Digging into Form-Based Urban Planning

It’s been far too long since my previous post, but I assure you this is not because I would have lost my interest in blogging. It’s just that I haven’t really found the time to write anything during summer. One might think that summer equals as plenty of opportunities to kick back and concentrate on reading and writing, but somehow that just never is the case during my holidays. I choose to travel, attend events of many sorts and generally do things I feel I otherwise don’t have enough time for.

Another excuse for my blog inactivity is that I’m about to begin a new interesting chapter in my life: I’ve been accepted to a one-year master’s program called European Urban Cultures (POLIS) that will be taught in four European cities during the upcoming academic year. My goal is to deepen my expertise in urban issues and do a bit of research on issues that I find interesting.

Going back to school also means that I’ll be working on a thesis throughout my study year. The rest (and the more interesting part) of this post is aimed at bringing out the general theme I’ve had in mind for my personal research project.

Here goes:

My blog has mostly focused on criticizing the outcomes of modernist urban planning and architectural design. I’ve also suggested that a better alternative would be to revive the use of time-tested interpretations of city-building. There’s not too much of this going on in Finland, but on a global scale the blog is just another outlet for anti-sprawl rhetoric. And the good thing is that to my experience, the number of like-minded urbanists around the world is all but decreasing in years to come. The message is getting louder: let’s make cities instead of sprawl.

So far, a huge chunk of the energy put into the battle against sprawl has been concentrated on specifying what sprawl exactly is, what’s wrong with it and what kind of urban elements are better alternatives. Few have gone further to discuss and draft actual proposals on how to pave the way for the much-needed change in urban policy and inspire the public to demand more from their surroundings. Here in Finland – where the discussion is minimal to begin with – concrete action plans are still especially far off.

In America however, the anti-sprawl movement has gone as far as institutionalizing itself to a certain degree. The fight against sprawl has been a lot lengthier in North America compared to much of the rest of the Western world, because that’s where sprawl to a large degree originates from. As a result, New Urbanists and their kind are much further in transforming their rhetoric into concrete action than in e.g. Europe. The most ambitious tool created so far to overcome the deficiencies of conventional zoning regulations is form-based urban planning. Or to be more precise, form-based code (FBC).

The Form-Based Codes Institute – an NGO founded to diffuse the use of FBCs in North America – gives a well-stated definition of the concept:

Form-based codes foster predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. They are regulations, not mere guidelines, adopted into city or county law. Form-based codes offer a powerful alternative to conventional zoning.

Form-based codes address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks. The regulations and standards in form-based codes are presented in both words and clearly drawn diagrams and other visuals. They are keyed to a regulating plan that designates the appropriate form and scale (and therefore, character) of development, rather than only distinctions in land-use types.

This approach contrasts with conventional zoning’s focus on the micromanagement and segregation of land uses, and the control of development intensity through abstract and uncoordinated parameters (e.g., FAR, dwellings per acre, setbacks, parking ratios, traffic LOS), to the neglect of an integrated built form. Not to be confused with design guidelines or general statements of policy, form-based codes are regulatory, not advisory. They are drafted to implement a community plan. They try to achieve a community vision based on time-tested forms of urbanism. Ultimately, a form-based code is a tool; the quality of development outcomes depends on the quality and objectives of the community plan that a code implements.

The usage of Form-based codes have steadily increased since the early 21st century and have been adopted in forms of varying degree in over 300 communities in North America today. The most notable codes are found in Miami, Florida, and Denver, Colorado, where the cities changed from Euclidian zoning to form-based zoning in 2010 on a city-wide level.

The concept as such is of course not a new innovation at all. Codes that regulate urban forms have been around forever. The novelty comes from the ambitious effort to break away from modernist zoning practices.  You can get acquainted with the history of codes for example through Emily Talen’s The Codes Project at Arizona State University.

Because the FBC is a very new concept in urban planning, the interest it has received from the scientific community is niche. Most studies I’ve ran into describe what FBCs generally are and how they’ve come to be, but very little research has been done on experiences from communities created with FBCs.

I find form-based codes fascinating and would like to see them tested in Finland too. The preliminary idea for my thesis work is to find out on one hand what the perquisites for adopting form-based codes are in local administration and on the other how all that matches with our planning system. I am also secretly interested to learn how the Finnish planning profession/local administration/national administration feel about the general idea of applying form-based zoning to our planning system, so I will definitely still need to spend time choosing how to approach my research theme and at what scope.

I will look further into the issue during the coming weeks and months and will also be able to discuss the topic with my professors once my studies actually start. In the meantime, all comments and ideas on my preliminary research topic are very welcome and much appreciated!

PS I am not exactly sure what my regained student status will mean for the content of this blog, but my intention at this moment is to write posts related to my thesis research. I might also open a new blog about my experiences of European urban culture during the next academic year.  Stay tuned.

4 thoughts on “Digging into Form-Based Urban Planning”

  1. This sounds very interesting and promising. Have you looked into whether a city could apply form-based urban planning instead of a modernist one while still adhering to the current law? Or does this need changes to the zoning laws in Finland?

    I would love to see something like this tested in Helsinki.

    1. Thanks Mikko! No I have not done that yet, but I naturally will have to. I have a hunch that legislation will unfortunately turn out to be a major obstacle for form-based planning.

  2. Good luck with your investigations. Here are a few additional resources that might be of interest.

    The Council for European Urbanism has representatives in Sweden, Norway and other countries. http://www.ceunet.org/

    The Center for Applied Transect Studies provides many free materials, including a model form-based code. http://www.transect.org

    The planning firm Placemakers provides a list of studies, background readings, and a database of form-based codes. http://www.smartcodecomplete.com/

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