc. Ditto with backyards.

So why don’t more neighborhoods have this? Becuase in most suburbs, it’s illegal: you can’t share a lawn–there are setback requirements, fencing requirements, lot size requirements, etc. Developers won’t build what they can’t entitle. And so we assume that single-family neighborhoods mean far lower density, and transit accessibility, than we should.

This is why in the planning context, it’s a little silly to talk about what “the market” wants: the market doesn’t exist, because it is so horrifically overregulated. And then developers don’t have the business models and expertise to do it, because they can’t. It’s a vicious circle. Ditto with lots of smart growth plans. I believe that lots of people want this, but don’t take my word for it: let people determine it for themselves.

So do yourself and your kid a favor: watch the Backyardigans with them. You’ll both have a good time.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.