header image

Regulating Plan

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 Opticosdesign.com


Upcoming FBCI Instructor Goes to School for Form-Based Codes Classes

No FBCI Instructor Goes to School for Form-Based Codes classes are currently scheduled. Contact FBCI to learn more about upcoming classes, or browse recorded webinars for learning opportunities available online anytime.

Read More →

Read More →

Cincinnati Neighborhood Adopts Form-Based Code

Cincinnati Neighborhood Adopts Form-Based Code

Cincinnati Rendering

How Madisonville could look if future development follows a form-based approach

How to make a big city Form-Based Code? An important effort is underway in Cincinnati, where the city’s new code was adopted in May. Although citywide, the code depends on neighborhoods to take charge of their own development. It is intended to apply to 42 neighborhoods throughout the city, making it one of the largest applications of a FBC.

The Madisonville neighborhood, in northeast Cincinnati, is now the first to have its Regulating Plan approved. Madisonville community leaders see it as a framework for revitalization. Says community leader Sara Sheets, “The opportunity to develop a FBC for Madisonville caused the community to dream bigger and to expect better.”

The new regulating plan is helping the neighborhood to focus on developing a mixed-use business district, and community leaders will work with the city to interview developers in 2014. Opticos Design, Inc. helped city and neighborhood leaders to understand form-based codes, draft the citywide code and manage neighborhood charrettes to implement the new code in the neighborhoods.

Opticos has a 2-page article with photos describing the Cincinnati approach. An article on the Building Cincinnati website gives background on the city’s coding initiative. Form-based coding in Cincinnati was spearheaded by former mayor Roxanne Qualls, who is an advisor to FBCI.

Alan Mammoser AICP is Program Director for the Form-Based Codes Institute.

Upcoming Cincinnati Neighborhood Adopts Form-Based Code Classes

No Cincinnati Neighborhood Adopts Form-Based Code classes are currently scheduled. Contact FBCI to learn more about upcoming classes, or browse recorded webinars for learning opportunities available online anytime.

Read More →

Read More →

Why Design Guidelines, On Their Own, Don’t Work

Why Design Guidelines, On Their Own, Don’t Work

Originally published in Better! Cities & Towns, 22 December 2010.

While lifting federal funding restrictions on stem cell research President Obama said, “we will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse.” Notwithstanding the political rhetoric, are standards different than strict guidelines? Can guidelines be rigorously enforced? In common usage, the terms “guidelines” and “standards” are frequently used interchangeably. However, within the development regulatory framework, a guideline is a helpful suggestion — you don’t have to follow it, but it is recommended. On the other hand, standards are legal and mandatory requirements.

Design Guidelines

Zone Parcel

Conventional Zoning
Density use, FAR (floor area ratio), setbacks, parking requirements, maximum building heights specified

Guidelines are explanatory and interpretive recommendations that encourage, not require, its use.  Administered through appointed design review committee, commission, or advisory board, guidelines are created to fit a wide range of situations, but not all. Guidelines are typically attractive to cities that are not politically ready to enforce design standards. Guidelines are also preferred by designers who have little tolerance for any standard that tends to limit their creative expression. Good judgment is needed in deciding where and how to apply design guidelines.

Guidelines Parcel

Zoning Design Guidelines
Conventional zoning requirements, plus frequency of openings and surface articulation specified

The problem with design guidelines is that their application is skin deep and fails to breathe life and soul into a place. The diagram (to the right) illustrates the differences between conventional zoning, design guidelines, and form-based codes. The building block (top image) complies with typical zoning controls such as land use, FAR, and height. This block is not likely to create walkable urbanism. At best, design guidelines  (middle image) can recommend articulation and openings to the building’s facade. In contrast, Form-Based Codes (bottom image) conceptualize a public realm by pulling together the individual elements: the diverse street types, variety of public and private open spaces, and contextual building types into a complete, cohesive, and memorable place.

FBC Parcel

Form-Based Codes
Street and building types (or mix of types), build-to lines, number of floors, and percentage of built site frontage specified.

A key barrier to protecting and creating distinctive places is lack of clear and precise place-based standards and a predictable review process. Design guidelines are difficult to apply consistently.  They offer too much room for subjective interpretation. Design guidelines are difficult to enforce. A developer can legally refuse to comply putting at risk the larger collective investments of neighboring properties. Design Guidelines require oversight by discretionary review bodies, leading to a protracted and politicized planning process that can cost time and money.

Form-Based Codes

Form-Based Codes (FBCs) are clear and precise standards that offers predictability. The FBCs are developed to create a specific place that the citizens desire. Both the vision and FBCs are developed with citizen input. The citizens have a higher comfort level with the end result the standards is likely to produce. City staff gets a streamlined and easy to administer review process. FBCs also create more choices, more opportunities and options for the property owner.  Typically, developers borrow money to pursue pre-construction work. For developers, time is money. The biggest incentive that cities can offer is not money, but clear and predictable development standards. Most developers are willing to build to higher standards if the rules are clear and the process is predictable. By offering adjacent predictable environment FBCs reduce risks where banks in this credit-starved economy may be more willing to loan construction money.


Design Guidelines can be added to complement Form-Based standards to address certain discretionary items such as architectural style and historic preservation. The Denver Commons Form-Based Code, recognized with the 2009 Form-Based Codes Institute’s Driehaus Award, includes both standards and guidelines. The mandatory standards address the critical form related aspects that shape the public realm, while the guidelines provide further suggestive recommendations for enhancing the public realm experience by encouraging creativity in a flexible manner.

Louis Kahn called a street “a room by agreement.” The agreement, in the form of  binding standards, is an implicit consent between the architects and their buildings to not ignore the street but to bring forth a collective etiquette and a minimum capability to pull together buildings to shape and enhance the public realm.

By itself, the guidelines simply fail to deliver great places. The terms “strict guidelines” fail to inspire compliance. The “abuse and misuse” continues with discretionary review and unpredictable outcome fueling NIMBY sentiments and discouraging economic development. Design guidelines work best only when they are paired with form-based codes.

Upcoming Why Design Guidelines, On Their Own, Don’t Work Classes

No Why Design Guidelines, On Their Own, Don’t Work classes are currently scheduled. Contact FBCI to learn more about upcoming classes, or browse recorded webinars for learning opportunities available online anytime.

Read More →

Read More →