Form-based codes: Building the town of yesterday and tomorrow

By Carolyn Reid, Lawrence Group

When a real estate developer is considering purchasing property, he must check the zoning regulations. The zoning code says what type of business or residence can be built there, how big the building footprint can be, how tall the building can be, how many parking spaces must be provided, and how much land must be left undeveloped, as a starting point.

The code may also require a long approval process through a number of boards and commissions. If the zoning code doesn't permit enough revenue- producing floor space to make the project viable-and the prospects for a zoning change are not encouraging-then the municipality just lost a potential taxpayer, job-creator or housing provider.

How can a municipality make sure that development regulations attract investment, rather than push it toward competitors? One method is to adopt a form-based code that will expedite the development process, provide predictability to private and public entities, support the creation of high-value development, and allow flexibility as the community grows.

What is a form-based code?
Most zoning codes are based on a model from the 1920s that emphasized the need to separate smoke-spewing industries from people's homes. While this was necessary in the 1920s to prevent children from developing black lung, today's principal places of work are offices, not factories; and the ability to walk from home to the office is coveted, not shamed.

Nonetheless, many municipal zoning codes still focus on use. As the principal control of how a community feels when you-re walking down the street, development codes can do much more: form-based codes differ from conventional zoning codes by emphasizing the way buildings look from the street, rather than what is happening inside them.


strip development
Conventional zoning codes create places with very little street appeal.


Baxter Village
Form-based codes emphasize building frontages, creating places like
Baxter Village in Fort Mill.

Where a conventional zoning code may distinguish regulations for a clothing store, a bakery and a bank, a form-based code treats these all as retail storefronts. The form-based code would require a prominent sidewalk entrance and plenty of fronting windows to encourage a vibrant shopping area, then leave many of the details to the developer or business owner to determine. A form-based code would also set the expectations for the public area of the sidewalk, planting strip and the street. Both the public and private areas must be coordinated to ensure the most attractive, most functional and most walkable environment.

How do form-based codes work?
Like conventional zoning codes, form-based codes are laws that govern private development, but the regulations within them are based on protecting and enhancing public investments. A municipality's largest public space investment is the street network; the way that people experience a municipality is also via the street network.

History shows us that the most valuable, lasting real estate value has been created by building places where people stroll main streets and live on tree-lined blocks with inviting porches before modern zoning codes and cars changed the way neighborhoods were built. These streets are lined with high-quality buildings, not parking lots; they have tall trees and generous sidewalks, not gravel ditches. These streetscapes provide visual cues as to whether we-re in a place to stop and explore, or to lock the doors and keep driving.


With no sidewalks and few trees, this neighborhood does not invite strolling.


Prince St at Bladen 

Built under a form-based code, Prince Street in Beaufort has houses with porches that front a sidewalk lined with trees and streetlights.

Form-based codes prescribe building frontage types based on districts. A frontage is the side (or sides if it is a corner property) of a building that face the street, and frontage types are based on universal architectural forms that define the fronts of buildings: fences, porches, stoops, storefronts, arcades and galleries.

porch and fence frontage example 


A porch and fence frontage makes for friendly residential  streets and
fits into many South Carolina architectural styles.


shopfront frontage example
A shopfront building frontage, with large windows and awnings,
is the backdrop of Main Street-style shopping districts.

Recognizing that the highest-value, longest-lasting neighborhoods are places where people feel comfortable walking, form-based codes require building frontages to be fairly close to the sidewalk to provide continuous scenery. New development may also be required to install street lights and trees along the street, framing the other side of the sidewalk. With a few exceptions to ensure that adjacent uses will make good neighbors, it is the frontage of a building that form-based codes are principally concerned. Uses behind the "frontage," like granny flats, are tools to increase density without visibly impacting the public frontage.

Greenville SC streetscape
Main Street in Downtown Greenville is a busy shopping district full of high-quality stores and restaurants.

Determining the basis for what frontages are allowed is often determined in form-based codes by districts based on a rural-to-urban transect. The transect concept comes from ecology, where a cross-section of land-from the ocean to mountains, for example-may be grouped into habitats based on the characteristics of plants and animals that reside there. In the same way that egrets and cordgrass live symbiotically in tidal marshes, there are building forms, public spaces and streetscapes that tend to perform well together in the built environment.

For example, a public space at the edge of the city may be a large regional park with hiking trails, and nearby residences may be on large lots with a decorative fences in front. At the opposite end of the transect, a public space in the city center may be a more intimate square where markets and events take place, and surrounding residences may be four-story condominium buildings with entrances at the sidewalk.

Why use a form-based code?
Form-based codes offer short- and long-term benefits to municipalities. By clarifying expectations for what the built form of development should look like, a form-based code can expedite the development process. A shorter time frame and fewer uncertainties attract developers who want to minimize risk and land-holding costs.

In the long-term, high-quality construction that creates a sense of place means lasting value. This makes form-based development flexible and resilient, as buildings can adapt to changing markets and uses over time.
There are already several examples of form-based codes in South Carolina. Spartanburg officials are using a form-based code to manage development in their entire downtown area. Beaufort has two form-based codes managing redevelopment in areas where the city is making a significant investment in new infrastructure. Greenville has seen success with a form-based code to encourage infill housing in a blighted neighborhood. Columbia is using a form-based code to manage the redevelopment of the State Hospital in the Bull Street neighborhood.

From very urban center-cities to small towns, and even in rural areas, form-based codes can ensure a more predictable development outcome for developers, neighbors and elected officials.

Lawrence Group is a building design, development and project delivery firm with professional staff in five regional offices in North America. Craig Lewis, AICP, LEED AP, CNU-A, a principal with Lawrence Group, spoke on form-based codes at the Municipal Attorneys Association's Annual Meeting.