Form Based Coding (FBC), a land development regulation, is sweeping the country as city after city adopts the New Urbanism technique of controlling their built environment. FBCs have been adopted in 252 municipalities since 1981, with 82 percent of those within the last decade. Reasons vary from a desire to spur redevelopment to an attempt to reel it in. FBCs are a departure from traditional zoning laws that typically only regulate land use—like keeping schools physically away from factories—but say nothing as to how buildings should look. Zoning critics blame old Euclidian codes for promoting car-focused development and suburban sprawl in the U.S. FBC proponents, including some developers, often cite a desire for increases in neighborhood walkability and mixed-use properties, such as apartments above commercial space. Beginning in 2008, primarily to encourage redevelopment, Cincinnati began seriously considering switching to the new FBC system. The planning department sent a delegation to Nashville, Tennessee to study its relatively new codes. By 2013, the Cincinnati City Council had approved their own version of FBC as a voluntary option for interested neighborhoods. Four neighborhoods quickly made the switch. Proponents have built a convincing argument, but what is the actual impact on neighborhoods after adoption? Are they better off than before? Will Cincinnati be better off?
“Better off” is a difficult metric to quantify since it often involves human emotions like a sense of happiness and well-being. Cincinnati’s stated purpose sounds a lot like those of other cities: “to maximize compatibility between uses and the intended physical form of the zone.” Clear and quantitative measures are rarely given by cities when stating intent, so measuring effectiveness becomes onerous. A poignant criticism of FBCs is that they are nothing more than an institutionalized version of gentrification, where those in poverty are pushed to undesirable areas because they can no longer afford to live where they previously have; where the voiceless remain muted.
I decided to look at the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index for some actual data. The Index attempts to measure happiness in cities and then ranks them based on score. I wanted to see if cities with existing FBCs self-reported as being any happier than those with traditional zoning laws. By looking at the top five happiest cities and researching their municipal codes, I found mixed results. None of the top five happiest cities use self-described FBCs. However, two have zoning laws in place regulating physical form that function much like a FBC. Third-ranked Fort Collins, Colorado has in place what it simply calls a City Plan. Fort Collins describes its City Plan as “aligning with the principles of New Urbanism,” so the argument could be made that this counts as FBC. According to the study’s authors, many factors contribute to an individual’s happiness. Things like weather, level of education, and cost of living play important roles. Looking at one cause is useful but doesn’t tell the whole story.
Cincinnati Vice Mayor and practicing realtor, Roxanne Qualls, led the push for the city’s adoption of FBCs in 2013. In a video posted on the Form Based Codes Institute’s website, Qualls emphasizes the potential for a substantial increase in taxable property value if FBCs are adopted. She cites a case in Nashville, Tennessee where after adoption, the city saw a 75 percent increase in taxable value versus a 28 percent increase in a corresponding county that did not adopt FBCs. The video seems to appeal to city planners since most citizens wouldn’t be interested in an increase in tax revenue. Perhaps Qualls articulates a reason why cities across the country are switching to FBC: to drive up property values and taxes as a means to assuage the increasingly insolvent American municipality. This partially answers a question posed here: from the perspective of Nashville City Hall, they are better off.
Using the Nashville case to promote adoption in Cincinnati is concerning, however. A review of census data reveals a tale of two cities. From 2010 to 2013 Nashville continued its growth spurt with a 5.5 percent population jump, while over the same time period, Cincinnati’s population reversed a long trend of decline and grew by 0.19 percent. According to the 2008-2012 5-Year Estimates, Cincinnati’s median household income was $33,708 and 29.4 percent of the population were below the poverty line. Nashville’s median household income was $45,982 and 19 percent of its population were below the poverty line. These data show that Nashville is a wealthier and faster-growing city with both greater means and needs for strong control over redevelopment than Cincinnati. Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, but it is not necessarily the key to prosperity.
While not necessarily the key to prosperity, FBCs are certainly a projection of the prosperous industrialized city’s past. Emily Talen of Arizona State University says that recent FBCs emulate the inadvertent restrictions placed on urban form before the 20th century; limitations included transportation, technology and construction methods, military defense, and proximity to agriculture. Those unintended restrictions dictated the physical form of cities and are the reason old main streets look the way they do. This begs the question: has this movement risen out of a Norman Rockwell type of nostalgia for a history that may or may not have even existed in a given city? Talen further opines that FBCs serve to reverse population decentralization and separation efforts advocated for at the First National Planning Conference in 1909. In other words, FBCs work to concentrate populations into visually pleasing and comfortable areas that support a live-work-play model of development, where increased walkability means that an individual or family can commute between home, work, and leisure without a car.
FBCs have worked thus far in communities like Denver and Nashville. These cities lie in areas of the U.S. that are experiencing a large population growth as the young, affluent, and mobile seek out new opportunities (and warmer weather, as alluded to earlier). It is likely these areas would prosper with or without FBCs. But for more northern and eastern cities like Peoria, Illinois, which recently adopted FBCs in some areas, and Cincinnati, Ohio, their long-term ability to improve neighborhoods is a lingering question.