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Misconceptions About Form-Based Codes

Misconceptions About Form-Based Codes

Originally published in Better! Cities and Towns, September-October 2014

Since 1981, approximately 400 form-based codes (FBCs) have been prepared for communities across the US, and as of 2012, 252 of them have been adopted. Eighty-two percent of the adoptions have taken place in the past 10 years. But as exciting as that may be, what’s more exciting is that these numbers are miniscule when you think about how many communities exist in the U.S. If this reform of conventional zoning is increasingly gaining acceptance and being applied to larger areas, why are there still so many misconceptions?

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Source: Better! Cities & Towns

Despite a wide variety of improvements in how formbased codes are strategized, prepared, and used, many of the planners, planning commissioners, elected officials, members of the public, and code practitioners I meet continue to harbor misconceptions or misunderstandings about these codes. Here are the ones I encounter most:

FBC dictates architecture. Some of these codes do prescribe details about architecture, but most do not. Perhaps because many of the early codes were for greenfield projects where strong architectural direction was needed or desired, the perception is that a FBC always regulates architecture. Yet the majority of codes I’ve prepared and reviewed (30 authored or co-authored, 10 peer-reviewed, 9 U.S. states, 2 foreign countries) do not regulate architecture. I’ve prepared codes where regulation of architecture (style) was important for a historic area, but those requirements did not apply anywhere else. The “form” in form-based codes may mean architecture, but not necessarily. Form can refer to physical character at many different scales—the scale of a region, community, neighborhood, corridor, block, or building.

FBC must be applied citywide. To my knowledge, Miami, and Denver are the only US cities that have applied form-based coding to all parcels within their boundaries. In general, FBCs are applied in two ways: to a site to implement a development project or to several areas as part of a zoning code amendment or update. This second category sometimes involves reconfiguration of the zoning code to retain a set of conventional zones for “automobile-oriented suburban”patterns while adding form-based zones for “walkable-ur-ban” patterns. This is called a hybrid code because it merges the conventional zoning and form-based zoning provisions under one cover, in one set of procedures.

FBC is a template that you have to make your community conform to. Untrue. Conventional zoning, with its focus on separation of uses and its prohibition of ostensibly undesirable activities, often conflicted with the very places it was intended to protect. Perhaps what some refer to negatively as a form-based code’s “template” is the kit of parts that repeats from one community to another—the streets, civic spaces, buildings, frontages, signage, and so forth. But a form-based code is guided by how each of those components looks and feels in a particular community. The FBC responds to your community’s character.

FBC is too expensive. FBCs require more effort than conventional zoning—but then, conventional zoning doesn’t ask as many questions. FBCs reveal and thoroughly address topics that conventional zoning doesn’t even attempt. Some communities augment conventional zoning with design guidelines; those guidelines aren’t always included in the cost comparison, and in my experience they don’t fully resolve the issues. A FBC has the virtue of ensuring that your policy work will directly inform the zoning standards. Further, the the upfront cost of properly writing a FBC pales in comparison to the cumulative cost of policy plans that don’t really say anything, zoning changes that require the applicant to point out reality, hearings, and litigation over projects.

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FBC is only for historic districts. FBCs can be applied to all kinds of places. Granted, they are uniquely capable of fully addressing the needs of a historic district because of their ability to “see and calibrate” all of the components. Such a FBC works with not instead of local historic procedures and state requirements. This is in contrast to conventional zoning’s focus on process and lack of correspondence with the physical environment it is regulating. While a FBC can be precise enough to regulate a very detailed and complex historic context, that same system can be fitted with fewer dials for other areas.

FBC isn’t zoning and doesn’t address land use. If your FBC doesn’t directly address allowed land uses or clearly rely on other land use regulations, it is an incomplete FBC. Some early FBCs were prepared as CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions) because of particular development objectives, and some well-intended early FBCs oversimplified use restrictions. Since then, FBCs have augmented or fully replaced existing zoning, including land use requirements.

FBC results in “by-right” approval and eliminates “helpful thinking by staff.” With so much emphasis on how FBCs simplify the process, it’s understandable that this perception has caused concern. Throughout the FBC  process, focus is placed on delegating the various approvals to the approval authority at the lowest level practical. I’ve seen few codes that make everything “by right” over the counter. The choice of how much process each permit requires is up to each community. Through a careful FBC process, staff knowledge and experience does go into the code content through shaping or informing actual standards and procedures.

