Similar to Leonardo Fibonacci decoding the natural world’s pattern language, Form Based Codes are a meta tool that is supposed to derive order and efficiency in a developing metropolis. Architects and urban planners have boiled it down to The Transect—an illustration that expresses the ideal form of a region as it develops outward—from a very dense core all the way to natural area.
In between is where the ideal needs the most help. And this is why Form Based Code (FBC) was created—to find the most efficient use of space. In the middle of the Transect—recovering cities and the suburbs—FBCs are supposed to give rise to walkable urbanism, not the drive-thru development we see sprouting up on major commercial corridors.
To its critics and proponents alike, it achieves this hard-to-grasp goal by highly regulating how we build. FBCs can come in the form of an overlay, a Smart Code insert or, in the case of Flagstaff, Arizona and Hamden, Connecticut (and dozens of other cities) by throwing out their often complicated tome of a zoning code and starting over.
At Congress for New Urbanism, cities with FBCs discussed the challenge of getting walkable urbanism to come out the other end.
“Ninety percent of the time, if you don’t have clear regulations, the building won’t look very good because most builders orient toward suburban forms,” admits Emily Talen, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University. “The objective of a form based code is to get a really good public realm.”
A good form based code starts with the street, Talen adds.
“Once you lay down something, it rules forever. If you want to be immortal, design a street.”
Even our ideal of urbanism, Broadway Avenue in New York City’s West Village, was once a cowpath, she says. “More important than height and frontage, having it be highly regulated slows it from being damaged.”
In stories from the frontlines, Mesa, Arizona adopted a form based code to tame the ugliness of its boom growth.
“We grew to 500,000 people fast and cheap,” said an official from Mesa. “We got in the habit of regulating what we didn’t want. Form based codes flip that. Tell people what you want. It can be simpler and quicker in the first place.”
In a strong market like Arlington, Virginia, it may be advantageous to control the pace and quality of development. “It took a while for developers to use (FBCs), even with lots of good incentives," a city official said. "FBCs are an excellent balancer to government corruption, because the average permit takes 2 years.”
In a weak or conservative or markets damaged by car-centric development, FBCs are sometimes dismissed as heavy handed attempts at producing new urbanism. CNU responds with examples of “market-responsive” FBCs, like Richardson, Texas, a wealthy suburb of Dallas that “wants to become more walkable and connected to transit...to remain attractive to employers in coming decades.” The city fast tracks development as long as the form based code is adhered to. Or, Twinsburg, Ohio where the city wants to tame two major state highways and develop a walkable downtown.
Hamden’s planning director thinks “it’s unrealistic to think of FBCs as anything but a political document—because people will try to derail it. Codes get so complicated. Six people who care about chickens can derail it. Focus on the big picture and let the chickens be chickens.”
The lesson is zoning codes are often not effective at producing what a community favors. When shown examples of beautiful, walkable town centers, people across the political spectrum choose that form over the conventional shopping center. Most people are disappointed to learn that their city’s zoning code will not allow for that form of walkable urbanism.
To get there we need a new community standard, says architect John Massengale. “Make a street like you have no earth moving equipment. So it doesn’t drop on the ground like a blanket. Right now it’s all engineering.”
Cities that are laid out on a small grid tend to successfully move traffic and provide pedestrianized space. Where cities have left over areas, they can designate it for public use. We need more traffic commissioners who think like New York City’s Janette Sadik Kahn, he adds, who are turning giant asphalt islands in Times Square in to ped plazas. “She says, ‘I’m not going to design streets for the car.’ In walkable towns, you need to slow speeds.”