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Smart Growth / Smart Energy Toolkit Modules - Form-Based Codes (FBCs)

Learn about the Smart Growth/Smart Energy Form-Based Codes (FBCs) module.


Form-Based Codes (FBCs) can either replace or supplement standard text-based zoning, subdivision and other local regulations and are a method of regulating development to achieve a specific urban form. A widely known version (and implementation model) is the "SmartCode". These codes are regulatory documents that prescribe a fundamentally different vision of how development should occur. Focused more on the form of development rather than the use, FBCs use a larger neighborhood perspective to determine the mass of buildings, their design elements, connection between sites, and their relationship to the public realm.

The Problem

Zoning has a history of changing over time with little regard to building compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood. Moreover, most zoning codes focus on numbers and ratios rather than on physical form and can't discern between a multi-story apartment building and a block of row houses, as they may be statistically identical. Due to the risks and uncertainty inherent with permitting under conventional zoning codes, investors may also be risk-adverse to making investments within urban neighborhoods. Without predictability there can be no investment security. FBCs are quickly becoming increasingly popular in communities seeking practical ways to grow smarter and provide certainty in an ever more complex permitting process.

FBCs offer an opportunity to recodify a city or town's zoning and subdivision rules and regulations in order to promote streetscapes that activate the public realm through careful analysis and planning.

Introduction to Form-Based Codes

This trend toward suburban sprawl has encouraged practitioners to reexamine how our land use patterns and site design practices impact our long-term viability, property values, natural resources and quality of life. Practitioners across the country have pointed out that older cities, towns, villages, and hamlets serve as great models for land use planning and the three-dimensional form and human scale of these older communities has become the basis for new traditional neighborhood land use regulations, hence the term, Form-Based Codes.

FBCs address community concerns and desires related to the built environment. The form established in the codes provides the opportunity to achieve specific community goals. The FBCs are initially drafted after an extensive inventory of existing physical attributes, and finalized after many public charrettes, workshops and hearings. The FBCs translate the specific goals and policies of the Master Plan into prescriptive evaluation standards and guidelines. This ensures that new development exhibits the highest standards of design, architecture and landscaping while reinforcing the community's authentic and rich heritage at the scale of the neighborhood, block, lot and building.

FBCs create a predictable public realm by controlling physical form primarily through local land use regulations including zoning, subdivision and other regulations such as wetlands, drainage and shade trees, and historic preservation. FBCs also impact local plans for public improvements usually listed in the community capital improvement plan. They address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks. Thus, the regulations in FBCs, presented in both diagrams and text, are keyed to a regulating plan that designates the appropriate form, scale and overall character of development rather than only distinctions in land-use types. This approach is in direct contrast to conventional zoning's focus on the segregation of land use types, permissible property uses, and the control of development intensity through simple numerical parameters such as setbacks, floor area ratios, height limits, and parking ratios. FBCs specify what type of development a community desires versus conventional zoning which often results in development a community does not want.

Not to be confused with design guidelines or general statements of policy, FBCs are regulatory, not advisory. FBCs are not design guidelines, which generally are limited to the "look" of buildings. While design guidelines may require in depth reviews by public agencies thereby eliminating the predictability that is the hallmark of a good regulation, well-written FBCs are more objective in terms of architectural style and are easier to implement.

Key Elements

FBCs commonly include the following elements:

Regulating Plan: A Regulating Plan (RP) or map of the designated planning area shows the locations where different building form standards apply, based on clear community intentions regarding the physical character of the area being coded. The RP provides the coding key for the building envelope standards and specific information on the character of each building site. The "Urban Transect" is an excellent tool many communities use in generating a RP. The transect serves as a visual guide for planners to place general density and form guidelines appropriately within larger districts. Using the Transect as a guide therefore promotes a community's coherence with respect to density and massing across the continuum of land use zones. The Transect requires certain building forms in certain environments.