FBC results in “high-density residential.” FBC does not mandate high-density residential.” Instead, it identifies housing of all types—from single-family houses to quadplexes, courtyards, rowhouses, and lofts over retail—and explains their performance characteristics. Density is one of many such characteristics. Through the FBC process, communities receive more information and decide which kinds of buildings they want and where. FBCs enable higher density housing—where it is desired by the community—to fit into the larger context of the community’s vision.

Source: Better! Cities & Towns

FBC requires mixed-use in every building regardless of context or viability. Conventional zoning has applied mile upon redundant mile of commercial zoning, resulting in an oversupply of such land and many marginal or vacant sites. By contrast, FBCs identify a palette of mixed-use centers to punctuate corridors and concentrate services within walking distance of residents and for those arriving by other transportation modes. FBCs identify the components; it’s up to the community to choose which components fit best and are most viable in each context.

FBC can’t work with design guidelines guidelines, and complicates staff review of projects. Because conventional zoning doesn’t ask a lot of questions, most planners have had to learn what they know about design on the job, and need design guidelines to fill in the gaps left open by the zoning. That’s how I learned. A well-prepared FBC doesn’t need design guidelines because it explicitly addresses the variety of issues through clear illustrations, language, and numerous examples. However, we are not allergic to design guidelines; the key is to make sure that the guidelines clarify what is too complex, variable, or discretionary to state in legally binding standards.

Final Thoughts

 I’m enthusiastic about FBC and regard it as a far better tool than conventional zoning for walkable urban places. However, it’s still zoning, and it needs people to set its priorities and parameters. It needs people to review plans and compare them with its regulations. Having a FBC will require internal adjustments by the planning department and other key departments, such as Public Works.

Form-based coding began in response to the aspirations of a few visionary architects and developers who wanted to build genuine, lasting places, based on the patterns of great local communities. Unresponsive zoning regulations often erected insurmountable barriers to these proposals and made proposals for sprawl the path of least resistance.

From its outset nearly 35 years ago, form-based coding exposed the inabilities of conventional zoning to efficiently address the needs of today’s communities. Today, form-based coding is a necessary zoning reform—one of several important tools that communities need to position themselves as serious candidates for reinvestment.

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Ped-Bike Advocates and Urbanists: Get Together

Ped-Bike Advocates and Urbanists: Get Together

Originally published in Better! Cities and Towns, 21 May 2014

People walking in Cambridge, MA, from Biking and Walking in the United States. Photo by Dan Gelinne, courtesy of pedbikeimages.org.

People walking in Cambridge, MA, from Biking and Walking in the United States. Photo by Dan Gelinne, courtesy of pedbikeimages.org.

Bicycle and pedestrian advocacy has become a huge movement, with more than 220 state, provincial, and local advocacy organizations that are members of the Alliance for Biking & Walking. The alliance recently published out its annual Bicycling and Walking in the United States, 2014 Benchmaking Report.

The 260-page book, which can be downloaded online or purchased in print, is a tremendous research effort — despite the criticisms I am about to deliver. I would recommend it to anyone interested in this subject.

Among the good news: Walking and bicycling are on the rise, gradually, and becoming safer. Bike share programs are surging.

Yet this report also reveals a big hole in this movement — many ped-bike advocates rarely talk to urbanists and vice-versa. The report has about 40 authors and reviewers – representing major nonprofit, academic, and government institutions. They appear to be only vaguely aware of a key factor in the success of nonautomotive transportation: Place-based planning and development.

Densely interconnected networks of streets — i.e., grids — and the diversity in buildings and smaller streets that go along with them, are mostly ignored in this report. The chapter on levels of bicycling and walking examines many factors but fails to mention the form of the built environment. Note to the Alliance: The levels have everything to do with the form of the built environment.

Take Bicycling and Walking on bike sharing, for example: “Bike share systems, which make bicycles available to the public for low-cost, short-term use, have been sweeping the nation since 2010. These systems offer many benefits: they can help replace car trips and relieve pressure on transit systems; are often more affordable than bicycle ownership to many residents; make bicycle storage more convenient; and introduce a wider audience to bicycling.”

Of the nation’s 52 largest cities, 20 have bike share (from 0 in 2007), and 22 more have bicycle sharing in the works. “Studies of European cities that have launched bike share programs have found substantial rises in bicycle ridership in those cities. Paris saw an increase in trips made by bicycle from 1% to 2.5%.”

