A Placemaking Journal

Form-Based Codes? A picture’s worth a thousand words.

If the attendees list of Placemaking@Work, my monthly webinar series, is any indicator, we’re increasingly united in our desire to improve the places we call home, wherever those places might be. Last month, I had participants from Hawaii to Russia, from British Columbia to Saudi Arabia, and many points in between.

The common thread among these seekers is their search for tools and tactics that have proven effective. And increasingly dominating these conversations are form-based codes.

It's not just people talking about form-based codes. It's an increasing number gettin' 'em done. Click for larger view.

In preparation for a recent session on the form-based SmartCode, I started a #SmartCode tweetchat to get in the mood, and to engage the question I seem to receive at every dinner or party or event I attend: “Why form-based codes?”

It’s a valid question. People often tell me, “Things aren’t so bad around my town. We’re comfortable enough. Why would we want to consider the idea of a form-based code? Why are you guys so high on all this stuff?”

The simple answer is that our passion is helping communities become more economically competitive, socially connected and environmentally sensitive and, time and time again, it’s existing single-use zoning that stands in their way. In response, form-based codes have emerged as a useful remedy, effectively legalizing community visions and serving as a bridge between their current conditions and the goals they’re trying to reach.

So, that’s the why, but there’s still the question of what. What are form-based codes? And how do they work?

To easily illustrate these ideas – the work of a lot of people over time, including the Transect Codes Council and the Form-Based Codes Institute – I talked to my brother and fellow urbanist, Steve Mouzon, about using some of his photos. Here they are. And, assuming a picture truly is worth a thousand words,  they’re sparing you a 10,000 word post. You’re welcome.

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Above: A form-based code (FBC) is a blueprint for places where true community, in all its complexity, can prosper.

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Above: To cities, planners, developers, and citizens, FBCs offer choice, quality of life, economic opportunity, environmental stewardship, and adaptability.

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FBCs support community vision, local character, open lands conservation (as shown above), transit options, and walkable mixed-use neighborhoods.

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Above: FBCs prevent wasteful sprawl development, automobile-dominated streets, empty downtowns, and a hostile public realm.

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Above: The SmartCode is a form-based, unified land development ordinance for planning and urban design.

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Above: As a form-based code, it strongly addresses the physical form of building and development. Conversely, conventional codes focus mostly on use & density.

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Above: The SmartCode is transect-based, fostering communities with a continuous cross-section of habitats, from rural wilderness to urban city core.

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The transect is divided into Transect Zones, each of complex character. This makes for diverse building types (as demonstrated above), thoroughfare types, and civic spaces.

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Above: The six primary Transect Zones are T-1 Natural, T-2 Rural, T-3 Sub-Urban, T-4 General Urban, T-5 Urban Center, and T-6 Urban Core.

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The SmartCode addresses development patterns at three scales of planning: Regional; Community; and, as shown above, Block and Building.

Urbanist and Author, Steve Mouzon.

I talked further with Steve about his photos, which are as smart as they are telling. Each one is its own database. According to Steve,

“The great thing about every photo I post on Zenfolio is they’re fully tagged with keywords. This is possible because IPTC metadata can now be embedded in every photo. Here’s the structure of my keywordsHere’s a partial list of over 10,000 keywords I use. 

“What this means is that if you’re looking for terminated vistas, for example, you can easily find them. Want T4 images, both from the air and the ground? No problem. Or people walking. Or people walking a dog. Want a building part like a porch? A building type like a hotel? Images of sprawl? A River? No problem. I’m even starting to catalog Light Imprint. Have some fun… give it a test run!”

Fun, indeed! So, back to the original question of why form-based codes. Places, just like people, are dynamic, changing, growing, shrinking, refining, evolving. But the character of most places is unique, and challenged – rather than protected – by its current laws.

Just like a good friend helps you become more of who you really are, good development laws code for character. And that helps places grow in authentic patterns, building walkable community – instead of placeless strips and pods for fast cars, the James Howard Kunstler Home from Nowhere sort of place.

A great form-based code extracts the DNA of a place and allows it. By right. And I don’t need a thousand words to say that making it easier for developers to build the things you want is smarter than making sprawl their path of least resistance.

Unless, of course, sprawl is what your community really wants.

–Hazel Borys

News of innovation and implementation comes often. If you like the idea of form-based codes in general, and the SmartCode in specific, and would like to stay on top of what’s happening, consider liking it in the more modern, technologically connected Facebook way.

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