Habersham, an award-winning coastal development near Beaufort, S.C., never would have been built under traditional zoning codes. The large mixed-use community, which features a mix of single-family homes, townhomes, shops, restaurants, and offices, received approval under an increasingly popular zoning concept—form-based codes.

Unlike conventional codes, which control the use of land and the density of development without great regard for the resulting built environment, form-based codes support a vision for smart growth by controlling the physical form, with a lesser focus on land use.

“The primarily reason that they’re really catching on across the country is that the current zoning system is really broken,” says Daniel Parolek, co-author of Form-Based Codes: A Guide for Planners, Urban Designers, Municipalities, and Developers and a principal at Berkeley, Calif.-based architecture and urban design firm Opticos Design. “It has regulated placeless, auto-dependent development patterns that have consumed our countrysides, impacted our nation’s health, and left our historic downtowns and neighborhoods struggling to survive.”

The most recognized and earliest example of a development using a form-based code is Seaside, Fla., which was founded in 1981 and continues to use the zoning mechanism. Form-based codes have been slow to gain traction over the last two decades but are now generating more interest from both developers and municipalities as cities strive to create walkable, New Urbanist communities.

“Form-based codes have come about because the conventional [zoning process] is facing barriers in many communities,” says Peter Katz, founder of the Form-Based Codes Institute and owner of Carlsbad, Calif.-based consulting firm Trans/Form. “For developers wanting to [embrace] New Urbanism and smart growth, more and more are turning to form-based codes as the best tool for the job.”

Form Meets Function

Form-based codes, presented in both diagrams and words, are keyed to a regulating plan that designates the appropriate form and scale of a development rather than only distinctions in land-use types. This is in contrast to conventional zoning's focus on the micromanagement and segregation of land.

Developers and municipalities formulate form-based codes, which are then subject to the approval of local governing bodies. [For specific components of the form-based system, see “Coding 101,” below.] “Nobody’s got a monopoly on innovation here,” Katz says. The form-based coding process often involves a public planning process, resulting in a plan for the project that both citizens and developers support.

“Developers and municipalities say, ‘We’re going to put the zoning to the side, look at what’s the best project for this place and come up with a plan for the project and let’s code to the plan,’” Katz says. “You’re coding to the plan, not planning to the zoning.”
The response from planning departments has improved as they’ve become more receptive to New Urbanism, says Bob Turner, principal of Beaufort, S.C.-based Habersham Land Co., the developer of Habersham and other communities in South Carolina and Tennessee. The codes allow municipalities as well as developers to visually show how a community is going to be built and what it will look like when completed.

Typically, working on a project in a city where a form-based code exists is easier than creating a new code from scratch. “Back when we first started doing this, there weren’t any codes written and it was very complicated and hard to explain,” Turner says. “Now it’s becoming a more preferred model by planners.” 

Code Crunching

A form-based code has a number of advantages over traditional zoning methods, proponents say. One major benefit is that it gives developers greater flexibility, while offering precise design guidelines. That flexibility is necessary so that the municipality doesn’t seem like the “architecture police,” says Arista Strungys, a senior associate with Chicago-based urban planning firm Camiros.

This code also allows development to occur without changing the historic look of an area, Strungys adds. “The zoning allows the community to say, ‘We’ve really wanted to preserve this area and the character of the downtown,’” she says. “Now the municipality has the rules in place for how new infill development should fit in with the existing historic fabric.”

Another “beauty” of form-based codes is that they’re specific, which can be good news and bad news, says Dale R. Dekker, principal with Albuquerque-based Dekker/Perich/Sabatini, a design and development firm. “That’s good news if the specifics are totally in line with your development concept and how your site relates to the street and infrastructure around it,” he says.

Of course, form-based codes aren’t the solution for every situation. “Usually form-based codes work best on projects that are pretty controversial, that have struggled for years to come out of the ground by very engaged citizens,” says Katz of the Form-Based Codes Institute. “It works well on the tough cases. It doesn’t work very well in places where nobody cares.” Plus, form-based codes don’t lend themselves to developing warehouses, distribution facilities, and manufacturing plants because these building types don’t often mesh well with the code’s goal of promoting higher density, vertical mixed-use projects in a pedestrian-friendly environment, Dekker adds.
But expect to see form-based codes make an appearance in a community near you, if not for sole necessity. “The cities of the future are going to have to provide many more options and lifestyle choices for people, just because the low-density pattern of development we’ve had or enjoyed for the last 50 years really isn’t sustainable,” Dekker says.

Lori Johnston is a freelance writer living in Athens, Ga.


Form-based codes typically include the following components.

  • Regulating Plan. A plan or map of the regulated area designating the locations where different building form standards apply, based on clear community intentions regarding the physical character of the area being code.
  • Public Space Standards. Specifications for the elements within the public realm (e.g., sidewalks, travel lanes, on-street parking, street trees, street furniture, etc.).
  • Building Form Standards. Regulations controlling the configuration, features, and functions of buildings that define and shape the public realm.
  • Administration. A clearly defined application and project review process.
  • Definitions. A glossary to ensure the precise use of technical terms.

SOURCE: Form-Based Codes Institute