Form-Based Codes

Issues Addressed:
Housing Costs Housing Options Infrastructure Redevelopment

What is it?

A “Form-Based Code” (FBC) is a set of land development regulations with a primary focus of achieving a specified urban form. It is an alternative to conventional zoning, and is more direct about the type of development it hopes to foster. In practice, FBCs either replace the base zoning for an area, or are incorporated into a zoning overlay district. FBCs are often used in downtown areas and village centers, but they can also regulate development in historic districts and small infill development in neighborhoods.

Conventional zoning works by specifying allowed uses, development densities, dimensions for the site and building, parking ratios, and other qualities of a site. It often relies on ratios or formulas to determine the exact regulations for a given site. Often one needs the help of a zoning lawyer and architect to decipher what is allowed and where. It is common for development approvals to be at the discretion of a public body like a Planning Board. The community can provide reactive input on development proposals, but they rely on individual property owners and their teams to interpret zoning into built form. Approval processes can be long and uncertain.

In contrast, FBCs specify what types of buildings can go where, and this can lead to more predictable proposals and results for municipalities. Standards for building form with graphical depictions are a hallmark of FBCs. Use tables are typically shorter than those found in zoning ordinances, with more general categories and the uses are linked to specific building types rather than a zoning designation or area. The scale (and sometimes architectural style) of a building is usually refined with more specific standards, along with its relationship to parking areas, the street, and other public spaces.

How can it help?

Form-Based Codes can…

  • Encourage construction of alternative housing types like duplexes and small multifamily buildings, which are often missing in smaller communities with little affordable housing.
  • Increase property owners’ certainty about what is allowed on their land, and, for developers, reduce design and permitting uncertainty—potentially lowering costs for homebuyers and renters.
  • Help regulate the infill, expansion, and redevelopment of downtowns and village areas.
  • Help to continue historic development patterns and reflect the character of an existing built environment.
  • Encourage mixed-use development and opportunities for small businesses.
  • Create more useful and enjoyable public spaces, especially streets.

Getting Started

  1. Recognize and promote an FBC’s impact on common master plan goals, such as increased housing options, economic development in downtowns and village centers, historic preservation, and more.
  2. If undertaking a master plan, include adoption of an FBC as a recommendation.
  3. Hold a public visioning process to determine where an FBC might be useful and the community’s long-term goals for that area, including specific design goals as well as broader goals that a FBC may be helpful in achieving.
  4. Inventory the existing built environment in your target FBC areas. Determine if any existing buildings in the area could serve as a model for the FBC’s standards. Catalog different built conditions to which the code should respond.
  5. Develop standards for buildings and public spaces for new development. Work with an architect to help define the parameters for these new standards.
  6. Draft legislation defining the area for the FBC, the standards new development must meet, and any processes related to development in the FBC area.  The form of this legislation will vary greatly depending on the needs and conditions of each community.


  • Since FBCs are still relatively new, some people may need extra education on what they can do. This is especially the case for planning and development professionals who are used to conventional zoning. People not familiar with conventional zoning may find form-based codes more intuitive. You may want to include a “How to use this code” accompanying document to clarify the process of reading it as zoning.
  • While most FBCs respond directly to the historic built environment, ensure the FBC is aligned with contemporary building practices and real estate economics. If these are ignored, the code may halt development altogether.
  • An FBC can take many forms, such as a special district, an overlay district, or even an alternative development incentive.
  • Additional specific standards, such as those for building architecture, landscaping, and signs, can be included in the code, if desired.
  • Graphics should clearly depict standards for buildings, streets, and the outdoor space that they create, and they should help the code to be understood by all. 
  • While FBCs are more specific than conventional zoning and the intent should be clear, incorporating flexibility is important, as site conditions can be diverse.
  • Developing an FBC can be a daunting task. Consider hiring a consultant or contact your regional planning commission.
  • If an FBC covers a larger area, they are typically divided into different districts (often called “transects” in FBCs), which deal with different existing conditions. Often a transect will define a community core with rings of decreasing density. 
  • Much like zoning, an FBC requires provisions for permitting and other administrative processes. An FBC also requires a map to show where the FBC applies and any transects within that area. 
  • FBCs are often hybrids with some typical FBC features and not others, in order to mesh with existing ordinances. FBCs are often confused with design guidelines, but they are regulatory rather than advisory.