Form-Based Codes Lite

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

In a forthcoming article, Nicole Garnett of Notre Dame Law School critiques form-based codes, on the reasonable ground that these codes often include meticulous aesthetic regulations that may be difficult and expensive to comply with.

However, there may be a way to supply some of the benefits of form-based codes without heavy-handed aesthetic regulation.  In theory, a form-based code could be limited to verifiable characteristics such as setbacks, yard types, building height, frontage size and lot coverage.

On the positive side, a form-based code focusing on the sort of objective indicators traditionally regulated by zoning would allow a developer to build buildings that were at least somewhat compatible with the rest of a neighborhood (or with the city's vision of what a neighborhood should look like), without having to pay the costs of aesthetic regulation.  For example, a city could mandate that all buildings in a neighborhood be small enough to create a dense, low-rise neighborhood, without telling the developer what the windows, facades or other architectural details should look like.

On the other hand, there may be a trade-off between flexibility and beauty: a zoning code that only addressed objective indicia of community character such as building height and width would allow the creation of buildings that on paper are compatible with a city's plan, and yet are poorly built and/or do not look particularly good. 

But even such a permissive form-based code could be used to create neighborhoods that are no uglier than existing sprawl and are far more pedestrian-friendly.  So for a city concerned about housing costs and burdening developers, a form-based code that does not regulate aesthetics might be an adequate compromise between a more rigorous form-based code and status quo zoning.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.

Comments

Comments

Urban Versus Design Codes

When I first learned about it, they talked about two different kinds of form-based codes, which correspond to what you are talking about:
-- Urban codes control the building envelope (such as setbacks, height, and frontage size).
-- Design codes control architectural details.
I don't know if these terms are still common. If not, I think we should revive them, because I agree with you that an urban code is essential to creating pedestrian-friendly developments, while a design code is not.

I see that someone is provides the Seaside Urban Code at http://codesproject.asu.edu/node/115 and they describe it as "A code prescribing the placing of buildings for the Town of Seaside, Florida.... This code includes setbacks, lots lines, yards, porches and balconies, and parking." It seems they are using the term "urban code" to describe the part of the form-based code that controls the overall massing of the building, without the architectural details.

Most FBCs Don't Regulate Style

Good points, Michael. I think it's important to understand that the majority of form-based codes out there -- which you can review at the Codes Study: http://www.placemakers.com/how-we-teach/codes-study/ -- do not regulate architectural style.

Although it's a common misunderstanding to assume that they do. There are some FBCs that do regulate architectural style, and others that keep them separate: FBC + Architectural Design Standards or Guidelines (ADS or ADG). Some developers choose to put them into their Covenants Codes and Restrictions (CCRs) for private developments.

The FBCI FBC Criteria, upon which the Codes Study is based, assumes that the regulation of architectural style is not necessary to be defined as a FBC. Instead, a FBC regulates the form of the built environment for both the public and private realm, which may include a multitude of architectural styles and syntax.

Norman Wright's picture
Blogger

Bravo!

Thank you so much for expressing this idea, Michael. We are taking this approach in my town (Columbia, TN) and I'm personally quite excited because this is the way, in our local context, to embrace certain trade-offs and make great development possible. There's a different sort of logic that one has to use to make this approach work and you've summarized it perfectly.

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

full disclosure

Speaking of which, I should admit that my post was inspired by Mr. Wright's presentation last week at the Partners for Smart Growth conference.

Norman Wright's picture
Blogger

Then I'd say we inspire each other

Very kind of you to say so but, for what it's worth, your paper on Smart Growth for Conservatives is also an inspiration for my approach in a conservative town. So if I sparked any thoughts for you please be assured that you did the same for me. Your perspective is very much appreciated. Cheers my friend!

Basics not Details

In all the spaces we find ourselves, those created with the "double cube" and the "golden mean" aesthetic are the most wonderful. Most do not even know and they should. Pressure for details beyond the humanity of these basics are wasteful -- what is not wasteful is proportion and dimension. She is right and so are you

Basics not Details

In all the spaces we find ourselves, those created with the "double cube" and the "golden mean" aesthetic are the most wonderful. Most do not even know and they should. Pressure for details beyond the humanity of these basics are wasteful -- what is not wasteful is proportion and dimension. She is right and so are you

Basics not Details

In all the spaces we find ourselves, those created with the "double cube" and the "golden mean" aesthetic are the most wonderful. Most do not even know and they should. Pressure for details beyond the humanity of these basics are wasteful -- what is not wasteful is proportion and dimension. She is right and so are you

Be careful not to feed the troll

As Hazel Borys notes, Garnett is attacking a straw man: aesthetic regulation is not an essential part of FBCs.

Garnett: "These costs flow in large part from the imposition of architectural standards, which, at a minimum, require securing the services of an architect to ensure compliance but which also may require expensive materials." Here's the citation: PLAN. DESIGN GRP., ECONOMIC RETURN ON NEW URBANISM 1, 3 (2007) http://01ece72.netsolhost.com/assets/PDFS/Economic_Return_New_Urbanism.pdf See page 7, where the estimates are heavily couched in uncertain language, and where the new costs include civic buildings.

Frankly I'd be amazed if Garnett's article made it through peer review.

Prepare for the AICP Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $199
Planetizen Courses image ad

Planetizen Courses

Advance your career with subscription-based online courses tailored to the urban planning professional.
Starting at $14.95 a month
poster

A Short History of America

From comic book artist Robert Crumb, poster shows how the built environment has changed throughout the decades.
$14.95
Book cover of Insider's Guide to Careers in Urban Planning

So you want to be a planner...

Check out our behind the scenes look at 25 careers in the Urban Planning field
Starting at $14.95