Floor Area Ratios

By Dom Nozzi

“Floor Area Ratio” (FAR) is a commonly used land development regulation for nearly all communities. The ratio specifies how tall a building can be, or how much of the parcel the building can be built on, based on the size of the parcel to be developed.

An FAR of 1.0, for example, allows the developer to build a one-story building that covers the entire parcel, a two-story building covering half of the parcel, or a four-story building covering 25 percent of the parcel.

Commonly, citizen groups in town center locations urge their elected officials to keep FARs extremely low to “protect” the neighborhood for “excessive” densities or intensities. However, I do not believe that FAR rules that are deemed “too high” should be a concern for neighborhoods seeking a walkable, quality habitat for humans (assuming this is an objective).

Walkability and transit advocates correctly note that FARs that are too low result in loss of human scale, loss of densities and intensities needed to support transit, and loss of walkability (because low FARs often result in excessive building setbacks and huge parking lots).

FARs provide very little, if any, guidance about what sort of positive vision is sought by the community.

In my opinion, a much better approach than urging low FARs (which is essentially a negative approach saying here is what the developer must not do) is to set out a graphics-based vision for what is considered desirable examples of compatibility. Hopefully, such examples would include compact, human-scaled, charming, traditional, lovable, walkable designs.

Modernist designs tend to emphasize low densities, huge setbacks, excessive building heights, flat walls and excessive (often reflective) glass without ornamentation, and bizarre features that create obnoxious, context-violating “look-at-me” design—instead of a building that fits into the context and fabric of the nearby buildings. A pattern book is a good example of what I find desirable, as are “form-based codes.”

Lobbyists for car-dependent, sprawl-inducing design tend to be enormous advocates for keeping FARs low, because that provides more space for space-hogging cars, and reduces residential densities and commercial intensities (an indirect, counterproductive way to reduce the number of cars on the road). Indeed, in car-happy America, most all of our communities suffer from too much space (mostly taken up by parking, roads, & private building setbacks). For a more lovable, charming community design, space should be made more modest. More “human-scaled.” Not, as sprawl advocates seek, “car-scaled.”

Tools to create charming, compatible, lovable design: Higher FARs coupled with a positive, graphics-based vision. (“Here is what we desire.” Rather than “Here is what you cannot do.”)

Tragically, many well-meaning community activists counterproductively urge such things as low densities or low FARs or large setbacks or lots of parking in town center locations. There are at least two important reasons why this is so often done:

First, for approximately 80 years, developers and designers have abandoned the tradition of designing for people-happy, traditional places. Instead, the imperative is to design for happy cars, which creates unlovable, scary places. Given this, it is understandable that we always expect new development to worsen our communities, and decide that the only thing we can do is to adopt strict rules telling designers what they CANNOT do. We cannot trust them to give us lovable design, given their horrendous track record since the 1920s.

Second, many of these activists are thinking as motorists rather than as citizens. Too often, they ask “What design will be most convenient for my Ford”? Ruinously, the design desires of cars are nearly opposite of the desires of people.

Richard Untermann, a well-known urban designer, calls for FARs of 2.0-3.0 in town centers, and 3.0 for office areas.  San Diego requires at least 0.5 FAR near bus stations.  To increase employment densities, Orlando requires both a minimum and maximum FAR for most commercial zoning.  However, a FAR of 1.0-2.0 is considered ideal for creating transportation choices, yet most cities allow less FAR than this in town centers.  Every 20 percent increase in floor space in commercial centers developed as non-office uses is associated with a 4.5 percent increase in ride sharing and transit use.

Small villages using compact, charming, human-scaled design are almost universally loved, and end up being the most popular destination for a great many tourists around the world. Americans are often their own worst enemies by urging that such design should be made illegal. That all we should allow is low-density, drivable suburban design.


Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

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