In short, bike sharing is a game-changing technology and trend. It is also entirely dependent on place-based development — a fact that you cannot discern from this report. A reader may get the opposite impression. In the first paragraph of the executive summery, the report states: “… public bicycle sharing programs are finding success even in sprawling car-centric cities.” That’s true, but also misleading. In places like Houston, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Broward County, Florida, all of the bike share stations are located downtown or in compact, walkable neighborhoods. That’s also true nationwide — you can confirm it in a few minutes by checking random bicycle station maps. Here’s a map of the Houston region, for example, and an arrow pointing to all of the B-Cycle stations.

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Where to find open-streets initiatives

The report highlights another trend: “Open Streets initiatives are being organized in communities of all sizes.” These initiatives involve closing down streets a few miles long for a few hours, and letting people walk, bike, ride scooters, dance, or do anything but drive a car. These are marvelous, festival-like events, that bring thousands of people together to socialize and exercise.

Open streets initiatives tend to take place in street grids or thoroughfares that are connected to or surrounded by grids — like a parkway through a city. For one thing, alternative routes for drivers are needed. Also, “open streets” benefit from people in urban neighborhoods walking or biking to the event. For those who drive, on-street parking on nearby blocks is helpful. Where would one hold such an event in a sprawling, automobile-oriented suburb? Close down any long section of road and traffic chaos would follow.

You won’t read that in Biking and Walking in America. The report, interestingly, focuses on central cities and mostly bypasses what is happening in suburbs — which comprise 90 percent of metropolitan areas. Most of the data comes from the 52 largest cities and a sampling of mid-size and smaller cities.

Yet the report doesn’t have much to say about what makes central cities different from most of their suburbs, or how dense and compact cities differ from the sprawling ones. All of the cities that perform well are of the former group. Boston, for example, has the highest rate of walking to work of any major city — 15 percent. Boston is also the safest large city to walk. Jacksonville, on the other end of the spectrum, has one of the lowest rates of walking to work of any major city — 1.3 percent. If you take a stroll in Jacksonville, you are 46 times more likely to be struck by a car and killed compared to a person on foot in Boston.

The main difference between Boston and Jacksonville is not sidewalks, trails, “complete streets” policies, or crosswalks — all of which are emphasized in the report and all are important in their way. Yet you can place a sidewalk, crosswalks, and bike lane on an eight-lane urban arterial lined with parking lots and big box stores and few people will get out of their cars — mostly those who have no choice. The real difference is the way these two cities are organized. Boston is built to be walkable and bikable, and Jacksonville is not.

The solutions offered in Bicycling and Walking in the United States make sense as far as they go. We need more bicycle lanes. We need crosswalks. Complete streets policies are a good first step. Policies, in themselves, don’t do any good unless they are implemented and implemented well. And that’s the rub. Many of them are not being implemented.

Moreover, it’s not just about what is between the curbs. It’s about placement of buildings and parking lots and street trees. It’s about the codes that determine how streets are designed and buildings interact with the public space. It’s about street networks and size of blocks and how it all fits together. It’s about creating a place.

I don’t expect bicycling and walking advocates to fix these things. Most of them are not professional planners, urban designers, developers, or elected officials. But I am hoping that the 2015 Benchmarking Report includes a lot more data and awareness of the connection between walking, bicycling, and place.

An easy fix would be to include a lot of data from the website walkscore.com, which is a proxy for place. Walk Score, which gives a walkability score of 0 to 100 for every address in the US, measures the economic affects of place-based development. Great urban places concentrate economic activity such as shops, services, restaurants, and institutions, raising the Walk Score. Bike share and high levels of walking, biking, and transit use tend to occur only in places with a high Walk Score. (The highest levels of walking occur in places with high Walk Appeal, not just Walk Score, but Walk Appeal is not easily measurable).

Raising these activities appreciably is therefore a question of raising the Walk Score, which can only occur to a significant extent with place-based development. The nationwide and international network of advocacy groups for bicycling and walking should be aware of, and emphasize, that reality. They need urbanists, who can deliver the higher Walk Scores, and urbanists need them. Bicycling and walking advocates represent a powerful force for change in the built environment. It would be a good idea for urbanists and ped-bike advocates to team up on this report and future projects.