The RP also shows the relationship between the site and public spaces and to the surrounding neighborhood. Similar to a zoning map, the RP goes one step further by focusing on the detail of all proposed streets and the blocks they define. Additional detail elements beyond a traditional zoning map typically include property lines, a required building line, a street tree alignment line, the location of public places (such as parks and squares), as well as predicted footprints of planned public buildings.

Regulating Plan, Downtown Ventura, CA
Regulating Plan, Downtown Ventura, CA

Building Form Standards: Building Form Standards (BFS) control the configuration, features and functions (such as height, massing, setback, parking and use) of buildings that define and shape the public realm. At the broadest scale, building form or urban standards pertain to the scale of neighborhoods organized by the Transect. These standards apply to all transect zones and affect development form and intensity. The standards require buildings to define the street and they often prohibit surface parking areas from disrupting frontages. These standards are organized by position on the Transect rather than land use or building type.

The BFS depart from the conventional zoning "one-size-fits-all" approach by setting building types (usually from 10-15 types) apart for specific use according to location within the Transect and lot width. Each building type is principally defined by performance measures relating to pedestrian access and open space arrangement. For example, in most FBCs there may be several building types for residential land uses such as frontyard house, sideyard house, carriage house and villa. Similarly, many building forms or types also represent multifamily or commercial land uses; each with their own lot width and standards for access, parking, open space, landscaping, and building size and massing. Some FBCs also include "Frontage Type" performance measures which combine with the building type measures to establish a building's relationship to the street. This blends building scale and façade treatment to best accommodate the pedestrian.

Front yard setbacks and massing
Front yard setbacks and massing

Public Space Standards: Usually taken from a Regulating Plan, these standards set specifications for the elements within the public realm such as sidewalks, travel lanes, street trees, street furniture, bikelanes and utilities. They can be adopted in the form of performance standards under the Zoning Bylaw (i.e. Site Plan Review) and/or as design standards under the Subdivision Rules and Regulations. The purpose of the Public Space / Streetscape Standards is to ensure coherent streets and to assist builders and owners with understanding the relationship between public space and their own building. These standards set the parameters for the placement of street-trees and other amenities or appurtenances (e.g., benches, signs, street lights, etc.) on or near each building site. These standards often include innovate techniques for mandating environmentally sensitive LID techniques for stormwater management on individual lots or for the roadway design. Provisions can also be added to promote energy efficient building designs such as Energy Star programs or LEED certification.

Streetscape Standards: The primary purpose of streetscape standards are to enhance the public realm through physical improvements and provide clear standards for urban infill development via the FBC. Streetscape Standards are generally viewed as a subset of the broader Public Space Standards described above. Communities are responsible for most improvements to the public realm that foster a climate conducive to private investment. Often included in the site plan review or local subdivision regulations, streetscape standards provide specification for improvements to the public realm.

The public realm includes streets, alleyways, sidewalks, lighting, landscaping and street furniture such as benches, bike racks, news racks and fountains, as well as squares, plazas, parks, public art, open space areas and pedestrian corridors. Streetscape standards help to assess existing conditions, regulate improvements and transportation, and develop detailed streetscape plans.

Streetlight Standards, Ventura, CA
Streetlight Standards, Ventura, CA

In conjunction with streetscape standards, other regulating plans can be developed for elements such as drainage, utilities or landscaping. A great return on investment comes from continuing to improve streets, parks, alleys and landscaping at a standard that people can take pride in.

Administration: In order to be effective, FBCs require a clearly defined application and project review process. The FBCs apply to all land uses, subdivisions, and development within the community or a targeted overlay district. After initial interpretation from a Zoning Codes Administrator (typically the Building Commissioner in MA) FBCs are typically administered by a designated permit granting authority identified in the Table of Uses and include advisory recommendations from several boards or commissions such as Historic or Design Review Committees.

Definitions/Annotated Glossary: FBCs use text and illustrations to ensure the precise use of technical terms.

