Form-based codes: Progress, but a long way to go

Robert Steuteville, New Urban Network

Form-based codes have been in the news lately — they have been adopted citywide this year in high-profile places like Miami, Florida, and Denver, Colorado. Those cities have more than a million people combined.

New Urban News reported in April that, among planners and public officials, a constituency is solidifying in favor of form-based codes. And yet it is important to keep this shift in perspective. Zoning reform so far has been limited in comparison to the size of the regulatory system.

What are form-based codes? The Form-Based Codes Institute, founded in 2004, says, “Form-based codes foster predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. They are adopted into city or county law as regulations, not mere guidelines. Form-based codes are an alternative to conventional zoning.”

Emily Talen, a professor at Arizona State University, and Hazel Borys of the consulting firm Placemakers have been tracking form-based codes worldwide with The Codes Study. The study has identified 340 form-based codes, just more than 100 of which have been adopted. Most are in the US, although some  countries like Saudi Arabia, Scotland, and the United Arab Emirates are moving forward with form-based codes, Borys says.

In the US nearly 100 form-based codes have been adopted, according to the study. Many of the form-based codes apply to only a portion of a municipality. That number is compared to an estimated 88,000 incorporated municipalities (source: — most of which  have zoning of some sort.

The majority of US municipalities are very small and the larger ones are likely to adopt form-based codes sooner. The top 600 municipalities accounted for 32 percent of the population in 2000. Borys notes that many comprehensive plans have been adopted in recent years throughout the US that set goals that can best be achieved by form-based codes. “For example, Buffalo’s Smart Growth comprehensive plan was an award winner before they announced that they intend to do a full replacement mandatory form-based code,” Borys says.

Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Orlando, Phoenix, and Lee County (population 590,000) Florida all are moving forward with form-based codes, she says.

Form-based codes are likely to take a lot longer to become law than ordinances approved in the first wave of zoning, which occurred in the 1920s. According to Talen: “In two years, from 1924 to 1926, the number of zoned cities increased from 62 to 456 (Baker, 1927). By 1927, half of the urban population was living in zoned cities. Herbert Hoover’s enabling legislation pushed it even further, and by 1929 nearly 800 cities in the United States had zoning ordinances (Hubbard & Hubbard, 1929).”

Those early zoning ordinances were “more nuanced” than the current variety of conventional codes, and allowed a greater mix of uses, she notes. “We can only look longingly back at the way zoning took over ‘by storm,’ ” says Talen.

Some parts of the US are moving faster in terms of zoning reform than others.

Florida has 47 form-based codes either approved or in process, while California has 39 and Texas has 33. The 9-state region from Pennsylvania to Maine only has 24 codes, according to the study. The south is clearly ahead of much of the country in terms of code reform. Most of the southern states have more than 10 form-based codes. Mississippi, with fewer than 3 million people, has 15. That’s partly due to the massive planning efforts that took place on the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.