Form-Based Codes

Dear Management Doctor:

Your recent discussion of the relationship of zoning to planning raises a question that is now hotly debated in a number of California cities: replacing conventional zoning and its obsessive fixation of use and density with "form-based" or "smart" codes. These new codes put greater emphasis on the form and character of new building and how that fits in with the existing or desired fabric of the neighborhood, district or corridor (we've adopted one for our Downtown). A dozen other California cities have adopted versions for either their entire city or particular areas. This idea is getting increasing attention at the national level, but the average zoner/planner probably hasn't even heard about the concept if they aren't attending "leading edge" conference sessions. Given that most cities take "zoning" for granted, how long do you think it will take for this concept to get serious attention from planners at the local level?

City Manager
City of San Buenaventura, CA

Dear City Manager,

Let me start by saying I am not an expert on Form-Based Codes, but I know many of my readers are and I expect they will add and/or differ with my comments. For better or worse, I have been around planning for a long long time and have seen many fads come and go. In the 70's I put together a series of seminars for three leading California universities on the then hot topic of Growth Management. I delivered the opening address at these seminars. I basically said that most of what we were seeing was the same old stuff with new clothes on. However, I suggested that the planners should jump on the jargon if it created some political advantage.

One of the next fads was New Urbanism and it is still going strong. Whether you are a supporter or not, it is not new. I have in my library a report titled "Outrage Counter Attack" that was published in England in the 60's that essentially dealt with the same concept.

Now comes Form-Based Codes. To the extent these codes focus more on form than use, one might say they are new. However, traditionally, PRDs which have been around for as long as I have been in planning allowed all kinds of mixed use.

So, how about the focus on form? Communities that have had strong design review have always dealt with form.

Now to your specific questions. I believe a high percent of planners have heard of Form-Based Codes. They certainly have had sessions at the last two national planning conferences, as well as state conferences, discussing the concept. The issue may not be how long will it take for this concept to get serious attention from planners at the local level. The issue may be how long will it take for this concept to get serious attention from elected officials and planning commissioners.

My advice to planners, if a fad helps you with the political process and helps you to achieve your objectives jump on it!

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

Below is one more critique to my response on form-based codes. OK - OK - OK, I agree the use of the word "fad" was unfortunate. Disagreeing with the Doctor is useful and I appreciate it. But please don't miss my main point:

  • Planning has a history of being ineffective and coming to the parade after the clean up from the horses and garbage trucks have long passed. So, what I was suggesting is that — whatever good idea is catching the attention of the public or the political leaders, jump on it and run with it as long as you can — even if it turns out to lose its punch later.
  • So what about form-based codes? The doctor doesn't claim to be an expert on these, but as a planner with an architectural degree, I do have a few thoughts.
    1. When I was at the University of California in Berkley getting my masters degree in planning in 1961, planning was moving away from urban design and into social and economic planning. Most of us eager students jumped on this band wagon. Our renowned professor, Jack Kent, remained a big supporter of the physical and urban design school. He suggested that while he agreed that social and economic issues were important, he feared the planning profession would lose its expertise in urban design. How right he was.
    2. Today it is hard to find a planning department that has a competent urban designer on staff. It is not unusual to find freshly minted planners with masters degrees, who do not have design training, yet are processing design review applications. The results are often silly and, in some cases, disastrous. In our management studies, we often suggest that outside consulting designers be hired to advise staff or to make design recommendations.
    3. Can the best urban design practices be codified? A few can, many can't. My concern is that we don't make the same mistakes with form-based codes that Bruce Kistler, in the response below, so accurately says we made with Euclidean zoning. Are these freshly minted planners writing these codes, or have we found some competent, but yet modest urban designers?

The Management Doctor

I thought that Paul Zucker's characterization of form-based codes as a "fad" was unfortunate. For years, planners have sought to fix Euclidean zoning, so certainly many alternative regulatory concepts have been around a long time. However, I think there is a growing realization on the part of many of us, who are steeped in the Euclidean traditions, (1) that the most important thing that is missing is good urban design; (2) that most of us are not experts in urban design; and (3) that PUDs and overlay zones are not the answer. The effort to codify the best urban design practices is one of the more, if not the most, profound trends in planning today. Our ability to understand and act on this trend is likely to be the biggest challenge of our careers, and one that could have the greatest impact on the future of our jurisdictions.
Bruce Kistler
City of Lakeland, FL

I was extremely disappointed by your remarks regarding form-based codes — they were vapid.

Something as fundamental as a shift from use-based zoning to form-based codes deserves more intellectual energy than a dismissal as a "fad" by someone with your experience and important role as an educator.

I can quip that mixed-use has been around since before ancient Pompeii (which also had rental housing) and that there is nothing new under the sun, but the past 60 years of planning history and mainstream regulatory record is hardly a shining example of how well our profession has enabled mixed-use development and balanced the excesses of use-based Euclidean zoning and the occasional design review board or guidelines. Planners need to be able to distinguish between fads and ineffectual, "loosey- goosey" tools like PUDs and a more fundamental rethinking of regulatory tools.

Charles C. Bohl
University of Miami, FL

I thought your response was excellent. I'm becoming convinced that as planners, we are very good at recycling old concepts in new terms. I thought your last comment was the best — if it helps you, use it; if it hurts you, avoid it.

Mike Harper
Washoe County, NV

Once again, Doctor Zucker is (painfully) right on target.

Glenn Moyer
City of Tucson, AZ

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