Architectural Design Standards: These regulations control external architectural materials and quality. Importantly, they do not usually dictate architectural style, but rather address design on a number of broader levels to establish a matrix of standards and guidelines that will allow projects to develop over time in a consistent scale and character. In this manner, new buildings and renovation projects will support the community's historic development pattern and existing mix of architectural styles. Architectural Design Guidelines often contain mandatory and discretionary standards that relate to, but are distinctly different from, Urban Standards and Building Type measures. Within the guidelines, many building design issues such as massing, proportion, orientation or fenestration can be addressed. This occurs only after basic urban design objectives such as building placement (i.e. Building Form Standards/ Urban Standards), dwelling access, and open space arrangement (i.e. Building Type performance measures) are defined.

Facade & Frontyard Setback Definitions
Facade & Frontyard Setback Definitions

Architectural Design Standards and Guidelines intend to ensure that new development establishes a level of architectural quality responsive to its context. Development is encouraged to fit within and contribute to the established or planned architectural character of the community. This is done without prescribing architectural style. A list of design and architectural resources are usually included for reference. The standards usually include the following categories as follows:

  • Context and Architectural Character
  • Building Massing and Articulation
  • Building Walls
  • Wall Openings
  • Roofs
  • Miscellaneous Building Elements
  • Site Improvements

Sign Standards: As with all well-crafted FBCs, the purpose of sign standards is not uniformity, but elimination of those elements that result in a cluttered and unattractive physical environment. The standards provide basic parameters for creative signs that may be as varied and different as the businesses they represent. The standards determine the allowable type, size, location, material, design and maintenance requirements for signage on commercial and residential developments.

Example Sign Standards
Example Sign Standards

Options for Implementation

Municipalities have at least three options to incorporate FBCs into their regulatory framework:

  1. Communities may modify existing regulatory codes to include criteria for building forms. This approach may prove time consuming and cumbersome given that most regulations provide for the segregating of use, limited densities, and the accommodation of traffic and parking.
  2. Communities might opt to replace existing zoning regulations with FBCs. This solution might be best for communities with a strong history of adherence to "smart growth" initiatives. However, at the same time, eliminating the entire existing regulatory framework could be quite controversial and difficult to pass at Town Meeting.
  3. Communities may adopt new FBCs expressly for special districts or "overlays" planned for urban expansion or revitalization. With this approach the existing framework remains and FBCs simply augment the underlying code.

Characteristics to Consider in Adopting Form-Based Codes

FBCs represent an opportunity in Massachusetts to use an innovative zoning approach that can re-invigorate historic town centers while retaining the character of older buildings and street alignments. Five main components are necessary for adoption of successful FBCs:

  1. Regulatory consistency: In order to be successful it is imperative for a local community to calibrate their FBCs not only to their physical elements but also with the state zoning act (MGL 40A). After bringing the FBC into a consistent and enforceable relationship with the state law it is also important to ensure that all other local land use regulations are consistent with the FBCs and that approval under the FBC will preempt additional review from other overlapping jurisdictions.
  2. Local capacity: It is important to assess the community's administrative capacity and its internal capabilities and resources needed to administer detailed applications under FBCs. While FBCs remove vague regulations (planning occurs upfront instead of when an application is received) and are prescriptive rather than proscriptive, plan submittals under FBCs are generally much more sophisticated than standard zoning applications and will include a wide array of design and architectural considerations. Communities may wish to adopt provisions that allow them to hire outside professionals to conduct peer reviews at the expense of an applicant for these applications or appoint a Design Review Committee comprised of local professionals willing to donate their time.
  3. Respecting the unique characteristics of neighborhoods: FBCs can be adopted under a variety of scenarios including changing or replacing the existing zoning, creating a special district, or as an optional overlay district. Although FBCs can be applied community-wide, this may not be appropriate unless a community is prepared to address multiple transect zones. Different areas of a community may have distinctly different quality and character and play different roles or functions. Since FBCs are crafted to result in the careful development of a physical place, it is necessary to have a clear vision of that desired place to produce the code for each specific area.
  4. A well-crafted bylaw/ordinance: The most important implementation consideration of the FBCs approach is the content of the code itself. Communities should seriously consider their capacity and expertise before attempting to write FBCs into their existing zoning. The success of these codes depends entirely on developing a clear and concise vision for the applicant through the use of written standards and illustrations. Importantly, prior to pursuing FBCs, communities should realize that developing this clear public vision may require considerable time and funding.
  5. Public outreach: FBCs require extensive training for everyone in the community - elected and appointed officials, planners, engineers, developers and residents. This begins with a broad public participation effort as the code is developed that continues after the code is adopted. FBCs represent a fundamentally different approach to zoning than what most communities are used to, so local practitioners should anticipate a lengthy educational and outreach campaign before adoption.


