I had the pleasure of attending a Form Based Code Workshop put on by Nathan Norris of Placemakers and sponsored by the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors. The presentation started at 6PM and went a full two hours, but it flew by. Mr. Norris had an informative and entertaining PowerPoint presentation and since there were only about 30 in attendance there was a good dialogue throughout and especially at the end.
I’m always looking for places to further my knowledge of cutting edge planning (pioneer planning), and I wasn’t disappointed. I am familiar with Form Based Codes and hope to work for a progressive government that has embraced the flexibility and control of their own destiny. Mr. Norris’ presentation gave me some more facts and real life examples to check out and familiarize myself with. Though the presentation was geared toward Mount Pleasant last night, Form Based Codes can be used anywhere. What amazed me the most is the current leader in the public sector for Form Based Code is Montgomery, Alabama. Nathan Norris, who hails from a town near Montgomery, explained that, “even a city that hasn’t done much planning for the past 40 years was able to implement Form Based Code and make it mandatory in their downtown in just a few years process.”
Form Based Code is based on the 10 Principals of Smart Growth:
- Create distinctive places
- Promote walkable design
- Block size is important (*Most important)
- There needs to be a variety of transportation choices
- Development needs to be directed to existing places
- An appropriate mix of uses should be encouraged
- A wide range of housing options and affordabilities
- Compact design
- Preservation of Nature
- Encourage community input and participation
The importance of place and placemaking is more evident now more than ever. The new knowledge economy is more mobile than ever, especially due to the internet and high speed travel. Place doesn’t matter when it comes to online collaboration, but it matters immensely when a company or firm is considering relocation. If a company that relies on the knowledge economy can be based anywhere why wouldn’t they want to be somewhere nice and beautiful, with a high quality of living? Cities need to concentrate on placemaking and giving the knowledge economy somewhere they want to be rather than have to be.
G.K. Chesterfield wrote, “Rome may be loved because it is great, but it is great because it was loved.” This emphasizes the need for cities and places to have TLC from their elected officials and community. Only when a place is loved first, shown some TLC, can a place begin to become great. This is the main reason many developments that do not take into account the city and community around them do not add to the place, because they do not love, or add to, the place.
A memorable quote from Norris was, “Avoid Ego-driven mega projects.” Many cities feel that if they could just get that convention center built, attract that lifestyle center, or build a new stadium, they will then be great. But, cities must remember there is no silver bullet in making a place great. Creating a place requires much more than a gimmick or being able to point at one thing. The best places in this country have multiple reasons they are great but at the same time you cannot pick one thing out that is the greatest. Norris also stated that it is time that cities stop saying “thou shall not” and start saying “thou shall”. I agree, there is no reason a city shouldn’t be able to ask developers for what the city wants rather than relying on the private sector to magically read the city decision makers’ minds. Now this isn’t to say that a city has the right to tell the developers what uses they want where, but instead what types of buildings and where those buildings should be, within stated limits.
This is where Form Based Code helps. Traditional zoning regulates Use, Density, and Parking. Form Based Codes take into account those three but also Design. Design is what really brings a city together and makes it memorable. Norris gave a good example of multi-family housing and design. Density can be done, and according to modern day codes this usually results in townhome communities or apartment complexes. And though they may be dressed up, rarely score high on Visual Preference Surveys (VPS), with a shout out to a former Rutgers professor of mine Tony Nellesen, who invented the original VPS. He stated, “Density without design is objectionable.” Density isn’t the objective, design is the objective. Multi-family units can be done right considering both density and design. It always comes back to what it will look like.
As Form Based Code through the use of the Smart Code and Urban Transect become utilized more throughout the country, more municipalities will be willing to explore it. Now that Smart Code is open source and modular, making it easier for cities to implement and personalize it, Form Base Code should become the type of planning for cities, nodes, and small area plans for the foreseeable future.