Form-Based Codes

A New Tool To Shape Community Character: Form Based Codes

Form-based Codes and Webinars for Maine Communities

We were very pleased to launch our webinar series - Webinars for Maine Communities - with two webinars about Form-based codes. Find out more about Webinars for Maine Communities.

Standish Village Master Plan Video

By Choice or by Chance: The Standish Village Plan from srctv.

What are they?

Form-based codes (FBC) are community-driven design regulations that control the physical form of the built environment to create a certain type of "place", for example, a traditional, pedestrian-friendly residential neighborhood.Form-based codes create that place by using dimensional standards to shape the spaces between buildings and to control how buildings relate to each other, to streets, and to other public spaces. As compared to traditional zoning, form-based codes focus more on the size, form, and placement of buildings and parking, and less on land use (residential vs. commercial) and density (housing-units-per-acre). Form-based codes allow a community to better shape the look and feel of its built environment.

How are they developed?

Development of a form-based code relies on a public stakeholder process to create a community vision and to identify the underlying elements of that vision. Those underlying elements become the framework of the code. Take a look at the our Community Visioning Handbook - PDF to learn more about developing a visioning process.

What is in a FBC?

  • Form-based codes typically contain diagrams and tables and easily-understood language that explains the standards of the code. The standards in Form-based codes are keyed to theregulating plan.
  • Regulating Plan.A plan or map of the regulated area designating the locations where different building form standards apply. The regulating plan is based on clear community intentions regarding the physical character of the area.
  • Public Space Standards.Specifications for the elements within the public realm (e.g., sidewalks, travel lanes, on-street parking, street trees, street furniture, etc.).
  • Building Form Standards.Regulations controlling the configuration, features, and functions of buildings that define and shape the public realm.
  • Administration.A clearly defined application and project review process.
  • Definitions.A glossary to ensure the precise use of technical terms.

Form-based codes may also include:

  • Architectural Standards.Regulations controlling external architectural materials and quality.
  • Landscaping Standards.Regulations controlling landscape design and plant materials on private property as they impact public spaces (e.g. regulations about parking lot screening and shading, maintaining sight lines, insuring unobstructed pedestrian movements, etc.).
  • Signage Standards.Regulations controlling allowable signage sizes, materials, illumination, and placement.
  • Environmental Resource Standards.Regulations controlling issues such as storm water drainage and infiltration, development on slopes, tree protection, solar access, etc.
  • Annotation.Text and illustrations explaining the intentions of specific code provisions.

How do they differ from traditional zoning codes?

Typical zoning dictates what uses can go where, it separates most uses one from the other and usually does not dictate what the look and feel of a zone will be. Our typical zoning, which is actually use regulation, was developed in the early 20th century in response to the desire to separate what were seen as incompatible uses. At a time in our history when manufacturing was thriving, the goal was to separate homes from industries like tanneries, foundries, and stockyards. While its original goal may have been improved public health, traditional zoning has contributed greatly to a sprawling, auto-dependent development pattern that has created its own set of negative public health and environmental effects.

What are the benefits of Form-based codes?

Form-based codes help create predictable outcomes by focusing on form rather than function. Use is a consideration but is not the overriding regulatory element. FBC's provide more predictable physical outcomes because the standards and parameters of the code define how buildings will relate to each other and to the public space around them. Example: FBCs describe 'build-to' lines which identify where the front of the building will be placed in relation to the street; traditional zoning describes minimum 'setbacks' which allow much more variability in where and how a building can be placed on a parcel.

Public participation is an essential element in the process of developing a Form-based code. Through this process, the look and feel of the community is determined; this helps to build increased comfort with the land use regulations because the code describes what the outcome will look like. This can be helpful when considering options like increased density or narrower streets. FBC's are the blueprint for implementing a community's vision.

The existing character of a community can be replicated because a form-based code defines and codifies the qualities that interact to produce that community character.

A good FBC should be easier for non-professionals to understand and use because they are shorter and more concise than conventional zoning documents. The illustrations that are an essential element of a FBC creates a visual accessibility not found with traditional zoning.

Where are Form-based Codes used?

Form-based codes can be used in many different settings. They are frequently used for village centers, mixed use downtowns, and traditional neighborhood developments. The strength of a Form-based code is its ability to define the character of a particular area.

Can they be used in Maine?

Yes. Form-based codes can be used in Maine. Several communities are exploring their use:

Where can I get more information on Form-based Codes?

The Form-based Codes Institute is a great place to get more information on Form-based

The Monthly Journal of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Main Street Center

"Bringing New Urbanism to Main Street", Kalogeresis, N., Main Street News, 2007

Smart growth possible with Form-based Codes", Brodberg, B. Making, On Common Ground, 2007

"Getting the Codes Right", Goldberg, D. Summer, On Common Ground, 2006