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Zoning Codes 101: Form-Based Codes


Walkable neighborhoods with diverse uses like this one in Newport, Rhode Island are impossible to cultivate under typical zoning codes; form-based codes and the Existing Building Code help to combat sprawl by preserving historic nodes and removing suburban development limitations like parking requirements (image credit: Center for Applied Transect Studies)

This is a continuation of a previous post on the Transect which you may find helpful to read before this one.

Use-Based v. Form-Based Codes

Let’s consider typical zoning systems. Most municipalities employ use-based zoning codes that regulate where commercial, residential, industrial, and other functions can be located. These provide the useful service of preventing skyscrapers from blocking out sunlight that otherwise might reach your front lawn, or preventing a power utility from building a garbage incinerator next to your daughter’s preschool. Despite these benefits, use-based codes fall short in several ways. By not allowing residential and commercial uses to co-mingle, these codes inherently promote sprawl and make feasible and enjoyable pedestrianism impossible. And in the wrong hands, zoning regulations can become tools for the exclusion of certain racial and socio-economic demographics.

Form-based codes, on the other hand, use the Transect concept to guide the development of a town or city. Within each Transect zone, form-based codes control not what land uses are acceptable, but what building types are acceptable, and other details like where parking spaces are located and how large blocks are. This makes walkable and bikeable urbanism possible by allowing residential and commercial properties within the same area and also ensures that buildings, streets, and public spaces are designed to create pleasurable pedestrian experiences.

If you’ve ever lived somewhere like San Francisco, New York, or Charleston, then you know how easy it can be to live, work, and socialize without ever needing a car – because land uses are mixed, and transportation by foot, bicycle, or public transit is possible – and probably easier – than getting around in a car.

The Congress for New Urbanism, under the leadership of the design and planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, released the first form-based (transect-based) code – the SmartCode – in 2003. Available for free, the SmartCode has been adopted by numerous municipalities across the US, most notably by Miami, San Antonio, Flagstaff, and El Paso, and even several abroad.

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A page from the SmartCode, a form-based code developed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (image: Center for Applied Transect Studies)

So why are we at KWA talking about the Transect and form-based codes? You may know that on July 1 of last year Tim Keane began as Atlanta’s new planning commissioner. Keane’s last employer was the City of Charleston, which means he is no stranger to the work of DPZ and form-based codes. Under his leadership Atlanta has already begun the long process of comprehensive zoning rewrite – so this is the critical time for us to be discussing zoning issues in Atlanta.

How Zoning Codes Affect You

You already know how zoning codes affect the experience of living in a city – you just might not know it yet. If you’ve followed our blog, then you know our stance on parking requirements: they drive development in Atlanta – and when we say drive, we really mean cripple. Atlanta has actually added several form-based-ish zoning districts into our use-based code – the Live Work (LW) District, Mixed Residential Commercial (MRC) District, and the Multi-family Residential (MR) District, and in 2007 we added the Beltline Overlay District. These additions certainly have helped improve the street-level experience in these areas, but they lack the teeth needed to make real progress. The new districts come with no parking reductions or exemptions, meaning that the same standards applied to suburban areas are also applied to intown neighborhoods like Cabbagetown, which to us makes no sense whatsoever. And we’re not only talking about new development – we frequently work on older existing buildings whose renovation could help spark a walkable future for surrounding neighborhoods.

For that reason, we strongly believe that existing buildings – especially those near MARTA or the Beltline – should qualify for reduced or exempted parking requirements in order to make these projects easier to fund and execute and more enjoyable to use. By adopting the Existing Building code, the City of Atlanta would enable a more diverse pool of developers to affect the built future of our city. The EBC contains critical code reductions and exemptions that make adaptive reuse projects financially possible for local developers who lack the deep pockets of large development groups, giving Atlantans the power to affect their own future.

What transect-based codes offer is the opportunity to tailor regulations and requirements to specific urban zones – so that what is required of suburban areas does not end up restricting development in intown areas, as is currently the case. Atlanta’s form-based additions of the past decade are a step in the right direction, but in our opinion any code that still carries substantial parking requirements is next to useless. It seems that Tim Keane has the city on the right path, but it will take continued discussions like this to build the tool set we need to make real progress in Atlanta.


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