Form-Based Codes Institute at Smart Growth America


FBCI Instructor Goes to School for Form-Based Codes

FBCI Instructor Goes to School for Form-Based Codes

Tony Perez, Opticos Design’s Director of Form-Based Coding, has gone back to school this spring, teaching a graduate-level studio dedicated to Form-Based Coding at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, CA. While some universities invite guest lecturers to speak about FBCs, Perez’s class, “Form-Based Codes in the Context of Integrated Urbanism,” is one of the only full courses on the subject in the country.

An illustration of the six Transect zones as applied to Flagstaff, AZ.

An illustration of the six Transect zones as applied to Flagstaff, AZ.

In one of his first classes, Perez introduced his students to the Rural-to-Urban Transect. “Some had heard of it or had seen the famous diagram by Duany Plater-Zyberk, but essentially, the idea had not been fully explained to them,” he said. “It’s really interesting to see students who have little to no training react quickly and positively to the Transect system. They can begin to see how it responds to the world outside, the particular areas that they know well, and that’s very exciting.”

Throughout the spring quarter, Perez will discuss the reasons and purposes for FBCs, where they do and don’t apply, what type of information is needed to write an effective FBC, and how to coordinate an FBC with a community’s public policy.

Students will explore the neighborhoods, districts, corridors, and centers of their individual study areas—one-square-mile of a Southern California community—and their relative status and condition. They will work with their study area for the duration of the quarter, focusing on one pedestrian-shed, and will be tasked with developing a vision, policy direction, illustrative plan, and code framework that includes a regulating plan and the implementing zones.

In addition to being an avid FBC advocate, Perez is a motivated instructor. Prior to being invited to teach the new FBC course, Perez served as a guest lecturer at Cal Poly and the Form-Based Codes Institute’s FBC 201, “Preparing a Form-Based Code: Design Considerations,” as well as co-taught a two-semester capstone project class on transit-oriented design and Form-Based Coding at UCLA. “I love to share information and am motivated by the interest I see in others when they get excited about learning,” he says. “We need to help the next wave of people who will move this forward and who can work in more areas than I.”

Andrews University teaches students how to use the SmartCode for their urban design projects while some universities address FBC as part of their urban design programs but do not offer similar courses on FBC preparation. Perez says that a discussion of the physical realities and exciting information about how towns and cities are built—the urban components that comprise each place and the subsets of components that comprise each area and its individual features—is largely missing from most urban planning programs, including when he was in school. That’s how he got started working with FBCs nearly 15 years ago. “When I realized that this tool could see those realities in ways that the current system could not, that was an exciting day,” he said.

At the end of the course, students will be expected to understand the real differences between conventional land use-based zoning and Form-Based Codes, as well as be able to describe the overall process of what one needs to consider when working to apply an FBC to different types of areas. Equally important, he says, is that the students begin looking at the world as it presents itself: as a composite of varied physical components in different combinations that we occupy at different times of the day or night.

An example of shopfront standards from a draft of the Tehachapi, CA, code.

An example of shopfront standards from a draft of the Tehachapi, CA, code.

Julianna Delgado, Interim Associate Dean of Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Environmental Design and a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, came up with the idea of a introducing a full course on Form-Based Codes at the school. Delgado says she and Perez got to know each other while attending various FBC-related conferences. “If you want someone to teach something to your students, you ask the best person you know,” she says.

The mission of the California State University system is to train California’s workforce but there are no other formal courses on Form-Based Coding. Delgado says she wants her students to understand that the formal basis for a community is as important as land use—walkability, appropriate architecture, public space and the public realm. “So many communities in California are looking toward FBCs, that giving our students a learning system that is less theoretical and more rooted in practice, would put them at the forefront of the planning profession,” she said.

At Cal Poly Pomona, Delgado says it’s “learn by doing.” Down the road, Delgado imagines developing a studio course that would develop a Form-Based Code for a California community.

“There are many ways to develop this into design courses as well as administrative courses for implementation. There’s a lot that can be done and I’m honored to be able to help the next wave of practitioners,” Perez adds.

Originally published May 20, 2014 on


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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

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

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.

Ped-Bike photo houston-b-cycle

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, 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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Form-Based Codes, Flagstaff & Education

Form-Based Codes, Flagstaff & Education

Flagstaff adopted a form-based code for the city’s downtown and neighboring historic districts in November 2011. As the city’s Zoning Code Administrator, I’ve helped to guide the code making since its inception, and I’ve enjoyed the process. I could tell you a lot about what I’ve learned along the way. In this post, I’ll just begin with a very basic consideration, a key ingredient to our success in Flagstaff. It is the essential importance of education from the very beginning to help city officials and all residents gain understanding of Smart Growth principles and FBCs.

Flagstaff-T5In fact we began with our staff, going back to 2006 when a developer pushed for a Traditional Neighborhood Development project, and we knew we needed updated zoning in place to support it. About that time, FBCI was launching its 3-course training series where five of our senior planning staff and the City Attorney attended. A year or so later, all city planning staff attended the three classes, while a few from Engineering took the introductory class.

The courses provided the foundation we needed, while our knowledge continued to grow as we developed a TND ordinance based on the SmartCode. We eventually expanded our efforts into a form-based code covering large areas of the city’s core and historic neighborhoods, in what became a parallel (optional) code with incentives for its use by developers. And we did this knowing that we faced natural resistance to new planning tools that most people know little about. Yet we did it without public opposition.

