Using “form-based” zoning to improve walkability, livability

The city council of Mesa, Arizona, has adopted an innovative zoning strategy aimed at transforming its downtown into a more walkable neighborhood. Extensive details on its “form-based code,” including examples, research, and the actual zoning code, are inside.


What Happened?

The city council of Mesa, Arizona, has adopted an innovative zoning strategy aimed at transforming its downtown into a more walkable neighborhood.

The Strategy

Mesa is employing a strategy called a “form-based zoning code,” which uses physical form as an organizing principle. In other words, the relationships between the physical elements—the building facades, the styles of the streets, the scale of the blocks, and the public realm—become drivers for the plan.

This is different from a conventional zoning strategy, which is often premised on distinctions in land-use types, or abstract parameters such as parking ratios, setbacks, or traffic levels of service.

According to Mesa council member Dave Richins, a form-based code takes a more holistic approach to a neighborhood, and will allow developers to provide a wider variety of structures in downtown Mesa. The idea for using a form-based code derived from the Mesa Gateway Strategic Plan, created back in 2008.

The Details

According to the Form-Based Codes Institute, form-based codes emphasize building type, dimensions, facade features, and more. They stress the appearance of the street over long lists of use types. Among the characteristics of form-based codes:

  • Zoning Districts: Form-based codes are defined around neighborhoods where conventional codes may bear no relationship to the larger area
  • Regulatory Focus: Form-based codes de-emphasize density and use regulation, in favor of rules for building form; building use may change over time, but the structure will endure
  • Uses: Form-based codes emphasize mixed usage, bringing destinations closer to housing, and providing housing choices to meet the community's needs
  • Design: Greater attention is given to streetscape and the design of the "public realm"; form-based codes recognize the criticality of public spaces
  • Public Participation: A design-focused public participation process is employed to reduce conflict and misunderstanding

The goal, according to the Mesa plan, is a more livable community “with a greater sense of place for visitors and residents.”

A Broader Strategy

As Gov1 has covered recently, citizens are clamoring for more walkable cities, which not only benefit residents, but have broad economic impact on surrounding areas. Form-based codes can facilitate this. Duncanville, Texas, for example, near Dallas, saw retail rents climb—from $6 per square foot to $16—once a form-based code was used to redevelop an older commercial area.

Additional Research

Mesa’s form-based zoning code is available for download, as is a presentation that explains the plan and key concepts visually. A very cool photo transformation view is also available. The town’s related Web site has extensive details. SmartGrowthAmerica also has a nice overview of the Mesa initiative.

For more general information on form-based coding, review the Web site of the Form-Based Codes Institute, which has extensive resources, sample codes, and more. The nonprofit Center for Applied Transect Studies has an alternative “SmartCode” approach

For other community approaches, see Michigan’s form-based approach, or projects in South Carolina and Dallas.

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