A Move Toward Form-Based Code

In 1926 the City of Euclid, Ohio won a landmark Supreme Court case, Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365 (1926)), that ruled establishing zoning codes to regulate land use was within a city’s right to in order to protect citizen health and welfare.  This meant that cities could legally dictate, for example, that Zones of ‘M3-Heavy Industrial’ could not be located adjacent to zones of ‘R1-Single Family Residential’.  During a time when American cities were industrializing rapidly, this ruling made sense: allow regulation to keep heavily polluting factories away from housing, parks, and schools.  And for nearly a century these traditional use-based zoning ordinances, or Euclidean Zoning, have dominated building regulation and set out how American cities look, function, and . . . spread out.  Single-use development often necessitates a car, parking at each destination, and large road networks to get to work, the grocery store, or soccer practice.

But physical planning is experiencing a renaissance. Form-based code, which focuses on the physical characteristics of development over specifically regulating land uses, is on the leading edge of change in urban planning across the country. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency of Planning describes form-based codes as a framework for “. . . the relationships between buildings and the street, pedestrians and vehicles, and public and private spaces. The code addresses these concerns by regulating site design, circulation, and overall building form.”  Planners and regulators are starting to view a mixture of uses and development that more directly interacts with streets and sidewalks as critical components in creating livable, attractive places.  This article outlines three important components of form-based code.

  1. More about Composition, Less about Use – Form-based code (FBC) sets requirements for both the public realm and buildings in order to establish a desired composition of spaces. Specific dimensional standards are set for road and sidewalk widths, street trees, and on-street parking that coincide with prescribed building configurations such as height, shape, and sign locations.  Through a regulating plan, these standards are delineated for specific zones.  A taller building height and narrow street section may be designated for a downtown district, for example.  This may sound similar to a traditional zoning system.  However, they differ in two significant ways.  First, while both systems set standards for building intensity within designated zones, form-based code allows a more dynamic mixture of uses.  Where Euclidean zoning may prohibit multi-family residential and office space from occupying the same structure, form-based code encourages mixed use development.  Second, because form-based code is focused on specific spatial composition, development standards are often requirements, not minimums or maximums.  While critics of FBCs argue that this is too prescriptive, such requirements have proven effective in preventing incompatible development (i.e. drive-through McDonald’s on a Main Street).
  2. The ‘City’ Experience – What makes a city feel like a city? The streets, the tall buildings, how close they are together, the thrum of activity.  In other words, the composition of amenities, people, and spaces.  FBC’s singular goal is not to prescribe ‘urban’ density.  However, such codes are built on a foundational understanding that cities, towns, and villages are based on a messy vitality that is structurally prevented in most of our current zoning codes.  Andrés Duany, influential urban planner and cofounder of The Congress for the New Urbanism,  frames the goals of FBC in a unique way, “Think of the last time you chose to visit a great urban neighborhood, to eat or walk in the park or on the street.  Now, how many times have you decided to go visit someone else’s conventional subdivision if you didn’t have to be there?” As Matt Ellis discussed in his recent article about the construction industry’s role in sustainability, the codes to which the industry adherers to can gradual start remaking places where people can realistically be less car dependent.
  3. Successful at Multiple Scales – The roots of FBCs are actually in small towns. Seaside, Florida was the first municipality to adopt a FBC.  And the spatial realities of Seaside, a town of 11,500 residents, are much different than a larger city such as Chattanooga, Tennessee that recently adopted a FBC for three city center zones.  So, one form-based code does not fit all.  Mayor Berke, Chattanooga’s mayor put it simply, “form-based codes are people-centric.” Establishing a FBC starts with a community conversation about the exciting conditions and the aspirations for future development.  If you look to an even larger scale, Miami’s Miami 21 FBC required more than ten years to align the priorities of city officials, developers, and residents.   The ‘downtown’ zones from each of these codes range in scale from Seaside’s Type I two-story beach front mixed-use retail, to Chattanooga’s four to five story Downtown Core, and Miami’s soaring metropolitan Worldcenter.  This demonstrates FBC’s ability to provide structure to guide predictable, urban-style development without being onerously restrictive.

The major advantage tradition zoning code has over form-based code is time.  They have been the rule of law for decades, with planning agencies, consultants, developers well adaptable to existing code requirements.  It’s difficult to change a regulatory process with such engrained momentum.  However, the adoption of FBC’s has grown exponentially in the last five years.  Hybrid codes, that strategically overlay form-based requirements in strategic locations within a municipality, are also starting to gain traction.  Building code is rather unassuming and unexciting.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on August 11, 2016.


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