Posted by on Oct 10, 2010 in Blog Article | No Comments

Form-based codes (FBC) are land development regulations that seek a specific urban form by emphasizing physical form and aesthetics over use.  There are a number of issues to be weighed by any community considering adopting FBC.  While it is a relatively new tool for planners, the field can look to places such as Denver, CO; Lowell, MA and Arlington County, VA as case-studies.  To do this, design elements such as building height, setback measurements, and landscaping among others are given particular emphasis.  It is just as important, however, to understand what FBC are not:  they do not promote a social agenda in and of itself.  Although many FBC seek an increase in pedestrianism, for example, this is a result of the physical form goals defined through the process, rather than an explicit requirement.

Turning first to the strengths of FBC, it is most commonly said that they produce predictable results because they are prescriptive rather than proscriptive, meaning they call for guidelines which address what is desired rather than what is not allowed.  These desired results are developed in with the public through design charettes so that the resulting product is a consensus-built vision which, proponents argue, results in fewer issues that typically plague Euclidean zoning, due to the common need for variances and rezoning.  In theory this creates a reduction in costs for both the applicant of a new development and the municipality reviewing it.  Additionally, because FBC focus on design aspects rather than legal ones, planning documents tend to be more accessible to non-planning professionals.  Proponents also claim that FBC more readily address infill and encourage small-scale projects by multiple owners because developments are regulated by building or parcel rather than by block or larger land divisions. 

On the other hand, FBC are not without criticism.  To start with, consensus building is a difficult task especially when defining urban form in advance of any specific development proposal.  Ultimately some segments will be left unsatisfied.  To that end, FBC require a long-term commitment as politics shift and private developers adjust to restrictive design coding.  For established urban centers, it is more difficult to establish FBC since they have already been defined by Euclidean zoning.  In these areas, it may be strongly associated with gentrification and the displacement of residents.

From a logistical standpoint, FBC are a relatively new tool for planners and, as such, there exist few experts and “best practices” to draw from and localities must accept some degree of trial and error.  Critics claim that FBC formalize and control traditional urban values and forms which were created accidentally, organically, and spontaneously so the resulting product is disingenuous and fails to realize potential goals of vibrancy and community interaction.

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