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Form Based Codes - Reform or Legislated Mediocrity? 





Form Based Codes encompass both the best and worst aspects of New Urbanism.

 -by Lynn Becker










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The City of Evanston's Plan Commission is sponsoring a talk tonight, Tuesday, August 8th, by Paul Crawford, chairman of the Form Based Codes Institute, with the title Form Based Codes: An Alternative Approach to Regulating and Shaping Development.

To quote from the commission's description, "Often associated with Smart Growth and the rise of “New Urbanist” planning concepts, form-based codes place primary emphasis upon the physical form of development, including building height, bulk, façade treatments, the relationship of the buildings to the street and to one another and the location of parking."For information: you can email Tracy Norfleet, General Planner, or Susan Guderley, Neighborhood Planner, but since the seminar is tonight I'd recommend calling 847/866-2928.

The concept bears the fingerprints of New Urbanists like the ubiquitous Andres Duany.It's been been making inroads in such diverse locations as Ketchum, Idaho, College Park City, Maryland, and Arlington, Virginia. Some of its features - like establishing standard building heights - are already part of traditional codes like the one recently rewritten in Chicago. Others - like mandating that parking be placed behind, rather than hogging, street frontages, and unsegregating zoning to encourage mixed-used development, are right on the money. The call for broader public participation is also a positive. Other aspects, however, seem an invitation to communal stupidity.

California's Local Government Commission website snears at the legacy of Louis Sullivan's "form follows function." "Form-based codes," states the website, "turn that relationship on its head. Since the primary basis for regulation is the buildings, not the uses, 'function follows form.' These codes concentrate first on the visual aspect of development: building height and bulk, façade treatments, the location of parking, and the relationship of the buildings to the street and to one another. Simply put, form-based codes emphasize the appearance and qualities of the public realm, the places created by buildings."

You can look at this as the final triumph of Mies van der Rohe's concept of "universal space", but it's really more like a cross between Disneyland and a Potemkin Village. First you decide what you want a building to look like, and afterward you figure out how to shoehorn in the functionally it was constructed to provide. This is like deciding what you want your chest to to look like afterwards as the starting point for open heart surgery.

From what I can see online, the Form Based Codes people are also very big on focus groups, which tend to be death to innovation. If focus groups decided what went up over the railroad tracks next to Chicago's Michigan Avenue, what would have been their most likely choice - the bold visions that form the city's triumphant new Millennium Park, or the safe, sedate - and a tad stillborn - neoclassical promenade originally envisioned by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill?


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© Copyright 2006 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.