Form-Based Codes Institute at Smart Growth America


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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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.


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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Market-Responsive Form-Based Codes

Market-Responsive Form-Based Codes

Originally published in Better! Cities & Towns, April-May 2013.

Richardson, Texas, an affluent inner-ring suburb of Dallas, and home to many telecommunications corporations, wants to remain attractive to employers in coming decades.

Key to that goal is becoming more walkable and connected to transit, qualities that many of today’s young and talented professionals are seeking. There are five Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) stations in Richardson, and unfortunately not one is in a walkable neighborhood. Such areas are in short supply in Richardson, which grew up entirely after World War II.

But a 100-acre previously undeveloped parcel adjacent to one of the stations will establish a new pattern: The site was rezoned recently for 3,200 residential units and up to 6,000 jobs. State Farm Insurance Company, which could have located anywhere in the region but was looking for a walkable urban center, chose this site.

As long as builders adhere to a new form-based code (FBC), no further public hearings are required. “We eliminated the risk of NIMBYism for a theoretical maximum buildout within a wide range of uses,” says Scott Polikov of Vialta Group, LLC, A Gateway Planning Company. “There’s nothing more market-responsive than that.”

A February report by real estate consultant Robert Charles Lesser & Co. (RCLCo), called “Market Pitfalls of Form-Based or Smart Codes,” criticized some FBCs for market inflexibility. Although the report cited no specific codes — and so was difficult to refute —it stung some new urban practitioners who take market demand seriously.

Bush Central

Bush Central TOD plan. Plan courtesy of Vialta Group, LLC, A Gateway Planning Company

Developers who wanted to reduce political and business risk initiated the code for the Bush Central TOD, as the Richardson site is called. The city gained assurances that the public realm would be built out in a way that is walkable and mixed-use, while the developers got flexibility and “by-right” entitlements, Polikov says. The master developersBush/75 Partners sold all the land, at a premium, within a year and vertical construction is underway at a rapid pace. Zale Corson Group is developing an urban multifamily project designed by JHP Architects, and KDC Development Company has purchased the remaining land for a mixed use, live-work-play project.

“We made the argument that this kind of development is required to keep attracting corporate citizens,” he says. “They wouldn’t be able to bring in the cool, echo-boomer development without a form-based code.”

City entitlements allowed higher densities without micromanaging uses, he adds. Within the 18 urban blocks that make up the site, uses are mostly flexible. On some streets, buildings must have first floors that accommodate retail — but other uses can occupy these areas if the market for retail lags.

“The form-based code allowed us to get a richer building envelope and enabled development to evolve over time,” Polikov says. “That’s a big story that the RCLCo criticism misses.”

The Bush Central TOD — named after a nearby highway that is named after the first President Bush — is laid out on a simple grid to be built out intensely. Public spaces are plentiful and a large natural park with trails along a creek will provide a connection to nature. The project will create a regionally significant urban center for the north side of Dallas.

Trinity Lakes

Across the metro area on the East Side of Fort Worth — a far less affluent part of the region — a form-based code was approved in December 2012 for a 175-acre transit-oriented development called Trinity Lakes.

This project is in the middle of suburban sprawl with a diverse Latino/white/African-American population. An existing commuter rail line between Dallas and Fort Worth borders the site, but a station needs to be built. A high-speed thoroughfare, Trinity Boulevard, bisects the site and must be transformed into a complete street.

Trinity Blvd Proposed

Trinity Boulevard in East Fort Worth is currently a highway but will serve as a town center. Rendering courtesy of Vialta Group, LLC, A Gateway Planning Company

The city, having adopted a FBC for an area adjacent to downtown, has experience with this type of regulation. The Trinity Lakes FBC was the first proposed by a private developer in Fort Worth. Residents of a large adjacent development, who have nothing but commercial strip retail nearby, were all for it. “They are sick of driving out of East Fort Worth for amenities that other neighborhoods have,” Polikov says.

Fort Worth is an area that gets a lot of development: In 2013, more than 4,000 residential building permits were issued in the city, about a third of them for multifamily units. But nothing like this has been attempted outside of the downtown core, let alone in a working-class neighborhood.

The city agreed to tax-increment financing (TIF) for $75 million in infrastructure to build the rail station, convert the highway into a multiuse boulevard, and pay for street, stormwater, and other improvements. The city and county will get a portion of new taxes for 20 years and then 100 percent thereafter.

The site links into the Trinity River Trail system in addition to the regional rail network.

The FBC is similar to the Richardson project. As long as the form-based aspects are adhered to, the developer has by-right entitlement to build out the project. “Form-based coding provided the vocabulary to communicate the benefits to neighbors, and it was the analytical vehicle to estimate a much higher tax-base capture,” Polikov says. Planned development in Trinity Lakes is estimated at $750 million, and it could transform this part of East Fort Worth.

High desert Savannah

Affluent or working class, the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area is a fast-growing region with 6.5 million people, and what works there may not work in other parts of the US. Clovis, New Mexico, with a population of 37,000 and located 90 miles from Lubbock, Texas, the nearest city of any size, could not be more different. Yet a market-based FBC could work there as well, Polikov says.

Cannon Air Force Base, a big part of the town’s economy, is expanding with a special operations command headquarters. Many officers and enlisted personnel have lived in Europe or big cities. A 640-acre project by local developers Jeff Watson and Sid Strebeck is designed to create the kind of environment that would appeal to the service men and women.

The project takes up an entire square mile section north of town, and the first neighborhood will be anchored by a middle school and park for which the developers are donating the land.

Saddlewood Plan Map

Saddlewood in Clovis, New Mexico, takes inspiration from Savannah, Georgia. Plan courtesy of Vialta Group, LLC, A Gateway Planning Company

Saddlewood is designed around 20 squares, much like Savannah, Georgia, and each square will be a module for development that includes a full range of housing types. The housing surrounding each square is, in effect, a phase of development that allows market flexibility, Polikov says. “We looked at historical places that allow variety but replication and we were influenced by Savannah,” he says. “There’s a predictable amount of infrastructure investment and we can build as much as we need,” he says.

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