Brave New Codes Reach Tipping Point: When, Where, Why?

A year ago, Apple’s sales of its iPhone and iPod Touch eclipsed 40 million units, confirming their potential to fundamentally retool our future opportunities and patterns of daily life.

Today, a year later, form-based codes hit a similar milestone, with similar implications, as over 330 cities and towns around the worldrepresenting over 40 million people — have embraced the idea of form-based coding as an alternative to the sprawl-inducing zoning models of the past century.

We’ve hit the tipping point. Welcome to the other side.

Click for larger view.

The understanding has clearly dawned that use-based development codes separating people from their services are not good for us, or for our environment. Euclidean, single-use zoning creates a sense of placelessness in which strip malls, bedroom communities and office parks fragment cities into disconnected sprawling pods accessible via automobile. Here the economy can only be sustained within a series of big boxes — retail, churches, schools, commercial, and recreation. Major fluctuations in the market cycle hit hard within these inflexible development patterns.

We’ve been talking about form-based codes (FBCs) as an alternative to all that here, here, here, and here. And we’re not the only ones talking. Architect Magazine’s Brave New Codes does a great job of laying out the dynamics, particularly from the perspective of architects.

“If the architects could understand that they’re part of a larger effort of placemaking, and it’s not just a restriction like any old code, I think that they would have a good time working with form-based codes,” says Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. She was the coauthor of the first form based code, adopted in 1986 in Seaside, Florida, and also of the recent adoption of the Miami 21 SmartCode, the largest form-based code effort to date. Within those 25 years, form-based codes have come of age.

To help share the knowledge, the recently-formed Transect Codes Council launched its first TCC News newsletter today. The TCC works to expand the use of open source transect-based codes and modules for planning and regulating the built environment as part of the natural environment. Made up of 18 members, TCC is similar in some ways to the Form-Based Codes Institute (FBCI), but TCC is also an advisory board to the Center for Applied Transect Studies (CATS) and focuses solely on codes that incorporate the rural-to-urban transect as a mechanism for placemaking.

Click for larger view.

Hitting this tipping point has taken some time. The Codes Study, coauthored by Emily Talen and me, was released this week, detailing the 332 FBCs currently underway along with 11 form-based guidelines. 25 years ago, when this all started, it took some time for the built results to tell if FBCs work, and why. But take a look at the graph of codes adopted over time, and you’ll see that the movement is picking up steam. The reality has sunk in that complete, connected, convivial communities are the most sustainable in the long run. Not to mention the most enjoyable today. And because the unit of coding is the neighborhood, form-based codes apply just as well to big cities as they do to small towns. It’s all about coding the character of the place. Some of the biggest players adopting FBCs include Miami, Denver, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Orlando, Phoenix, Lee County Florida, Buffalo, Saudi Arabia, Scotland and the United Arab Emirates.

However, the small town players are making some big impact as well, across the US and Western Canada. The other day I picked up a Skywest Magazine on a United flight, and was happy to see that 14 of the cities and towns showcased in this issue have form-based codes in progress or adopted, including the cover town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The headliner article points to the reasons why Steamboat Springs would want a FBC. The code protects both the extraordinary mountain — hiking, skiing, biking, hot springs, kayaking and fishing in the Yampa River — as well as the character-filled mountain hamlet and its art galleries, restaurants and music. It does this by keeping the new development around the town compact and in keeping with the existing character — true to form, you might say. For Steamboat Springs, as well as most of the other 332 form-based codes underway, the new regulations are making peace between the enviros and developers, and keeping it real.

–Hazel Borys


Filed under Architecture, Development, Legal, Planning and Design, Public Policy

9 responses to “Brave New Codes Reach Tipping Point: When, Where, Why?

  1. Delighted that you’ve graphed this, Hazel! The FBC’s Adopted graph shocked even me, and I’ve been talking about the tipping point for some time. But until you see it graphed out, it’s only a warm fuzzy.

  2. Stephen Goldie

    Very useful analysis. Particularly liked the insight that 330 towns and cities, which doesn’t sound like much, actually equates to 40,000,000 people, which is obviously huge! Also appreciated the link to ‘Brave New Codes’ in Architect Magazine, I would never have read this interesting article otherwise.

