Regulations that promote sprawl are ebbing

The overall trend is toward a more place-based, character-based legal environment, according to one of the authors of the Codes Study.

Better! Cities & Towns

Form-based codes, which combat sprawl, are growing in popularity across the US, Canada, and internationally, according to the Codes Study, a collaborative effort led by Professor Emily Talen of Arizona State University, and Hazel Borys, principal at the Placemakers urban design firm.

The update of the Codes study shows 233 codes adopted, covering a population of 41 million people in the US. In addition, there are 159 form-based and/or guidelines in development, and codes have been adopted in Canada, Australia, Scotland, Saudi Arabia, Romania, and England.

The “population covered” figures reported by the Codes Study may be taken with a grain of salt, given that some of the codes are model ordinances that have no official jurisdiction. Most zoning codes still focus on separating people and uses in pedestrian-unfriendly ways. But the study highlights real progress in land-use regulations, according to Borys.

 “While the earlier codes were often optional, more recent reforms -- like Miami and Denver — are mandatory,” she says. “For those that aren't mandatory, cities are often much more active in incentives, such as El Paso, Texas, with TIF (tax-increment financing) dollars and transit stops, or Montgomery, Alabama, with purchasing and aggregating land for resale to developers, or cities that focus just on the central business district or corridors. The overall trend is toward a more place-based, character-based legal environment.”

Codes regulating the built environment go back to the earliest human civilizations (Talen’s book City Rules, published in December, traces land-use codes back to Mohenjo-Daro, of the Indus River Valley, built in 2,600 BC). Many European cities have been coded continuously since the 11th or 12th centuries — and this approach was brought to the New World. Prior to the 20th Century, however, codes tended to be simple, connected to a physical plan, and focused on a desired built form. A common approach was to coordinate building height and street width.

With the advent of zoning in the 20th Century, land-use codes became progressively more complex and disconnected with specific plans or spatial logic, Talen reports.

That’s the regulatory basis for sprawl. Form-based codes attempt to reapply a planning vision and spatial logic while dealing with modern transportation and development issues.

Eighty-eight percent of form-based codes identified in the study have been adopted since 2003. Many of these have been based on the SmartCode, an open-source code first created by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company of Miami. The biggest form-based codes year was 2010, when 38 were adopted. Twenty were adopted last year, according to the study.

Codes study criteria

A “yes” answer to the question below indicates that a code is form-based:

• Is the code's focus primarily on regulating urban form and less on land use?

• Does the code emphasize standards and parameters for form with predictable physical outcomes (build-to lines, frontage type requirements, etc.) rather than relying on numerical parameters (FAR, density, etc.) whose outcomes are impossible to predict?

• Does the code require private buildings to shape public space through the use of building form standards with specific requirements for building placement?

• Does the code promote and/or conserve an interconnected street network and pedestrian-scaled blocks?

• Are regulations and standards keyed to specific locations on a regulating plan?

• Are the diagrams in the code unambiguous, clearly labeled, and accurate in their presentation of spatial configurations?

For more in-depth coverage on this topic:

Subscribe to Better! Cities & Towns to read all of the articles (print+online) on implementation of greener, stronger, cities and towns.

• Get New Urbanism: Best Practices Guide, packed with more than 800 informative photos, plans, tables, and other illustrations, this book is the best single guide to implementing better cities and towns.

• Get SmartCode Version 9 and Manual, the code book that is having the most impact on zoning reform nationwide, with expert commentary by Andres Duany.