Coastal Communities Moving to "Form-Based" Zoning Codes ~

Most zoning rules in America are what the zoning geeks like to call "Euclidian." They're based on flat geometry, and they divide communities up based on permitted uses: manufacturing goes here, housing goes there, shopping goes in some other place. But critics say that method is one of the major causes of sprawl - probably the biggest cause, and maybe even the only cause. It's because cities, towns, and counties won't let you build houses near shopping or workplaces, and vice versa, they argue, that the U.S. has turned into a patchwork of suburban subdivisions, shopping malls, and industrial parks that empty out at night. The counter-movement to that sprawl phenomenon is called "New Urbanism," and the New Urbanists have a different kind of zoning in mind: "Form-Based Codes." Writer Nate Berg explains in Architect magazine (" Brave New Codes," by Nate Berg): "Instead of focusing only on the separation of types of land uses, form-based codes are organized around the physical form that a development should take. Under the guidance of a regulating plan, form-based codes emphasize connectivity between buildings, their facades, and the public realm, and how those connections play out across variously scaled streets and blocks." (Architect is published by Hanley Wood, which also publishes this newsletter.) And maybe it’s because sprawl can be most upsetting when it affects a scenic coastal environment, but form-based codes seem to be catching on the quickest in coastal cities and towns. Miami, Florida’s “ Miami21” code is one of the largest and best-known efforts at creating a large-scale form-based code. But other Florida communities of all sizes, from Tampa to little Winter Springs, are also on the bandwagon. At the Form-Based Codes Institute, researchers Hazel Borys and Emily Talen are keeping track of communities adopting form-based codes. So far they have a total of 332 examples. And if you include California on the West Coast, the top eight states on the list are all coastal states. Florida tops the list with 51 examples, followed by California with 40. Then it's Texas (33), North Carolina (17), Mississippi (16), South Carolina (14), Virginia and Georgia (13 each). The movement is led by academics and architects, so it’s no surprise that the language tends to be abstract, if not impenetrable. For a more down-to-earth explanation, however, you could turn to the words of Mayor Billy Keyserling of Beaufort, South Carolina, where the Island Packet reports that officials, consultants, and townsfolk are hard at work on a form-based code (“ New zoning idea rejects car-based communities,” by Juliann Vachon). In an editorial for the Island Packet ( “New urbanism can bring back best of Beaufort's good old days”), Keyserling painted this picture of the Beaufort of his childhood: “I rode my bike downtown to the movies on Bay Street. On the way to and from the movies I saw three pharmacies, three grocery stores, five clothing stores, two five-and-dime stores and three hardware stores. There were, of course, barber and beauty shops and a shoe-repair shop. There were four service stations, some restaurants and small businesses on Charles, Bay, Scott, Port Republic, West, Carteret and Boundary streets. In short, nothing was more than a few minutes away.” Form-based zoning, wrote Keyserling, is the effort to make that world of the past a working archetype for the future. Wrote the Mayor: “For those who want a feel for what form-based code might bring, I suggest a leisurely stroll through downtown. Note that, we have street grids in which roadways end to meet public space along the Beaufort River. We have sidewalks, a few remaining service alleys and beautiful, tree-lined streets. We have houses built a little closer together, with large private yards replaced by refurbished or new public parks. Now imagine all of the vacant spaces filled with businesses run by people who lived downtown and patronized by people who could work, dine and shop downtown. You would see a vibrant downtown again bordered by the Beaufort River on three sides and Battery Creek on the fourth side, not just Bay Street. Corner markets, bike shops, beauty parlors, small and large stores, a larger variety of restaurants -- they all would be part of this vision.”