Form-Based Codes Reach A Milestone


Philip Langdon

Issue Date:

Tue, 2008-04-01

Page Number:


The first comprehensive book-length guide is published as local officials laud new codes’ effects.

Since 2001, when Carol Wyant at Pathfinder Consulting in Chicago coined the term “form-based code,” this relatively new tool for shaping development has found a receptive audience in communities nationwide.

This spring, another significant advance took place: California new urbanists Daniel Parolek, Karen Parolek, and Paul Crawford published the first comprehensive, book-length guide, Form-Based Codes: A Guide for Planners, Urban Designers, Municipalities, and Developers.

The 352-page book from John Wiley & Sons ($75 hardcover) explains the purposes of form-based codes (FBCs) and explores the ins and outs of their creation, authorization, and implementation. It also alerts planners, designers, and developers to mistakes that sometimes cause the codes to perform more poorly than expected (see Common Mistakes).

Several sessions at CNU XVI in Austin, Texas, focused on codes. Attorney Dan Slone pointed out that the mapping part of the project requires intensive staff work, that “it is politically difficult to do the whole city at once,” and that “it requires developers and regulators to learn a new system.”

On the other hand, Kenneth Groves, director of planning and development for Montgomery, Alabama, said, “It’s fairly easy to sell to the community.” “Staff acceptance does grow,” he noted. He marveled that “even people at the front desk can explain it.” He lauded the SmartCode, saying it “allows much more development than a conventional code.” New Urban News Publications published the SmartCode Version 9 and Manual in March — a significant advancement in the most popular FBC geared to the urban-rural Transect.

Rick Cole told a CNU session that when he became city manager of Ventura, California, there was a pent-up demand for downtown housing in his city. Still, he realized that the built results would be disappointing without a community vision and effective oversight.

Cole pungently said, “You take a crap, which you get in the suburbs, and you cram it, and you get crap crammed.” There would have been a “recoil” against the “crap-crammed” form of downtown development, he recalled, so “we had to move quickly. We pieced a code together in three or four months.” Since then, he said, Ventura has had “a year and a half of test-driving the code.”

Cole praised form-based codes for their clarity — for allowing the local government to say: “Here are the rules; you don’t have to be big and politically powerful” to obtain approval for a project. As Cole sees it, this is a marked improvement over the usual “people spending money on lobbyists, lawyers, campaign contributions” rather than on sound design and better materials.

Speakers in Austin said form-based codes, partly because they’re easier to understand than conventional regulations, have accelerated the approval process. For example, groves noted that in Montgomery, the approval process takes 90 days under a traditional system “versus 20 minutes under the SmartCode.” The idea of Montgomery-style action took aback Cole — “We can’t do anything in 20 minutes,” he said — but said, “We’ve reduced the time from four to seven years for a project to six to nine months.” Cole also said the staff, who had previously been occupied with processing lots of paperwork, can now look at “how [a project] improves our community.”

Slone noted that “the folks on the green building side are learning about building location” as a critical component of energy consumption and environmental impact and could be enticed to support such codes. “The green, sustainability people should be helpful,” he said. “They should be a relatively easy constituency to bring on board.”

The largest concentration of adopted or proposed codes is in the southeastern US, but they’re also cropping up in nearly every other region. Daniel and Karen Parolek, principals of Opticos Design in Oakland, California, discovered dozens of FBCs nationwide. Today there are more than 100 FBCs, and Karen Parolek says it’s possible that “the number may be quite a bit higher.” Hazel Borys of PlaceMakers has started a Google link where people add codes they’re working on — whether SmartCodes or other varieties.

Ample detail

In Form-Based Codes, the authors write: “Communities are supporting proposed projects on parcels where there had been opposition for years. Areas that had been continuously neglected are seeing renewal driven by private investment. Suburban areas are getting vibrant centers that they’ve never had.”

The detail-rich book notes that Transect organizes most form-based codes. A smaller number is managed by different principles — as in “frontage-based codes,” which shape building facades to affect the public realm positively.

FBCs set out to “achieve a specific urban form” and to create “a predictable public realm” through municipal or county regulations, the authors explain. The codes may also govern land uses, though in a more nuanced way than conventional zoning ordinances do.

FBCs tend to allow entire categories of uses, such as “general retail,” rather than listing specific retail activities (such as “shoe stores”). Consequently, they allow some activities that were either overlooked in a conventional ordinance or had not been conceived when it was adopted. In addition, potentially bothersome uses, such as the sale of alcohol outside regular business hours, may be made subject to discretionary review or prohibited within a given Transect zone.

Municipal governments sometimes modify the names of Transect zones to make them “more understandable and intuitive for local citizens,” the authors say. See the table on page 6 for examples.

One chapter explains the steps involved in making a form-based code — from “scoping” (assembling the team, selecting the process, determining the application area, etc.); to documenting conditions at the macro and micro scales, to visioning; to writing the regulating plan; to formatting the documents (it even discusses how much white space to include on a page).

Case studies of 10 pages each present the Santa Ana, CA, Downtown Renaissance Specific Plan; the Downtown Benicia, CA, Master Plan, and Form-Based Code; the Miami 21 (FL) SmartCode; the Grass Valley, CA, Development Code Update and Form-Based Code; the TOD Smart Code of Leander, TX; the Heart of Peoria, IL, Land Development Code; the Form-Based Code for Mixed-Use Infill in Sarasota County, FL; the Towns, Villages, and Countryside code of St. Lucie County, FL; and the form-based codes of Ventura, California, and Montgomery, AL.

Progress in some localities has been difficult. In one case study, planner Ramon Trias in Fort Pierce, Florida, writes of the St. Lucie County experience: “The adoption process proved longer and more complex than anticipated. … At times, the existing procedures for adoption of comprehensive plan amendments and codes appeared to work against the shared vision developed during the charrette.”

Nonetheless, the book’s message is that FBCs have a bright future — if intelligently crafted.