  3. Thanks, Steve and Stephen! The numbers are definitely interesting. I started the Code Study 6 years ago in response to the innovators asking me where else form-based codes had been done, in an attempt to build their own political case for zoning reform at home. As you can see from the life cycle graph, back then it was bumpy so I didn’t bother to count population initially. Now the Code Study has become a process of looking at what works and why, although it’s still helpful in building community support. As Emily Talen joins me in the Code Study, it will likely make its way into her Codes Project, a fascinating anthology of codes, on its own:

  4. Richard W

    Are all of the codes on your graph already adopted by the cities? Or are the number of smart codes and form based codes you list inclusive of cities which are still drafting and/or considering such codes?

    Also, among the cities which do have these codes adopted and on their books, how many cities have made them an option for developers rather than mandated?

    How many of these cities or towns have adopted these codes to be applicable to only downtown areas which are already urban areas as opposed to being applicable to new planned communities or new growth areas of a city?

  5. Good questions, Richard, which I can answer in varying degrees of specificity.

    About the “FBCs adopted 1986-2009; in process 2010” graph, the codes counted for 1986 through 2009 are all adopted, and the number for 2010 includes both adopted code and those being drafted. It’s easier to see if you go to this link:, which is the full Codes Study. There you’ll see a column called “Adopted Date.” As of now, the Code Study tracks 109 form-based codes have been adopted that comply with the FBCI criteria. The remainder are still in the drafting or approval process.

    Of the Code Study adopted FBCs, three cities have made their form-based codes mandatory for the jurisdiction: Miami, FL, Pass Christian, MS and Ridgeland, SC. All three are SmartCodes. However, many others have made the FBCs mandatory for certain neighborhoods, downtowns, or corridors. Still others have made the codes an optional overlay under certain criteria.

    In the Code Study link, you can read more in the column called “Implementation Strategy” to look at each approach. You’ll notice some places, such as Montgomery, Mesquite, and Flagstaff have taken an incremental approach to implementation. A different approach is right for each place, depending on the collective local vision, and the problems to be solved in the near term.

    As far as where the codes apply, the “Largest Scale” column of the Codes Study denotes where each code is applicable, and usually include all smaller scales. These are Neighborhood, City, Region, State, and Nation. While I can’t easily answer your question of how many cities or towns have adopted FBCs applicable only to downtowns, here are the counts of the largest scale (based on updates of the last few days, counts now at 340 codes + 13 guidelines):

    Nation – 2
    State – 9
    Region – 44
    City – 158
    Neighborhood – 140

    While many of the 140 FBCs adopted for neighborhoods are for downtowns, not all are. However, all include some sort of central business district. The detail is generally in the Code Study. Also, all bold blue text in the Code Study is hyperlinks to the codes themselves, or to their project pages.

    Let me know if you have more questions.


  6. Someone was just asking offline about statewide form-based codes. There is only one state that I know of working toward a state-wide form-based code at present, which is New Jersey. There are, however, several statewide form-based guidelines. You’ll see this noted in 5th column of the Code Study, under Type.

    These guidelines have been useful for local cities, towns and counties who have taken them as a starting point for both the legal and urban norms of their states, and then further calibrated them to the local particulars. Some have been widely embraced and applied, such as the Mississippi SmartCode. Others have had some challenges, such as the Georgia template, which was an early version of a form-based code. At least one of the early adopters in Georgia repealed their code; the most frequent complaint that I’ve heard is that while the code is form-based, the metrics are suburban in nature. However, there are many high-level form-based codes in Georgia that are widely embraced and supported, and may have found some initial inspiration and direction in this template.

    Some of the state form-based guidelines are still being developed at present. As guidelines, these initiatives range widely in their level of specificity. Here’s a rundown of where they’re happening:

    California: Statewide Code Template
    Florida Planning Toolbox: FBCs
    Georgia Alternatives to Conventional Zoning
    Louisiana Land Use Toolkit
    Michigan Guidebook to Livability: Form-Based Codes in 7-Steps
    Mississippi SmartCode Template
    New Jersey DOT Municipal Form-Based Code Initiative
    Wisconsin’s Traditional Neighborhood Development Ordinance

    The state-wide form-based code initiative in progress that is not listed as a guideline in the Code Study is New Jersey, whose target is to apply their code to five to ten municipalities, although they are still working toward this goal.

  7. Thank you for that clarification, Hazel. I was the confused person who asked about it offline.
    There have been some efforts toward statewide FBCs in New England. I’ll keep your research team posted.

  8. Pingback: Let’s Get Small: Placemaking as Antidote for Shrinking City Budgets |

  9. Hazel — two things. First, can you say more about the New Jersey statewide effort? Is it just DOT, or bigger? And second, are you including form-based codes that overlay traditional zoning? We have such a case here in New Jersey, in Hammonton: Thanks!

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