01 October 2008

Statement on Form Based Code Motion

This Statement is part of Council member Quall's Motion to adopt Form-Based Code Overlay Districts. I thought it was a great summary and worthy of publication:
Form-based codes are a powerful tool for building strong, vibrant neighborhoods, creating a climate for business and economic development, and enhancing the quality of life of our community. Form-based codes are a response to the urban sprawl, the decline of historic, traditional neighborhoods, and the neglect of pedestrian safety that have resulted from conventional zoning. Single-use zoning regulations have discouraged compact, walkable neighborhoods and, in fact, many of our most admired neighborhoods could not be built today under conventional land-use zoning.

The old adage “form follows function” describes the common approach behind land use regulation as it has been practiced in the past. Form-based codes turn that relationship on its head. Since the primary basis for regulation is the buildings, not the uses, “function follows form.” These codes concentrate first on the visual aspect of development: building height and bulk, fa├žade treatments, the location of parking, and the relationship of the buildings to the street and to one another. Simply put, form-based codes emphasize the appearance and qualities of the public realm, the places created by buildings.

The physical structure of a community is its most enduring and intrinsic characteristic. This is usually what we call character and what creates a sense of place. Form-based codes codify this structure in a straightforward way so that planners, citizens and developers can make a shared vision a built reality.

Form-based codes create and define public spaces through the control of buildings’ size and scale in relation to each other, streets, and open spaces. They focus not on use, but on what most communities really care about – how things look.

Form-based codes are developed through an intensive planning process that includes all stakeholders, including developers, residents, property owners, business owners, and community leaders, from the outset. In doing so, form-based codes address a major concern of developers – the lengthy delays associated with traditional approval process. By adopting form-based codes, some cities have reduced the approval time for new development to as little as six weeks.

The result is that neighborhoods get what they want – development that is compatible with their history and vision, and results in compact, walkable, communities. Developers get what they want – speedy approval of their proposals as long as they conform to the approved form based code for the neighborhood.


justforview said...

It is hard to imagine that there was a time when aesthetics were not something that the courts dealt with, ruling that it is subjective. Over the past century aesthetics have edged into the realm of health, safety and welfare (often illegitimately), and now it is the core basis for legislation.

Quite a shift in thinking.

CityKin said...

Well, I would like to live in a beautiful city, and zoning can either allow or dis-allow that to happen. Many current zoning basically encourages ugliness such as excessive parkting lots, excessive setbacks, separation of uses etc.

It is quite a shift in thinking, and I hope the same type of thinking seeps into the Public Works Department as well so that we can have safer, complete streets and public infrastructure.

justforview said...

I agree that the current zoning system is broken. My opinion is of why is that it is a rigid system that doesn't adapt to variations in values from cities to towns to country, over time and across cultures.

I disagree with your stance from a previous post that beauty is objective. Fifty years ago beauty was closely related to efficiency. Before that it was opulence, and now it seems to be nostalgia.

Even the current Euclidian system dictates form, but is largely an afterthought, reflecting values of the administrators. If efficiency is a value, as it was when much of the current zoning was developed by engineers and the like, then the form reflects that value. If we value nostalgia form reflects that.

Regulating space by form does make sense, but use shouldn't be an afterthought. I don't think it is form based zoning is a bad idea. Just that I think it isn't form follows function or function follows form, but more equal. Use criteria won't go away, this overlay is just an extra regulation to reflect what we think is beautiful today.

It basically sounds like a design charette that becomes legislation. The question is should the public determine form or should it be left to market forces? I don't know if I want design by committee.I don't really want the market either.

Now if markets were more locally focused and could reflect the diversity of local values that would be beautiful.

CityKin said...

Beauty is indeed objective. It may manifest itself in different forms in different times and differently to different people, but the essence is health, balance, liveliness etc... No one can deny that a healthy garden is more beautiful than a weed-strewn one or that a well-loved and timeless building is more beautiful than a derelict one.

I do think that the form is more important than the use. For example, I really don't care if my neighbor has a convenience store or a dentist office but I do care if he has a lousy parking lot along the street frontage with harsh Mercury Vapor lighting. Almost any use is acceptable to me and my neighbors as long as the building addresses the public (the street) in a neighborly way.

VisuaLingual said...

Mike, I think you just described some of the ways in which beauty is subjective and its understand is very much dependent on contextual[izing] forces like value, class, and taste.

No one can deny that a healthy garden is more beautiful than a weed-strewn one or that a well-loved and timeless building is more beautiful than a derelict one.

