What Are Form-Based Codes?

Definition of a Form-Based Code

Form-based codes foster predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. They are regulations, not mere guidelines, adopted into city or county law. Form-based codes offer a powerful alternative to conventional zoning.

Form-based codes address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks. The regulations and standards in form-based codes are presented in both words and clearly drawn diagrams and other visuals. They are keyed to a regulating plan that designates the appropriate form and scale (and therefore, character) of development, rather than only distinctions in land-use types.

This approach contrasts with conventional zoning's focus on the micromanagement and segregation of land uses, and the control of development intensity through abstract and uncoordinated parameters (e.g., FAR, dwellings per acre, setbacks, parking ratios, traffic LOS), to the neglect of an integrated built form. Not to be confused with design guidelines or general statements of policy, form-based codes are regulatory, not advisory. They are drafted to implement a community plan. They try to achieve a community vision based on time-tested forms of urbanism. Ultimately, a form-based code is a tool; the quality of development outcomes depends on the quality and objectives of the community plan that a code implements.

Elements of a Form-Based Code

Form-based codes commonly include the following elements:

Regulating Plan. A plan or map of the regulated area designating the locations where different building form standards apply, based on clear community intentions regarding the physical character of the area being coded.

Public Space Standards. Specifications for the elements within the public realm (e.g., sidewalks, travel lanes, on-street parking, street trees, street furniture, etc.).

Building Form Standards. Regulations controlling the configuration, features, and functions of buildings that define and shape the public realm.

Administration. A clearly defined application and project review process.

Definitions. A glossary to ensure the precise use of technical terms.

Form-based codes may also include:

Architectural Standards. Regulations controlling external architectural materials and quality.

Landscaping Standards. Regulations controlling landscape design and plant materials on private property as they impact public spaces (e.g. regulations about parking lot screening and shading, maintaining sight lines, ensuring unobstructed pedestrian movement, etc.).

Signage Standards. Regulations controlling allowable signage sizes, materials, illumination, and placement.

Environmental Resource Standards. Regulations controlling issues such as storm water drainage and infiltration, development on slopes, tree protection, solar access, etc.

Annotation. Text and illustrations explaining the intentions of specific code provisions.


The Form-Based Codes Institute gathers good examples of form-based codes from communities across the U.S. and abroad. You will find these examples useful in your own research and plan making. Please also see the Sample Codes and the Driehaus Award pages on this website. 

Image Comparing Zoning, Guidelines and Form-Based Codes

Kendall Illustrative Plan

Peoria Regulating Plan

Shopfront Code Example