Code Hackathon: What can go wrong with form-based codes?

We often talk about how places can hack their zoning code to enable livability. The Project for Code Reform is taking this idea to the next level, helping cities look for the lowest hanging fruit on the walkability front. However, for places on the cutting edge of land use reform that have already adopted a form-based code, there’s a different sort of code hack.

As form-based codes celebrate their 40th birthday, there’s been plenty of time for some things to go wrong. A group of internationally experienced coders — Susan Henderson, Marina Khoury, Matt Lambert, Mary Madden, Bill Spikowski, and Hazel Borys — have compiled our top concerns. We intend to work with other coders to address the majority of these points at a Code Hackathon on June 12 at CNU Louisville.

Nothing cottagey about this courtyard housing in the St. James–Belgravia Historic District in Louisville. How would you code it? Click for larger view. Image credit: Hazel Borys

Nothing cottagey about this courtyard housing in the St. James–Belgravia Historic District in Louisville. How would you code it? Click for larger view. Image credit: Hazel Borys

Seats are available for this June 12 Code Hackathon 202 session or if you don’t yet have a FBC to hack, you may want to join the June 11 Form-Based Code Bootcamp. If you can’t make it to Louisville in June, follow the Congress at hashtag #CNU27 for hacks to address these persistent problems:

#1 – FBC without Clear Desired Physical Outcome. Some communities issue an RFP to select a consultant before they’ve identified a physical vision for their FBC to carry out – and sometimes before they’ve even identified which parts of the community the new code will apply. In these cases, the FBC effort needs to begin planning and consensus-building.

#2 – Crazily Complex Codes. The complexity issue is perhaps the most troubling of today’s FBC problems. We’re seeing many codes with nested regulations and detailed typologies, which create ambiguity, frequently conflict with themselves, and can result in litigation. Ultimately, these practices creates codes that are difficult to understand by residents and challenging to build under by developers.

#3 – While We Are at it Syndrome. A second tier problem of codes that are too complex is failing to resist the temptation to solve every problem and fulfill every community aspiration. Better to nip this tendency in the bud rather than try to hack the code. This is particularly problematic when hoping that the new code will incentivize redevelopment and reinvestment without evenhandedly applying requirements like green building, affordable housing, and 1% for art.

#4 – Coding Too Tightly. Leave some room for development to stretch, with regulations like block sizes and density. It is not best practice to make assumptions about how the market will choose to build in defining density, like high surface parking requirements delivering half the density you need for a successful Main Street.

#5 – Implementation Failures. The majority of form-based codes apply to downtown, the town center, or the central business district, which further exacerbates the urban-suburban economic divide that is seeing poverty taking suburban flight. Implementation strategy should be about leveling the playing field for high-performance urban forms in more than one part of town.

#6 – Coding and Guidelines for Architectural Style. Excessive architectural specificity does not belong in municipal codes, unless the code covers a historic district — keep those for Homeowner Association agreements, if you must. The ambiguity of design standards and guidelines, including architectural ones, is a frequent problem in FBCs. Avoid the over-articulation requirements municipalities often impose to break down the scale of large buildings, often yielding sub-par results.

#7 – Conventional Parking Quotas. We know this may seem small, but it changes everything about the urbanism. When it’s a problem, it’s a political problem, not an author error. The approach to parking can reinforce or undermine everything else the FBC is attempting to achieve.

#8 – Layering FBCs on Top of Already Byzantine Regulatory Systems. Florida communities excel in this variant, where FBCs are sometimes overlaid on complex conventional zoning on top of overtly regulatory comprehensive plans. Good grief – no wonder such FBCs produce few tangible results.

#9 – Leaving Industry Out in the Cold. For most of the last 40 years, the majority of FBCs tend to write off industrial and other large format uses like big box retail, medical centers, and airports into special districts that are inherently auto-centric. With a strengthening in local goods-based economies along with clean industry and artisanal manufacturing, FBCs can safely and effectively reintegrate light industrial uses and even portions of medical centers and airports into walkable neighborhoods.

#10 – Mapping Errors. While this is not internal to the code writing, it can wreak havoc and has landed some codes in litigation. Many times, the mapping is left to the local government and the nuance of character isn’t always reflected in the map. Transitions between intensities must be carefully considered since locations of zone changes can make a significant difference in the success of the code.

#11 – Failure to Connect Codes to Climate Initiatives. Form-based coders have always been known as silo-busters, and yet most FBCs are very siloed from climate action plans (CAPs). Land use is not a big consideration in CAPs being adopted by cities, nor is affordable transportation prioritized. CAPs are performance-based, so we have to get better at measuring the particulars of the places governed by FBCs, which are usually the places that perform. FBCs should be written in ways that make it easier to keep score of climate impacts, otherwise they generally don’t count toward the CAP.

If you have already registered for the Code Hackathon CNU 202 session, please answer this survey to help us understand the issues you have encountered with form-based codes. We’ll try to aim our set of hacks at your set of issues.

Susan Henderson, Principal, PlaceMakers, LLC; Marina Khoury, Partner, DPZ CoDesign; Matthew Lambert, Partner, DPZ CoDesign; Mary Madden, Principal, Ferrell Madden; Bill Spikowski, Principal, Spikowski Planning Associates; Hazel Borys, Managing Principal, PlaceMakers, LLC

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