Actually, people can and do. Here is a great article on the development of the lawn. Have you seen or read that people have started to shift their thinking about the front lawn, and to consider using native plants, which have previously been thought of as weeds? In the Bay Area, a manicured lawn with topiary used to be a mark of status, and now it's the native "meadow" look.

Ideas of beauty change similarly in architecture. McMansions used to have features like the requisite grand foyer or double-height living room, but lots of people now prefer cozier spaces with lower ceilings due to their energy efficiency. How can you say that beauty is timeless?

CityKin said...

I completely reject the idea that beauty is wholly subjective (is that what you are saying?). It's like saying sickness is just as good as health.

Truly timeless beauty is universal and recognized by all human beings. It is a quality that is manifests itself differently in every particular time and place, but the quality itself is objectively present or not present to differing degrees.

Yes it is true that an aristocratic slave-owner in the 19th century, with his taste corrupted by power and class might not see beauty the same as monk or a hippie, but that is only because all people deny their full humanity to differing degrees. That, or they have some mental illness. And I certainly understand that today we are each full of similar prejudices, but that is why making true beauty is so difficult and that is why many people begin to believe that it doesn't really exist and should not be attempted.

But, Perhaps this getting too abstract. I wouldn't mind talking more about use vs form based codes. To my thinking, only the most disparate uses should be segregated. Zoning should mostly regulate the street presence of private buildings so that a beautiful street may be achieved. Then the Public Works department and Parks Departments can fill in the public spaces to tie together these streets to make a beautiful city.

justforview said...

The way that I understand the recent advancement of form based codes in Cincinnati isn't even about use vs. form based codes. It is, should we add another layer of regulation that deals with form. But we already do that with design reviews and regulations.

Zoning shouldn't let form be a complete after-thought, but neither should use. As you mention the parking lots, setbacks and height limits all dictate form. But they do not do so explicitly. It is an after-thought, and it shouldn't be.

But that shouldn't imply that form becomes primary and use an after-thought. As an architect it is probably your duty to put as much emphasis on form as you do. And Roxanne having studied at the Graduate School of Design also has an inclination towards the role that form plays in design. Even the current purveyors of form-based codes are trained as architects.

This seems as unbalanced and unhealthy as letting engineers wholly determine regulatory systems. Different perspectives have different vies on what should be emphasized. Why switch from one extreme to another.

VisuaLingual said...

You clearly have strong convictions, and you and I probably agree about many specific instances of beauty, but accusing people of denying their own humanity or of being mentally ill because their idea of beauty doesn't agree with yours? I think you're conflating your own strong convictions with the notion of some timeless, universal essence of beauty. To me, the fact that there is no single answer to the question of beauty is the fundamental reason why creative people continue trying to make beautiful things.

Back to form-based codes. It's interesting to me that both extremes implicitly dictate one another -- use privileges certain forms and vice versa. It makes sense for a community to define itself partly through its forms. But, the idea that form-based codes "focus not on use, but on what most communities really care about – how things look" is really counterintuitive to me. Is that really what communities care about, looking at their forms instead of living with their uses?

You've said that you don't really care what a neighboring business is, but it seems odd to me that you're not concerned with relevance and complementarity to your community. Or, maybe you're assuming that the market would correct for that. Still, it seems like an extreme position to me, although a new extreme is worth trying to counter some of the damaging effects of the old extreme.

CityKin said...

Its funny you picked out the section of the post that said "focus not on use, but on what most communities really care about – how things look" because I I also thought that was worded incorrectly and should be changed. It is not "how things look" rather it is the public face of private property, and how it is regulated.

I really do think that we would have a better more dynamic city if uses were not restricted. But I also realize that the political reality is that this will never happen because people want the right to keep their neighbor from opening a bar or a homeless shelter. However, I think it is helpful to remember that neighborhoods like OTR were built before use restrictions to dynamic results.

Quim said...

"However, I think it is helpful to remember that neighborhoods like OTR were built before use restrictions to dynamic results."
It also adversely affected people's health.
My question is:
Will this type of zoning allow the little corner business buildings (many vacant and blighted/blighting) in neighborhoods like Northside, Clifton and Walnut Hills to be businesses again ?
I would be ok with that. Nobody in OTR wants Emmert grain back in business in OTR. Believe me.

CityKin said...

I think a place like Emmert Grain if they wanted to start anew would have to make sure they controlled their odor and noise.