  • Well-crafted FBCs are one of the most effective means of regulating development to create pedestrian-scaled, mixed use, and active urban environments.
  • Since they are prescriptive rather and proscriptive, FBCs can achieve more predictable physical results.
  • Non-professionals find FBCs easier to use than conventional zoning documents because they are more concise and organized for visual access and readability.
  • The use of FBCs saves money for both developers and municipalities by streamlining the permitting process. 
  • They protect neighborhood property values and offer a unique opportunity for municipalities to obtain the significant financial benefits of high-quality, higher-density developments. Increased property value is the direct result of enhanced site amenities including uniform and consistent design standards, site layout, views, and preservation of existing cultural and historic resources.


Weaknesses related to FBCs include:

  • the lack of standardization (out of the necessity to accommodate the individual character of communities.)
  • relative newness of the tool
  • the perceived support of an "urban" agenda
  • possible gentrification (due to the success of establishing vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods).

A lack of standardization, particularly relating to building type classifications, hinders the transferability of FBCs. Further, because of the relative newness and unconventionality associated with FBCs, developers, local government leaders, lending institutions and homeowners could prove resistant to such a dramatic change.

Using Form-Based Codes in Massachusetts

Massachusetts cities and towns have been slow to adopt FBCs, largely because of adherence to standard practice and state law (M.G.L. Chapter 40A), which focus local zoning bylaws and ordinances much more on land use rather than land form. Though FBCs are not prevalent in Massachusetts municipalities, some cities and towns are using FBCs to regulate the way development looks and affects the streetscape. Massachusetts communities that have adopted FBCs to regulate development include the City of Lowell and "Southfield" (the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station region) managed by the South Shore Tri-Town Development Corporation. This corporation has cross-jurisdiction with portions of the Towns of Abington, Weymouth, and Rockland.

  • Lowell: Primarily established to deal with the challenges of regulating infill development, the City of Lowell's zoning districts were redefined with the creation of a transect-based zoning ordinance in 2004. In developing the zoning map, the city took into consideration the design, feel and form of each of its many distinct neighborhoods rather than simply land use. Importantly, FBCs in Lowell are based on a neighborhood-level of analysis.

    Southfield: Adopted in 2006, the FBC for Southfield expresses the goals, objectives and strategies of the Town's Regulating Plan(s). The plan includes provisions for road and street networks, utilities, landscaping and public amenities.

The adoption of parallel codes for a specific district serves as a good strategy to approach FBCs without sacrificing the historical and familiar foundation for land use regulation. Increasingly, many communities are integrating FBCs into their zoning and land use regulations under Chapter 40R Smart Growth Overlay Districts. The 43D Expedited Permitting program also offers opportunity to implement this approach. For example, the Town of Amesbury included a series of building form standards and streetscape improvement cross-sections within their new 40R District. Effectively, these form districts become new types of zones that function alongside current zones like "residential" or "commercial".

FBCs are particularly well-suited to New England communities for maintaining and building upon the character of villages, downtowns and town centers.