What is form-based code?

Dear neighbors, 

Wherever you find yourself reading this now, I’d like for you to take note of the environment around you. What do you see? 

If you are reading this from your neighborhood home, you might see children walking to school, neighbors walking dogs along the sidewalk, or cyclists commuting amidst cars. 

If you are reading this from your apartment, you might look out the window straight at other apartment windows, or see a park in the distance.  

If you are reading this from your office, perhaps you look onto a busy street with lots of traffic, stop lights, and road signs – that is, if you’re fortunate enough to have a desk by the window. 

If you’re reading this from a downtown cafe, you might watch as pedestrians run errands at shops and/or have meetings at tables around you.

Wherever you are, and as unromantic as this may seem, consider that your very surroundings are a result of city planning. It is this topic that leads me to ask this week’s question: 

What is form-based code? 

To start, let’s look at this 2-minute video illustrating its principles:

After watching this video, you can see how vital a role planning plays in the flow, form, and aesthetic of the places we inhabit. You can think of form-based code as creating a set of rules that guide new projects so that they match the character and nature of the places where they are being constructed. 

 

Form-Based Code, in its simplest terms, regulates the size of a building, where a structure sits on its lot, key features such as window and door placement, and the location of parking.

 

Currently, the city of Fargo land code regulates uses not form. By this I mean that we are not as concerned with the shape of the buildings, but more the zoned use. (i.e. single-family homes are separated from apartments, duplexes, and commercial properties, etc.) 

An easy way to visualize use versus form is to think about having a neighborhood coffee shop in a small repurposed home, rather than a new Starbucks in a freestanding building with drive-through. One might be welcomed to a neighborhood because it matches the surrounding character, while the other might seem out of place. See these images from the Form-Based Code Institute:

Conventional Zoning   Density use, FAR (floor area ratio), setbacks, parking requirements, maximum building heights specified

Conventional Zoning

Density use, FAR (floor area ratio), setbacks, parking requirements, maximum building heights specified

Zoning Design Guidelines   Conventional zoning requirements, plus frequency of openings and surface articulation specified

Zoning Design Guidelines

Conventional zoning requirements, plus frequency of openings and surface articulation specified

Form-Based Codes   Street and building types (or mix of types), build-to lines, number of floors, and percentage of built site frontage specified.

Form-Based Codes

Street and building types (or mix of types), build-to lines, number of floors, and percentage of built site frontage specified.

Some other words we can use when talking about form-based code might involve some of the following:

  • Neighborhood Design: intentionally building to the character, history, and needs of each individual neighborhood.
  • Placemaking: managing public spaces in a way that capitalizes on our community’s assets, all with the goal of making spaces that promote public health and well-being.  
  • Contextual Design: designing our city in a way that honors data and research gathered from those living in the places that will be immediately impacted by new plans.  

The reason why I think about these concepts at all is because of their profound relevance to the future of our city. Just look at how these issues are coming up in the news recently: 

  • The decision to allow the construction of Bison Village, an apartment complex expected to hold 400 units in the 32nd Avenue and University area, received a great deal of concern from neighbors in the area. (Read news WDAY news report on Bison Village, or the letter submitted to the Inforum by Susan Joelson on behalf of several North Fargo residents.)  
  • A proposed 42-unit apartment building near Oak Street and Sixth Avenue North is receiving overwhelming opposition from residents who are concerned that the influx of new residents will cause strain on their already limited parking. (Read Inforum’s report here.
  • A proposed 72-unit student apartment complex at 14th Street, just south of NDSU campus, has nearly 120 Roosevelt neighborhood residents concerned that the size of the building would detract from the very character that attracts families to live there. (Read Inforum’s full report here.)

We don’t have to look too closely to see a common thread throughout these articles – residents concerned about the future of their neighborhoods. However, what we do need to look more closely at is why they are frustrated. 

On the surface, it appears that the problems residents have with these projects are related to limited parking, undesired shifts in neighborhood demographic, and/or financial implications of new types of residences in already established areas. 

But these issues are only symptomatic of a greater lack of planning overall.

Ultimately, we can address citizens’ concerns, through collaborative planning and community conversations, by establishing form-based codes.

To me, form-based code is about having a contextual design book for any project that is happening in a neighborhood. With this, developers can survey potential projects with the intention in mind of designing to the character of each neighborhood. If the neighborhood’s character is defined, then everyone knows how to move forward together. 

Inevitably, Downtown will have a different form-based code than the Historic Hawthorne Neighborhood. Horace Mann and Roosevelt neighborhoods may have slightly different form-based codes depending on what contextual design research reveals. But now I’m getting ahead of myself because, unfortunately, contextual design books for various places throughout the City of Fargo don’t hold the authority that they need. 

But, we can change that. And how we create these new codes will directly affect the quality and relevancy of our final product, which are the very places we live, work, and play. 

I believe that establishing a form-based code should be a creative process engaged in by residents, city officials, and developers equally, and that this process could thrive through frequent dialogue and transparent communication. A few simple ideas to help this process might include: 

  • Hiring an additional city planner who is dedicated to serving Fargo’s neighborhoods
  • Creating a comprehensive design/operation plan for each neighborhood
  • Facilitating neighborhood association meetings

Once again, wherever you find yourself reading this now, take note of the environment around you. What do you see? Is it what you want to see? Would you like to have the power to change it? 

Together, we can. 

Joe 

PS: If you’re interested in this topic, and want to read more, I recommend these articles:

Interested in Chatting? Send me an email, give me a call, or schedule a time for coffee.