Form Based Codes

Emergence of New urbanism and form-based codes

In the 1980s, new urbanists rebelled against hastily developed sub-urban housing in the United States, criticizing that they not only lacked architectural and artistic expression but also predominantly adhered to single-purpose zoning codes that prohibit the mixed-use residential construction common in urban areas. The sprawling nature of suburbia erodes pedestrian friendliness; thus, the automobile became “a prerequisite to social” and economic “viability” (Andres Duany, 2000). They offered Form-based codes as an alternative to the conventional zoning regulations (also known as Euclidean zoning) and also as a tool to implement New Urbanism principles.

In an interview, when Geoff Dyer, director of design and interim CEO at the City of Lafayette Downtown Development Authority, was asked where the idea of form-based codes originated from, he stated:

……When the New Urbanists arrived to create mixed-use places, the zoning regulations were working against them. Some people might say “Well, why don’t we just make a zoning category that is mixed-use?” But it’s internally contradictory to the fundamental basis of zoning regulations organized by land use. Form-based codes offer a different way to organize regulations to better achieve the desired outcome. Instead of organizing them by use, we create zones according to character and intensity.

Defining form-based codes

The Form-Based Code Institute defines Form-Based Codes (FBCs)as follows:

Form-based codes foster predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. These codes are adopted into city or county law as regulations, not mere guidelines. Form-based codes are an alternative to conventional zoning.

This definition differentiates FBCs from Euclidean zoning by replacing “use” the intended physical form or desired place as the organizing principle, or framework, for the overall code. Traditional tools were planned predominantly with the concept of form that follows function. Form-based codes reverses this concept to “function that follows form” (Singh, 2010).

Characteristics of form-based codes

  • Encourages a mix of land uses, often reducing the need to travel extensively as part of one’s daily routine.
  • Results from a public design process, which creates consensus and a clear vision for a community, to be implemented by the form-based code.
  • Provides information that is easier to use than conventional zoning codes because it is shorter, more concise, and emphasizes illustrations over text.

Components of form-based codes

The form-based Code: A guide for communities provides a list of components that have proven necessary to an effective FBC:

  • The transect
  • The Regulating Plan (which replaces the zoning map),
  • Building Form Standards,
  • Public Space Standards (which consist of Thoroughfare Standards and Civic Space Standards),
  • Frontage Type Standards,

The Transect

The Transect is an Organizing Principle often used in Form-Based Coding that focuses first on the intended character and type of place and second on the mix of uses within. This flips the framework used in conventional or Euclidean zoning, in which use is the primary focus and form comes second. Transect zones are used to reinforce existing or to create new walkable mixed-use urban environments.

“The rural-to-urban Transect is a means for considering and organizing the human habitat in a continuum of intensity that ranges from the most rural condition to the most urban. It provides a standardized method for differentiating between the intentions for urban form in various areas using gradual transitions rather than harsh distinctions. The zones are primarily classified by the physical intensity of the built form, the relationship between nature and the built environment, and the complexity of uses within the zone.”

~ Form-based Codes Institute

The Cincinnati Transect
The Cincinnati Transect (Source: City of Cincinnati Form-based codes, 2013)

The Regulation Plan

The Regulating Plan takes the place of the zoning map in Form-Based Codes. This map looks a lot like a zoning map at first glance, but upon further review it is clear that this map regulates with intended physical form and type of place as the organizing principle, which should be reinforced by form-based zone names that are not use based.

Regulating Plan
Regulating Plan (Source: The Hercules Bayfront FBC)

Building Form Standards

This is the component that most people visualize when they think about a Form-Based Code. This component has the primary role in defining and regulating the intended physical form. Typical elements within this component are building form, building placement, building height, general land use, parking location and requirements, encroachments, and allowed frontage types.

FBC3 1
Building form regulations (Source: Cincinnati FBC)


Process of formulation of form-based codes

There are three important steps in the process of creating a Form-Based Code:

  • Documentation
  • Visioning
  • Assembling

The two scales of Documentation are the macro-scale, which establishes a framework of existing neighborhoods, districts, and corridors, and the micro-scale, which documents blocks, lots, building placement, frontage types and other small-scale elements that add to the character and quality of the built environment. The Visioning phase engages the community and allows them to participate in the creation of a detailed design vision that the Form-Based Code will implement. The Assembling phase is the process of compiling the code content into a usable format and structure and plugging it into the existing zoning code if it is not going to completely replace it.

FBC4 1
FBC formulation process (Source: Form based code best practices report, Cincinnati, 2010)

Criticism of form-based codes

Persistent form-based code criticism arises on the grounds that the codes are architecturally restrictive constraining the creative process of architects, disregard community, create indistinguishable towns with a uniform aesthetic forcing cities to accept the transect as a universal city theme, are of little help in towns lacking character, delay the entitlement process with strict regulations and unreasonable variances, incorporate incomprehensible jargon, and promote density and population increases to the detriment of locals. Further, the increasing difficulty form-based codes face to address issues as the scale of Planning goes upto the city-level or regional level remains inherent (Perez, 2014) (Ranglawala, 2013) Critics also opine that a hybrid of form-based and conventional zoning may also be more successful (Bengford, 2010).



Protim Shankar talukdar
Member of NOSPlan
School of Planning And Architecture, Delhi



  • Andres Duany, J. S.-Z. (2000). Suburban Nation: the Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American dream. New York: North Point Press.
  • Bengford, B. (2010). A hybrid approach to form-based codes in the north-west. MSRC insight blog.
  • Evangelopoulos, E. a. (2016). Form-based codes: An overview of the literature. Focus: Vol. 13: Iss. 1, 76.
  • Perez, T. (2014). Misconceptions about form-based codes. Retrieved from the Form-Based Codes website: http://
  • Ranglawala, K. (2013). Assessing criticisms of form-based codes. Retrieved from the Better Cities website: http://bettercities. net/article/assessing-criticisms-form-based-codes-19967.
  • Singh, S. S. (2010). Form-Based Codes: An Alternative Method for Development regulation. Institute of Town Planners, India Journal 7 – 2, 27 – 33,, 27-28.

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