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Street Trees & The Virtues of FBCs

Street Trees & The Virtues of FBCs

Though tempted, I won’t write a soliloquy today on the many virtues of street trees. Others have done so better than I, including Allan Jacobs, who wrote in the book Great Streets, “Given a limited budget, the most effective expenditure of funds to improve a street would probably be on trees.”

Some of my colleagues have written about the inherent economic value of trees, parsing all manner of numbers and outcomes. Those are interesting intellectually, but they are also frankly numbers that can be gamed depending on the person running them. For me it’s more practical. Trees provide shade. They make a street more beautiful. Both of those things encourage me to be outside more, to walk more, to ride a bike more. It’s really quite that simple.

Here is a recent blog on the subject: What Trees Mean to Communities.

Two Things to Remember

If there were only two things I’d like you to remember from this piece it’s that:

  • Street Trees are really important to walkability
  • What Gets Coded, Gets Built

The details matter when it comes to creating desirable places. Savannah can arguably afford more mistakes than other places, simply because of the abundance of quality streets and public spaces it possesses. It will still attract people to visit, live and work because of its physical qualities. But as the city continues to experience rejuvenation, it must take great care to keep enhancing its great assets. And clearly its primary asset is the beautiful, walkable quality of its neighborhoods.

Allow me an analogy: A restaurant may have a loyal base of existing customers, but if it doesn’t take care of new people who come in the door, it will eventually experience stagnation and decline. It’s wise to continue looking for ways to generate new revenue, and not just rely on the “regulars”. Cities are no different. In the case of Savannah in particular, it must continue to enhance the quality of its streets and neighborhoods in places beyond the Historic District, or it will miss a valuable window of opportunity to expand its revenue (happy citizens).

Which takes me to today’s story: East 33rd Street. This particular street has a series of buildings on its south side that were built within the last five years. The street is unusual in that it doesn’t have a lane behind the buildings, due to a shorter-than-normal block configuration. And, it even has a slight curve as it approaches Habersham – all outside the norm for this part of Savannah.

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What is this street missing?

What is this street missing?

Well, in case you haven’t been paying attention to the focus of this piece, it’s street trees. As this block redeveloped, clearly there were no requirements placed on property owners to plant shade trees. The results:

  • Buildings and porches don’t get shaded
  • The sidewalk doesn’t get shaded
  • Parked cars don’t get shaded

Most importantly, because of these factors, the lack of street trees makes for a less-desirable street and therefore fewer people will walk or bike on it, let alone choose to live on it if they have options. Shade in the summer is a desirable feature in most of our places, but it’s critical in the hot, humid Southeast.

How did this happen?

To put it simply, the trees are not specifically required. In the case of Savannah, the City has a Tree Ordinance that governs its urban trees – not just provisions but removal. It does typically require street trees, but wide exceptions are given for a variety of exceptional situations. My educated guess: since this block is especially shallow, and the buildings take up virtually the entire lot, the City didn’t feel there was room for the trees, and gave the builders an exception. Of course, if anyone reading this knows the case for certain, please do comment.

How would this be prevented?

This is where the virtues of form-based codes (FBC’s) come in. FBC’s by their nature are site-specific. That is, they look at each block and street, and specifically write and draw what can be built, and what improvements are to be made. Exceptional situations are designed for, in advance, so that key elements like street trees can’t be left out. And, for FBC’s, the key focus is on what we call the public realm – that space that we experience when walking, biking or driving down the street. It includes the front of the buildings themselves, the landscaping in front, the sidewalk space and the streets.

What happened in this case is often what happens with more generically-written ordinances, that define overall rules and processes, but allow for waivers in many situations. Since those aren’t tied to an actual map, more waivers happen than what may originally have been intended.

Bottom line: If it doesn’t get coded, it doesn’t get done. This is the era we live in.

The street looks really tight – is there space for trees?

Let’s look at a few examples of what could have been done.

Every solution has its trade-offs, but it’s clear that if having trees along the street was a priority, it could have been accomplished. Shade trees along a street are one of the easiest improvements that can be made – they are inexpensive, have immediate benefit, and only get better with time. And yet, it’s amazing just how often we neglect this simple, critical feature. In some cities, you can simply take matters in your own hands, and plant/nurture them without a need for approvals. In most, however, you must work with a public agency. Here’s hoping for common sense, fewer excuses, and more action when it comes to getting trees in the ground.

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