Over the last 15 years, interest in recalibrating the decades-old approach to regulating the built environment (zoning) with a focus on building forms (form-based) has been gaining momentum. Early forays focus largely on placemaking and architectural treatment; notable examples include Seaside and West Palm Beach Florida, Columbia Pike in Arlington County, Virginia, and St. Lucie County, Florida. The Form-based Code (FBC) movement that began on the East Coast made its way to the West Coast under a new brand called SMART Codes or Transects Plans.  These have been prepared for California communities including Sonoma, Central Petaluma, Ventura and Santa Clarita.

Early versions of strict FBC plans were often designed to regulate undeveloped land (subdivisions) where complete control of all regulations and building design was possible due to land ownership and lack of existing improvements of any substantive kind. It was a blank slate to which a special “design” brand of regulations could be applied with absolute control. Support for these plans, along with growing demand for complete community strategies in the field of city planning, gave rise to these same strict form-based regulations being applied to existing cities and communities with near built-out conditions. This is where some difficulties arise. FBC provisions and strategies, originally written for undeveloped land, are not completely transferable to a developed urban setting.

There is little doubt that regulations that focus on improving the quality of the built environment are a huge advancement for city planning and design and a return to the mastery of city building in the pre-industrial revolution era. However, today with much experimentation and experience in implementing FBCs under our belt, there is an opportunity to reflect on how these codes can be refined to deliver regulations for developed areas that both support high quality city building, and are viable for private investment. Here are a few common issues posed by a typical FBC and suggestions for improvement:

  1. Too complex: Rigid FBCs can be overly complex and contain internal conflicts and inconsistencies. For example, many strict FBCs contain separate regulations for subdivision, lot and blocks, building placement, building types, frontage types and architectural styles that can cause confusion and severely limit the ability of an applicant to employ creativity in design of structures and places. Why not limit the core regulations to those that are critical in creating good buildings and streets such as building height, setbacks, frontage standards, parking location, access and building-to-street issues and leave architectural design to guidelines that promote flexibility and creativity?
  2. Unfamiliar terminology: Some FBCs use unique terminology such as transect zones and building typologies which may be unfamiliar to the vast majority of future users of the code. Many strict FBCs only allow specific building types that are predetermined and very specific in their design such as the bungalow court, mansion apartment house, side-yard dwelling and liner buildings. The zones established also use technical terms or descriptors, for example a single family area may be labeled T-3.6. Would it not be more user friendly to simply create districts designed to deliver a certain type of design character and human activity with common terminology and avoid complex and unfamiliar language and layers of regulations like numerical transect zones, building typology, subdivision and  lot and block standards?
  3. Unresponsive to existing conditions: In many urban areas the greatest challenge is how to achieve positive change over time in the architectural quality, public space and economic conditions, while recognizing the value of existing investment. Strict FBCs fall short of creating regulations that account for a wide variety of existing conditions and pave the way for unnecessary strings of exceptions, variances and warrants requiring more project processing time and reducing the effectiveness of the well intentioned code. Could a transition to a district-based format with uses, standards and guidelines that accommodate existing conditions and allow a greater range of architectural solutions meet the same revitalization goal.

Many planning practitioners are refining their approach to delivering viable regulating codes along these lines by crafting plans that focus on high-quality architecture and public space while achieving the flexibility needed by the participants in the planning process and the investors who make it a reality. Urban plans of this nature are termed “hybrid” or “district-based plans” and embody a new commitment to the public-private partnership that is essential in finding true revitalization success.

By: Erik Justesen, ASLA, LEED AP
CEO, Principal