Properly implementing form-based codes is essential to success

[This op-ed was originally published in the Cincinnati Business Courier on July 9, 2010. Visit the original op-ed for more comments, thoughts and opinions on how to effectively apply form-based codes – Randy.]

As Cincinnati officials move closer toward their goal of implementing some variation of form-based codes in Cincinnati it is important that the application is done correctly. Form-based codes, when done correctly, offer a simpler approach to land planning than their awkward land use/design overlay contemporary. In order to achieve the full benefits of a form-based code there are a few practices that should be followed.

Keep It Simple:
The problem with contemporary zoning codes is that they feature layers upon layers of regulations that are complicated to understand by the general public and developers. Most zoning codes have an underlying Euclidean Zoning Code which regulates land use and basic design elements like building setbacks, heights, and densities. Then in the more stringently regulated areas there are often overlay districts created that layer an additional set of regulations on top of the land use regulations. These overlay districts tend to focus more on design features within a given area, and allow any land use regulations that are not covered in their guidelines to fall back into the realm of the underlying zoning code.

The primary functional gain of form-based codes is that they presumably eliminate this layered zoning effect that creates confusion. As a result, form-based codes should NOT be implemented in a layering manner. Form-based codes should completely replace any existing overlay districts and all land use zoning codes that currently exist in the area. The end result would be a district that has only a code that regulates the urban form of an area without the constraints of land use controls and the arbitrary design standards set out therein.

The reason this is often not done is due to a fear that form-based codes will not have the teeth to prevent communities from being destroyed by “undesirable” uses. I assert that this fear is misguided as our current zoning practices were set out during an industrialization period in the United States that saw many polluting industries locating in or around residential neighborhoods. This is certainly not what is desired, but this will not occur in modern society for two main reasons.

  1. Industries locate based on transportation access. An industrial user will seek out access to freight rail, barge, air, and truck access, and as a result, this will eliminate the vast majority of our residential neighborhoods from consideration as they have self-selected to locate in areas away from these industrial amenities.
  2. If a form-based code is done well an “undesirable” will often not be able or willing to locate in a higher transect district. A good example would be Cincinnati’s T6 “Urban Core Zone” where presumably a coal cleaning facility could set up shop due to the lack of land use controls, but if it were to open, the coal cleaning facility would have to design its facility to fit the form of that found in the T6 Urban Core Zone. Such a form would not only be undesirable for such a use, but it would also be cost-prohibitive for its business function.

Forget the Piecemeal Approach:
Many form-based codes are applied in a piecemeal approach that selectively implements the form-based controls in a particular neighborhood or business district. In the Cincinnati region this is presently being done in both Bellevue, KY and Covington, KY as those cities incorporate form-based codes of their own.

The problem with this approach is that it ignores the all-important transect for which a form-based code is derived. The piecemeal approach allows for the individual form-based codes to be developed in an insular manner without taking into consideration the form of the urban region.

The reason this is problematic is that form-based codes are meant to be living, breathing creatures that can change as a community changes. Cincinnati’s center city has not always been as densely built as it is today, and it got to this point by growing and changing over time. This means that a code that can change with the city is more ideal than one that cannot. If a neighborhood or business district wants to evolve upward from T4 “General Urban Core” to a T5 “Urban Center Zone” it should be able to do so, but if that individual form-based code is developed without these other districts in mind, it prevents such evolution from taking place.

Form-based codes offer a variety of tangible benefits, but they can only fully be realized if we leave the fear of the unknown behind and truly take a risk on something bold and new. No major American city has embarked on such a dramatic reform of its land-planning techniques, but what better city is there than Cincinnati – where modern planning was first implemented – to explore such an effort?

  • Form based codes can work. I am not sure given the dysfunctional nature of city government which is continually engaged in internal turf wars, duplication of efforts, shifting employees rather than hiring on merits etc., that our city government can effectively grasp the concept much less actually implement it.

    I personally see some nightmare scenarios where historic districts are concerned. Historic guidelines in my opinion must be maintained as superior in the protection of historic districts, in fact, Federal law requires it.

    It is the very nature of “interpretation” in Form based codes by ‘untrained’ city officials that gives me concern that the city is far more likely to find itself in even more litigation over use.

    Its a tough one, I absolutely see the value in form based codes but it opens another , perhaps bigger, can of worms in implementation and as we know this city is not good on implementation. They have been bulldozing houses for years using federal funds without proper section 106 review. The City historic building inventory survey is inadequate and a joke.

    Do we really want to turn these people loose with form based codes? I am on the fence on this one.

