Better Zoning through Breaking Old Codes

Form-based codes have emerged as a powerful tool for city planners who want to stop the sprawl that’s resulted from bad zoning rules.

The aerial image of a shopping mall in Chandler, Ariz., speaks volumes about the effect of 20th-century zoning codes on urban life. The photograph shows acres of parking lots and big box stores connected by boulevardwide access roads. Perfect for cars, lousy for people. It’s a great illustration of how such rules have left the U.S. urban landscape sprawling and ugly and, well, blah.

Emily Talen, a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University, takes the Chandlers of urban America to task in her new book, City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form. She examines how regulations over time have disfigured the metropolitan environment by encouraging car-centric, land-devouring sprawl -- the types of development that have led to strip malls, bedroom communities and office parks.

Utility regulations, deed restrictions, impact fees and federal laws have also hurt the urban landscape, but Talen’s focus is on zoning, which she calls the mother lode of city rules. Throughout history, we’ve used rules to guide the growth and development of cities, but in the last half-century the connection between rules and physical outcome has broken down, leaving a homogenous sprawl that continues to grow, although demand has shifted toward mixed-use, compact, walkable neighborhoods.

How can cities turn the situation around? Talen points to the adoption of zoning rules that give cities greater flexibility and predictability in how they develop. More recently, form-based codes (FBCs) have emerged as a powerful tool for city planners who want to create a city that’s walkable, sustainable and that incorporates neighborhood context into new development, as well as preserves existing structures. It is a code that focuses on the relationship between buildings, streets and public spaces.

Seaside, Fla., a planned community noted for specifying building height, setbacks and encroachments, was the first in the country to use FBCs. The Nantucket-like town features dense, walkable neighborhoods that have narrow streets and homes with front porches. Another example is Miami 21, the largest FBC effort to date.

Form-based codes, however, have met some resistance from the design community. Architects, for example, think they’re heavy handed, and they’re irked at the idea of a code dictating the form of their buildings. But killing the creative spirit of architects is not the goal of FBCs, says one of Miami 21’s creators. “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 they would have a good time working with form-based codes,” Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk told Architect magazine.

For her part, Talen is optimistic. The sheer lack of logic in rules that put houses next to highways, while separating grocery stores from neighborhoods, won’t stand the test of time, she writes. Needs are shifting to smaller, more urban households, where the emphasis is on “quality of place.” The result will be an America that takes greater stock in rules “that address the multiple dimensions of urban life.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.