Form-Based Code: What Does it Mean?

Cincinnati is implementing a Form-Based Code that will apply to certain neighborhoods, among them Walnut Hills, where our firm is located. This Form-Based Code is essentially another way of accomplishing Zoning goals, which is based not on Zones that have usage as their primary factor, but rather on Transects based on urban density.

The Traditional Zoning we are familiar with first asks the question, ”How will the property be used?” This approach usually groups together like properties to be used for similar use.  For example: residences are typically zoned to be residential, whereas a commercially zoned area is used for businesses.  It would be unusual for the two types of parcels to be found together without some distance between the two using a traditional zoning method.

Mixed-use development can be difficult to achieve, requiring variances or rezoning, and often discouraged. A result is the loss of the smaller community environment where everyone can walk to where they need to go, and the need for increased commuter traffic instead.

The Transects of Form-Based Codes, on the other hand, first asks the question, “How will you engage the street?” In other words, “How will your building participate in the urban fabric?” Each Transect classifies a level of density, from rural to urban, and specifies formal requirements such as setbacks, number and height of stories, locations and types of signage, options for styles of main entry, even acceptable exterior finish materials.

As a secondary concern the Transects limit the types of uses.  These limitations are based more on what is fitting to the density rather than slicing the pie along residential, commercial, and industrial axis.

Traditional Zoning seems to let the public thoroughfare be a resultant space, determined not by the intention of civic planners but rather by the convenience of private uses. Form-Based Codes, on the other hand, treat that public space as a designed feature of its own, requiring private properties to contribute in prescribed ways. The specific use of the building or parcel is deemed not to be as significant, as long as that property contributes to the intended urban fabric.

It is believed that this approach will encourage the development of “walkable neighborhoods”, wherein residents can walk to work, to grocery stores, to theaters, to churches, to school, and other amenities instead of requiring mass transit or ever-broadening highway lanes and parking lots to solve the problems of sprawl.

By allowing a variety of uses to situate themselves within an urban density, those problems may begin to dissipate. In particular, lower-income residents may find the return of opportunity as their neighborhoods begin to feature places to work and shop, without a commute.

In Cincinnati, the Form-Based Code is first being implemented in four specific neighborhoods, incorporating only those Transects pertinent to the included regions. Full implementation for Walnut Hills (our neighborhood) as well as College Hill, Madisonville, and Westwood, is expected later in 2013.  These neighborhoods will serve as a pilot program for the City as a whole.

For full information about the City’s implementation, go to this link.


Robert Haldi
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