Form-Based Codes Lite

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.

February 12, 2013, 12:13 PM PST

By Michael Lewyn @mlewyn


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

Michael Lewyn is an associate professor at Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, in Long Island. His scholarship can be found at http://works.bepress.com/lewyn.

Gentrification

What We Really Mean When We Say Gentrification

The focus on gentrifying communities has, in many cases, eclipsed the similar problems facing more stagnant neighborhoods.

September 14, 2021 - Vox

High-Speed Rail

Democratic Legislators Obstruct Funding for California High Speed Rail

Voters approved a $9.9 billion bond for the California High Speed Rail project in 2008. State legislators would like that money to be spent in other ways in 2021.

September 10, 2021 - Sacramento Bee

Rendering of aerial view of Telosa city

Why Tech-Utopian City Plans Fail

Like others before him, e-commerce billionaire Marc Lore wants to build the ideal city from scratch. Urban experts don't have much faith in his chances.

September 9, 2021 - Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.