  • I am a fan of form based codes and I think they are the way in which we ought to be planning communities. Having said that, the ‘transect approach’ to FBC’s concerns me. It’s as if we have to lump all of our communities into some generic T1-T6 format. The reality is we can’t do that, especiallynot in Cincinnati. In Cincinnati, for example, we would have to have additional transects than the ones posted in the image above – a hillside transect, a hilltop trasects, and a valley transect. All of these seem to make more sense than simply creating and manipulating Cincinnati into a generic ‘T1-T6’ approach.

  • Randy, I have to clarify one of your points here. The Bellevue FBC is a transect based code based on Smartcode. The initial planning area consists of 1/5 of the City. This will be a mandatory code for the riverfront and the aging shopping center district. When we did the Charrette with Placemakers LLC we were also able to develop a transect map for over 3/4 of the city that can be up for optional implementation. We conducted a Synoptic Survey of residential areas in Bellevue, Ludlow Ave in Clifton, Hyde Park Square. I think our approach is more in line with the correct development of a Form Based Code than the other examples you have described.

    Paul, many communities actually implement transect-based FBC to further preserve historic districts. This is because many Zoning Ordinances still encourage suburban style setbacks and uses that are not in line with the district. Good FBC’s stay away from regulating aesthetics and leaves that duty to Historic Guidelines.

    Greg, good FBC’s are properly calibrated to meet the demands of the community and the market. This is an area where the Charrette is the most important part of the process because it offers a chance to break down conventional wisdom and allows the public to input on the type of community they would want. Additional transects can be created to satisfy the different areas of Cincinnati if that is what is desired out of the charrette or whatever process is chosen. In Bellevue we had to make a T5.5 that wasn’t quite as urban as T6 but not as restrictive as T5.

  • John, that is good to hear about Bellevue’s unique FBC. But the ‘Cincinnati Transect’ that Randy posted above worries me.

  • Randy, Thanks for the article on Form-Based Codes (FBC’s). I would add one very critical attribute of FBC’s to yours. A true FBC is only half about zoning (the regulations over privately owned property). Just as important are the regulations over public property (street corridors & intersections, plazas, greens, etc). The entire goal of an FBC is to create a high value public realm. That is impossible to do without extending the code to cover the public property portion of the public realm. A true FBC combines Zoning regulations with Subdivision regulations. This is not only important in suburban areas but also in the urban core. Wacth how many urban storage facilities, factories, car dealerships and strip malls become redeveloped over the next ten years.

    Regarding the coverage of Form Based Codes over more than just small areas of a town or neighborhood, I would like nothing better. The reality is that communities do want to take this large step at first. What has happened in many cities that have adopted FBC’s so far is that the area covered by the FBC gets expanded once people realize the beneifits of doing so. As John Yung mentioned, in Bellevue we ended up covered a majority of the city. At first we had proposed covering the riverfront and the Shopping Center District (encompassing the Kroger Store on Donnemeyer Drive south of the Party Source). During the charrette however, the owner of the Party Source property realized the benefits of being in the zone, and lobbied for his property to be included.

    I’ll go one better for you… My dream is that our region someday adopts a Sector-Based Form Based Code. This tool would allow different counties, townships, cities and villages to adopt Transect-based codes that would dovetail into a regional plan. There seems to be no movement toward regionalizing governments at this time even though we clearly have growth & traffic issues that are not limited by political distinction. Perhaps, however, we can adopt a planning system that can easily cross political boundaries and that can be adjusted by different communities to suit their needs while achieving a set of mutual benefits and solving problems that refuse to be limited by municipal boundaries. Ah, to dream…

    Greg, Our office created the Cincinnati Transect as a way of translating the abstract “Urban Transect” authored by DPZ ( or to a local, more literal, understanding. In Belleviue we only used a few T-zones because that is all that was appropriate for Bellevue. We even created a T-zone that didn’t exist before. Transect based planning is very customizable, even when using the Smartcode template (but only by those who truly know what they are doing).

    Also, FBC’s are very good tools for Historic districts. Often historic districts have gerrymandered boundaries based on what old buildings are still around. FBC’s are not limited this way. Also, Historic District guidelines are usually good at covering existing buildings, but poor at covering new ones.

  • jason

    I deal with brownfield redevelopment of industrial sites, often for new industrial uses. How do Form Based codes deal with industrial uses such as power plants, chemical plants, refineries, steel mills, etc.? These are the types of uses that I deal with, and I can’t wrap my mind around how to implement a FBC with these types of uses. Cities aren’t just walkable neighborhoods and coffee shops….

  • Jason:

    Form-based codes can work in whatever setting you wish to apply them. So if a community wishes to set up a form-based code in an industrial area they could do so and include in its particular transect. It just so happens that most form-based codes have been focused in the walkable coffee shop neighborhoods you mention.

    The other thing on this topic is that form-based codes allow greater flexibility to businesses and industry in terms of where they can locate. The regulations are much simpler and allow those entities to make their own decisions in terms of location and land use as long as those entities adhere to the design guidelines set out in the form-based code.