How? From the very beginning, we made a persistent and focused effort to educate the city’s elected and appointed officials (City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission), senior city staff including the city manager, and interested residents and stakeholders who would be actively involved in these codes’ adoption. The approach taken was simple, cost-effective, and not especially time consuming, but it did mean that residents and city officials were informed early in the process about new coding techniques and tools that were unfamiliar to them.

Flagstaff Open HouseWe began simply giving out literature: articles were shared with city officials, all pertinent city staff (including engineering, public works, and city attorney staff), and interested residents. Information gleaned from websites, online forums, and blog posts was also shared via memo or e-mail. We made sure we were not infringing on copyright requirements, and at all times cited authors and sources of information. Also, by hosting frequent informal community meetings, staff made presentations that not only conveyed information but helped to build a rapport and relationship with the community.

To our delight, we found that discussion of one particular subject would lead to a stimulating discussion on another. Staff delivered similar presentations to local stakeholder groups (realtors, contractors, chamber of commerce, etc.) as well as to local civic organizations. All in all, this simple and low-cost outreach and educational strategy proved extremely effective in Flagstaff, as it helped to build trust. Indeed, many who came to the meetings eventually became our strong allies as we worked to advance Smart Growth principles and FBCs.

Over time, community members began to understand the benefits of Smart Growth, TND, and FBCs. Perhaps more importantly, many realized that these tools and techniques could be applied in Flagstaff without infringing on individual property rights or mandating one development type over another, and that choices in lifestyle, housing type, commuter patterns, etc. would still prevail. At the time of adoption both the SmartCode-based TND ordinance and the parallel Form-Based Code saw very little public opposition or concern. Indeed a majority of speakers in public hearings expressed their support for these new codes.

So that’s a plug for education. I’ll write more about our technical challenges in writing and implementing these codes, in future posts appearing on this page.


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Ways To Fail At Form-Based Codes: Don’t Articulate A Vision

Ways To Fail At Form-Based Codes: Don’t Articulate A Vision

Originally published in Better! Cities & Towns, 25 Feb 2013.

Last week, we were talking about how the form of a neighborhood either provides gathering places that build social capital and local resilience, or else makes for a lonely, disconnected, nowhere. Some towns and cities are using form-based codes to help reconnect people with each other and the places they call home.

At the end of last week’s discussion, I quickly mentioned 10 points that can create problems with form-based codes. My friend, Bruce Donnelly, commented that some of these points bear elaboration. So today, I’m doing a back of the envelope on the biggest challenge to form-based codes: failing to establish a community vision that can then be codified — that is, made into law.

Maybe you could boil down many of our dysfunctions — from local governments to individual choices — to not taking the time to establish a vision. A sort of “what I want to be when I grow up” process that leaves behind the vagaries and platitudes that generate places that fall short of being unique.

Great visions almost always center on what is special about a place. Smaller cities often focus on natural features, like mountains, waterways, or plains. Or extraordinary social amenities, like strong arts and cultural communities, or foodie havens, or quaint main streets built for antiquing and local music. Bigger cities almost always offer up creative class amenities like “Start-Up City Miami” or “Strong, Smart New York” or “Toronto the Big.” Or maybe it’s “Dare to Live Outdoors San Diego” or the great “Pub Sheds” in Decatur or Asheville.

Visions that can be codified — made into land use laws that say how neighborhoods will form — are much more nuanced than a slogan or a core competency, though. They’re broken down into vision, policy, actions, and plans, along with public-private partners who are willing to do the hard work of bringing it all to reality. The Vision Keepers, if you will.

One of the most enjoyable form-based codes I’ve ever helped lead was thanks to a great city planner, Gianni Longo, who had done the hard work of helping craft a vision for Kona, Hawai’i. When we came in to help with the form-based code, the well-articulated vision was strongly supported locally, and the codification was a delightful process.

Often policy planning, master planning, and land use law are more closely married, and that’s when it’s sometimes harder to ensure there is a “collective local vision” — although I realize that many people have issues with this phrase. While a “consensus plan” may not pander to the most extreme special interest groups, it generally seeks to find common ground.

Looking at a few vision documents that have generated great codes and plans, El Paso, Ranson, and Miami come quickly to mind. Quoting a bit from Ranson:

All of the goals in the Community Vision assume the principle of Connectivity: a fine network of thoroughfares should knit together the community. The goals also all draw upon the principle of sustainability: places must be ecologically, fiscally, and socially sustainable.

  1. Local character builds regional economies.
  2. Strong core communities make strong foundations.
  3. There is a place for everything, and everything has its place.
  4. Affordable living includes housing, transportation, energy, recreation, and shopping.
  5. Green infrastructure supports sustainable communities.
  6. Neighborhoods are the building blocks.
  7. Private buildings and public infrastructure work together to shape public space and to build community character.
  8. Working together creates bigger opportunities.

Of course, each of these items have a whole host of idea development and supporting actions, but the point is that the City has spent the time to articulate what it believes, hashed out the details to get to common grounds, then wrote it all into law with a form-based code.

And that’s what’ll get you around item one for the biggest Achilles’ Heel possible for your form-based code: failing to articulate a generally-accepted local vision.

Now, once again for a little inspiration from Steve Mouzon, documenting Paris — perhaps the most extreme example of a vision getting implemented, even if it wasn’t the “collective local vision” but rather a much heavier-handed version of top-down planning. Nonetheless, it’s one of the few cities where even the bridges are able to bring me to tears. Enjoy!

Paris Bar

Paris Bridge

Photos by Steve Mouzon


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