A setback, sometimes called step-back, is a step-like recession in a wall. Setbacks were initially used for structural reasons, but now are often mandated by land use codes.
For centuries, setbacks were a structural necessity for virtually all multi-level load-bearing masonry buildings and structures. As architects learned how to turn setbacks into an architectural feature, most setbacks were however less pronounced than in step pyramids and often skillfully masked by rich ornamentation.
The introduction of a steel frame structural system in the late 19th century eliminated the need for structural setbacks. The use of a frame building technology combined with conveniences such as elevators and motorized water pumps influenced the physical growth and density of buildings in large cities. Driven by the desire to maximize the usable floor area, some developers avoided the use of setbacks, creating in many instances a range of fire safety and health hazards. Thus, the 42-story Equitable Building, constructed in New York in 1915, produced a huge shadow, which effectively deprived neighboring properties of sun light.
In addition, setbacks promote fire safety by spacing buildings and their protruding parts away from each other and allow for passage of firefighting apparatus between buildings.
In the United States, setback requirements vary among municipalities. For example, the absence of sky exposure plane provisions in the Chicago Zoning Code makes the Chicago skyline quite different from the skyline of New York where construction of tall buildings was guided by the zoning ordinance since 1916. The New York City Zoning Ordinance also provided another kind of setback guideline, one that was intended to increase the amount of public space in the city. This was achieved by increasing the minimum setback at street level, creating in each instance an open space, often referred to as plaza, in front of the building.