A form-based code (FBC) is a land development regulation technique that focuses on the physical form of the built environment rather than on the separation of uses. As communities continue to grow, many have found traditional land use regulations that encourage separate-use, automobile-dependent patterns of development are no longer working. FBCs may be best suited to areas that wish to foster mixed-use developments in and around downtowns, transit-oriented developments, and transit corridors. They can also be used in combination with other zoning regulations to form hybrid models. The primary benefits of these codes are more predictable outcomes and by-right reviews that streamline development approvals.
FBCs focus less on structure use and more on the overall form and character of a neighborhood. While use is still regulated, more emphasis is placed on the placement and form of structures, the character of the street frontage, and the relationship between structures and public spaces. By regulating the design of new development, FBC zoning addresses the size and mass of structures in relation to one another. FBCs are presented through graphics, charts, and minimal text, with a focus on readability. This approach can result in a wider variety of residential uses mixed with commercial and office uses, including mixed-use development, and live/work and workforce housing close to work, shopping, and entertainment.
The regulations and standards of an FBC are typically presented in tables and graphics with supplemental text which can be more readily understood by users. Additionally, FBC’s usually include photographs that depict the desired outcomes. The standards vary in intensity based on each form-based zone. The form-based zones are mapped in a regulating plan, a document similar to a zoning map.
The development of an FBC can be a significant undertaking, so jurisdictions should first evaluate whether FBCs best accomplish community goals and are appropriate for the context (see Form-Based Codes: A Step-by-Step Guide for Communities under Available Resources below).
Implementation Techniques. Form-based codes can be adopted as part of a specific plan/master plan process, a general plan update, or as a focused addition to a comprehensive zoning code update. Additionally, some communities have opted to implement a hybrid zoning approach that combines conventional zoning techniques with form-based standards. This technique typically involves creating a mandatory or optional overlay zone, and/or adopting form-based standards into the community’s existing development and design standards.
Benefits of FBCs. FBC regulations usually lead to a more predictable built environment and allow mixed-use walkable projects to be built by-right (whereas this must be explicitly allowed in conventional zoning, it is inherently permitted in FBCs).
- FBCs promote compatible infill, allowing more opportunity for individual landowners to develop property, resulting in more diversity in architecture and style.
- The public process to develop the code is often more understandable for the public, since the discussion revolves around what a development should look like, rather than abstract concepts such as FAR or use tables. This encourages greater public participation.
- Although FBCs may include the same categories of elements as design guidelines, they are regulatory, rather than elective. FBCs typically replace existing conventional zoning codes for a particular area. FBCs can apply to a particular zone, a collection of zones, or apply citywide or countywide.
- Predictable development pattern
- Faster application processing and review
- Walkable, bikeable, and pleasant urban character
- Establishment, reinforcement, and/or preservation of the aesthetic and spatial character of the community
- Broad mix of housing types and opportunities
- Increased live/work options
- Structures and entries that are oriented to the street to activate the public realm
- Sustainable design and growth
Challenges. Developing an FBC will require education, community engagement, and time to develop as the approach differs from traditional zoning approaches. Because this form of zoning is different than traditional forms (e.g., new terms and definitions), it also requires staff that can explain and implement its provisions. It should also be expected that not every provision of the new code will address every issue that may arise, and as such, jurisdictions should plan for the possibility that amendments will be needed in the initial years of implementation.
Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). Form-Based Codes: A Step-by-Step Guide for Communities.
Strong Towns, 6 Reasons Your City Needs a Form-Based Code.
Form-Based Codes Institute. Library of Form-Based Codes.
Local Government Commission (LGC). Form-Based Codes: Implementing Smart Growth.
Form Based Code Institute. Form-Based Codes Defined (August 2021).
Weitz, J. (2005). Form-Based Codes: A Supportive but Critical Perspective. Practicing Planner, Vol. 3, No. 3.
Langdon, P. (2006). The Not-So-Secret Code. Planning, Vol. 72, No. 1.
City of Tehachapi. Tehachapi General Plan.
City of Fremont. Fremont Downtown Community Plan + Design Guidelines. A hybrid FBC that incorporates use-based regulations, street typologies, and public realm requirements as well as minimum and maximum parking standards based upon exclusive and non-exclusive use.
City of Fremont. Warm Springs/South Fremont Community Plan.