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Form-Based Codes Gain Popularity But Cannot Cure All

Amid budget shortfalls and a development drought, California cities and counties have stopped planning.  But they haven't stopped coding. 

Form-based code fever is still in full force throughout California. From north to south, cities and, occasionally, counties as well are using a good portion of their meager planning money to create form-based codes. Sometimes these codes are being created citywide, but more often they are focused on downtowns, older corridors, dead mall sites, and other locations designated for higher density or mixed-use development.

Why are local governments so hot for form-based codes? And in a seriously down economy, can simply rewriting zoning codes stimulate private development, as so many of its proponents seem to suggest?

The answer is yes and no. It's true that form-based code fever is the result, partly, of brilliant and aggressive marketing by New Urbanism evangelists. But viewed more broadly, the form-based code craze is part of a larger movement to update outdated codes of all kinds for a variety of reasons.

The form-based code does not really represent a revolution, as some of its most strident evangelists suggest. Instead, it's part of a larger movement to bring confusing and outdated ordinances into the 21st Century and, even more broadly, a movement in planning to focus more on implementation.

The typical zoning code is just about the most archaic, confusing and intrusive set of regulations imaginable.  It's long, complicated, and full of legalese. It has been amended incrementally over time. It often covers situations and topics that don't even exist anymore or else devotes dozens of pages to some topic that was controversial 30 years ago. It's not uncommon to have to flip around the entire code a dozen times to pick up all the references required for a particular situation. Sometimes, it's not even clear what type of permit approval is required or even who is doing the approving.

Little wonder, then, that planners typically cheer at that dramatic moment in the Andres Duany stump speech when Duany takes an enormous loose-leaf code book and chucks it in the trash can.  And it's not surprising that understandable codes with lots of visuals are becoming more popular especially at a time when design is becoming more important in planning and development.

But do form-based codes cure cancer?  Or otherwise solve all problems in the world of planning and development?  No, they don't. In fact, form-based codes really aren't a completely different type of animal from "conventional" zoning codes. They're still regulations that seek to control the form, use, and management of private real estate development projects. The difference is a matter of emphasis more detail about form, less about use.  And so it's probably best to think of a form-based approach at one end of a continuum with a use-based approach on the other end.

A form-based code simply acknowledges what developers and their architects have known for decades: Whether illustrated or not, all zoning ordinances contain "pictures" of the buildings they permit. Embedded in the text of the typical zoning ordinance are setbacks and height limits that create an allowable building envelope.  If you add a special design overlay district not uncommon in certain locations then you get a conventional approach (albeit clumsy) that is not that different from a form-based code.

Where form-based codes do begin to look pretty different from the conventional approach is the way they are organized. Instead of focusing entirely on the individual parcel, form-based codes focus on types of buildings and on the overall feel of each block. The typical form-based code has a typology of building types mostly depicting a variety of multi-family, mixed-use, and commercial buildings and then specifies which of these types will be permitted on each block. In this sense, form-based codes are revolutionary; they are concerned with a larger canvas than just the parcel.

By being extremely prescriptive, form-based codes do ensure a consistent look and feel to the physical form of a particular neighborhood, corridor, or development project. That's good. But in and of itself a form-based code does not solve all problems associated with zoning codes specifically or with planning more generally.

First, the typical form-based code doesn't solve the "flipping around" problem so typical of zoning ordinances.  It's just a different kind of flipping around. You have to match the building types with the type of street with the type of district or corridor. This can be no less confusing than flipping around in a conventional code. And because form-based codes are often district-specific, amendments can be complicated because you may have to amend several adopted codes, not just one.

Second, form-based codes don't and can't -- solve concerns about land uses simply through form. By focusing on design, form-based codes can solve problems associated with context, especially in urban situations where you simply must design your way out of conflict.  But even in a form-based code, a city or county must consider the allowed uses carefully. It's easy to get too loose on use in a form-based code, so that uses with a big impact on the community get overloooked.

Finally, cities often make the mistake of thinking that if they adopt a form-based code, they don't have to do anything else to make a mixed-use or urban neighborhood work.  But that's not true especially when it comes to parking.  Form-based codes often permit less parking at the parcel level. But codes don't and can't deal with the district-level question of how to provide enough parking.  Indeed, one of the most common mistakes a city makes in adopting a form-based code is in restricting parcel-level parking without regard to whether enough pooled parking exists in the district. That's why a form-based code usually needs to be accompanied by a parking management plan.

Perhaps most significantly, a form-based code can't create a market for development where none exists. It's still a set of regulations and like all land use regulations a form-based code works best when it is expected to shape and sculpt existing demand to create a better urban environment. Sure, there's some benefit to developers in creating more certainty about zoning and design, but form-based codes more or less assume that the demand already exists. It's worth bearing in mind that Duany himself began writing form-based codes not for local governments but for developers who wanted a consistent look and feel to their projects.

There's no question that nowadays we have to design our way around problems that, in the suburban era, we could simply solve by putting more space between things. This requires a more design-oriented approach to planning and development generally. And there's no question that we must update and simplify codes with an eye toward how they are used when development projects are proposed. But in and of themselves, form-based codes are no replacement for plans, for parking policies, or for conventional concerns about land uses.

Like most advances that are touted as revolutionary, form-based codes are most effective when they are used to solve the problems they can solve -- and not expected to cure cancer or the common cold.