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Planners talk about form-based code at New Urbanism Conference

Monday, April 7, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

City planners have often flirted with the concept of “form-based code” but have yet to take a full-fledged leap into the planning method, most popular on the West Coast.


But what exactly does it mean? In short, a form-based code is a city-driven plan that adds predictability to a space or neighborhood. It creates what the Form-Based Code Institute likes to call the “urban form.” Most city codes, like the one in Austin, are designed to address the use of individual lots. The form-based code creates controls by addressing the relationship among lots through form, massing, scale and use of the public space.


In an afternoon session at the Congress for New Urbanism, a number of architects outlined the form-based code approach to places such as Olsen Ranch in Pasa Robles, Calif.; Parklands in Ventura, Calif.; interim code plans for Tehachapi, Calif.; and even plans to reconstruct areas of Biloxi, Miss.


The goal in Ventura was a city-wide form-based code, said Jose Antonio Perez of Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists. In practice, it was easier to start with a smaller slice of the city, to see how the community would respond to it. The plan started with the downtown and mid-town areas.


“There had not been much happening in this area, but the city leaders recognized they wanted to stay ahead of development pressures,” Perez said. “They had a couple of projects denied, a bunch of projects in process and about one building built in the last six years, so the code was intended to implement the general development goals of the city.”


In almost every case, a charette process was used to define a small part of a town that was intended to have a “high identity,” such as a downtown or mid-town area. Intensities were determined by the existing building type or the type of building anticipated in an area. Overlays were used to smooth out the rough edges and transitions.


In the typical form-based model, the areas are graded from rural to urban or low-intensity to high-intensity, with certain sub-categories for particular types of use. These are usually identified by a category preceded by a “T,” which stands for transect of use. Generally, the T-1 is the closest to the natural environment and T-6 is the urban core.


In Ventura, the form-based code was applied to downtown and mid-town, an area dominated by low-story pre-war residential buildings. In Tehachapi, it added consistency to the development in what had been a town built along a single rail line. And in Pasa Robles, the form-based code created a comfort level and environmental protections when the city sought to add additional density to a newly annexed part of the city, Perez said.


The look and feel of the form-based planning comes from a variety of elements: the regulating plan that sets out the basic patterns; public space standards; building form standards; and clear administrative review. Use is a secondary consideration.


While Austin has not pursued the form-based code outright, city planners say the city’s code has more elements of form-based code now than at any time in the past. The effort toward transit-oriented development projects, for instance, could be considered a form-based code. Mueller, certainly, would be considered form-based. When the downtown plan comes out, it likely will have a number of form-based suggestions.


So what is given up with the form-based code? In many cases, it is the public review of particular projects, said the architects. While some cities balance an architectural review committee with a form-based code, most cities have tended to lean one way or another.


Developers, for instance, often agree to buy into a form-based code because it gives them consistency. Most plans can be approved administratively. Approval is not based on whether a team of architects has a subjective liking for a particular type or form of project. The goal is the predictability of development.


San Antonio was noted as one city that uses form-based code but only when needed. A possible form-based code “hovers” just underneath the level of the general city plan, said Architect David Sargent. That code can be pulled down for a particular area or part of the city and calibrated to a specific area.

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