By Dom Nozzi
June 26, 2003
Since the dawn of American planning over 100 years ago, the approach to regulation of land has been to use zoning to control the USE of a property (uses such as housing, a store, an office, etc.). The imperative of “use-based codes” in America has been, to the extent possible, to separate and segregate “different” uses from each other (i.e., keep houses far away from industries, shops, offices, and only allow “like” uses to be near each other — houses only near other houses, shops only near other shops, offices only near other offices).
This was perfectly understandable and necessary 100 years ago. After all, industries/jobs tended to be emitting lots of noise and pollution, and no one wanted to live near such uses.
But today, uses such as many industries tend to be much cleaner and quieter. Now, the compelling need to separate uses is much less. Unfortunately, we retain the tradition of separating uses with our use-based zoning codes. And what that has done has been to obligate us to make EVERY TRIP by car. We are extremely dependent on cars for ALL of our travel, in large part because uses are too far from each other to travel any other way. And extreme auto dependence is very, very costly for households, governments, and the environment. It is a powerful engine promoting costly sprawl. It destroys a sense of community. We lose any sense of human scale. The quality of life for CARS has become our imperative. The result is a downward spiral in the quality of life for PEOPLE.
“Form-based codes” would return us to the tradition of designing communities that promote quality of life for people. Such codes take the approach that the design and location of buildings, parking lots, and streets are profoundly more important to quality of life than the uses that occur within buildings. Indeed, if the buildings, parking, and streets are designed well, it is nearly IRRELEVANT what uses occur inside the building.
Part of the advantage of form-based codes is that they are very amenable to change. Most or all future uses can go inside well-designed buildings. No need to predict what future uses might go there. By stark contrast, use-based codes don’t care much about how the building is designed. They mostly care about what goes inside the building. That leads to a lot of inflexibility in terms of what uses can go inside a building in the future.
A crucial advantage of form-based coding is that the distance between houses, shops, offices, etc. can be shrunk dramatically. In other words, the community moves toward being more compact, modest and human-scaled, and less car-scaled. Only by moving away from the use-based codes can we return to the walkable neighborhood containing corner grocery stores, home offices, etc. By doing so, we can
dramatically reduce auto dependence, not to mention a reduction in the pressure for urban sprawl, and the improvement in urban/neighborhood vibrancy. Our quality of life improves as well, as a result of a human-scaled approach.
Form-based codes focus on things like the height of the building, location and amount of parking, setbacks, width of streets, building articulation/ornamentation, front porches, and building orientation. When such things are done right, they are much more likely to create a high quality of life for the community than the conventional use-based codes.