Form-Based Code: What Is It? Why Is It Different From Conventional Planning? How Does It Help Affordable Housing?

Mixed-use waterfront photo by La Citta Vita is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Read the following article to learn how form-based code would work to integrate the mixed land uses shown in this picture from Stockholm.

Form-based code is a method of land use regulation promoted by the Form-Based Codes Institute, which operates out of Washington D.C.

Urban planning is in many ways like flying blind. The characteristics of a new district are defined by a planning code which places general restrictions on the land use. It may be for residential use, but we may know little about the kinds of residences, or the street system, until a developer makes a proposal for all or part of the district.

Zoning may tell us how far to set houses from the street, the ratio of floor area to lot size, and the width of the streets — however they wind or don’t wind. But citizens and city councillors will be unable to visualize the actual layout of the district until developers propose plans. In a single step, developers can, and do, crystallize a district into a viewable map.

Form based code has been created to make this process easier to picture and to administer. They include visualizations in 3D of how all the buildings, their uses, and other essential elements within a district fit together. Flying with eyes open, viewing maps and 3D imagery, citizens and councils can evaluate and guide the development of complex districts.

Why is this important? Form-based codes can make it easier to understand and approve mixed use developments that pave a regulatory path for affordable housing.

By contrast, conventional zoning tends to separate housing, commercial and industrial uses. It’s a kind of ghettoization, which recent history has shown can produce unhealthy results, particularly where affordable housing is concerned. Form-based code is specific enough to permit healthy mixed uses while avoiding child care centres placed next to lead smelters.

For a more detailed explanation of Form-based Codes, try this page of the Form-Based Codes Institute:  Form-Based Codes Defined

Form-based code is one approach for communities faced with the challenge of planning with the limited instruments of conventional zoning, but there are others. In Ontario, Canada, site plan can carry the force of law, which municipalities can use in specific zones to regulate building and street form. Site plans in many other jurisdictions offer advice, and have no regulatory force.


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