How Form-Based Codes Foster Sustainable Design

Form-based codes are defined by the Form-Based Codes Institute as follows:
“A form-based code is a land development regulation that fosters predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. A form-based code is a regulation, not a mere guideline, adopted into city, town, or county law. A form-based code offers a powerful alternative to conventional zoning regulation.”

Elements of Form-Based Codes in Urban Design

Form-based codes emphasize the design and form of city structure, in order to help foster an increased interaction between citizens and the city. Form-based codes are made up of many facets including:
  • Regulating
  • Public standards
  • Building standards
  • Environmental resource
  • Architectural
  • Signage
  • Landscaping
There’s no doubt that form-based codes are a viable, accomplished, and innovative approach to zoning. As they gain recognition among urban planners, more cities are starting to see their incredible potential.

Green suburb. Image via

Form-Based Codes & Urban Sustainability

The Form-Based Codes Institute is a comprehensive resource for form-based codes. Aside from its relevance in other branches of planning, form-based codes can help foster sustainable living in the city. Form-based codes aim to create cities that are walkable, inviting, compact, and community driven. Cities that aim to meet these standards often create opportunities for increased sustainable quality. With the right planning and implementation, form-based codes and sustainability can coalesce into one.  As a result, using form-based codes will help foster aspects of sustainable cities, as well as benefit the environment in general.

Santa Anna Transit Zoning Code utilizes mixed use.  Image via

Benefits of Mixed-Use

Form-based codes utilize planning methods that aim to minimize urban sprawl.  Since minimizing urban sprawl can decreasethe need for vehicle use, the benefits to the environment could be plentiful. The harmful effects of vehicle emission are well known: Vehicle emission increases air pollution, which is harmful to the health of citizens and the environment. Vehicles also require natural resources to function, which means that increased vehicle-use can deplete finite natural resources. With mixed use being implemented into form-based codes, the environment can be impacted in a positive way.

Urban planners who utilize form-based codes can use mixed-use development in order to foster opportunities for sustainable transportation.


OU Trial House Green Roof. Image via

Benefits of Vegetation

The use of vegetation is a strong aspect of form-based codes, as it helps create a strong, positive sense of place and improve a city’s aesthetic value, leading to a better overall quality of life. More importantly, however, is the effect vegetation can have on the environment.  One of the hallmarks of sustainability is the use of vegetation to help combat environmental issues, such as pollution, energy conservation, and heat issues.  Urban planners who utilize form-based codes should be aware that innovative use of vegetation can be incorporated directly into a building’s form. This notion means that vegetation’s benefits can be utilized without taking up a substantial amount of land.

At its most basic level, vegetation (particularly green spaces) can offer numerous benefits to a person’s well-being, including one’s health, lower crime in areas, stronger communities, and overall better outlook on life.  What’s more is its positive effect on the environment. Urban vegetation has the potential to reduce air pollution, leading to a far less polluted city. The use of green roofs, a sustainable technique that is also supported by form-based codes, benefits a city by reducing the need for energy, and in turn helps conserve energy and resources.

Urban Heat Island Effect. Image via

Increased vegetation also has the ability to lower city temperatures, which can benefit desert cities and help cool their temperatures. However, water shortage is one potential negative about vegetation that may hinder the ample use of vegetation, particularly in desert cities. Increased vegetation may require more clean water, and desert cities such as Arizona are known for their water issues. The problem of water shortage may be only exacerbated by the use of trees, since it takes water to properly maintain them. As more trees are planted, it will take more water to support the ample amount of trees and vegetation.
However, this can lead to a positive result that arises from a negative cause. Despite the negative effects of this potential problem, sustainability can help negate the negative effects of increased water usage. Indeed, water shortages may be a problem for these cities, but this means that cities would be encouraged to implement sustainable techniques in order to use as little water as possible, for the maximum amount of benefit. Solutions may cause new problems, but those problems pose new challenges that also can be solved.
Feature Image: A hypothetical rendition of a city with Form-Based Codes implemented. Image via U.S. Green Building Council-South Carolina Chapter.

About The Author

Alex Ageno earned his degree in Urban Planning in 2013 from Arizona State University. Alex's interests in Urban Planning include Urban Design, Sustainability, Form Based Codes, Zoning, and Environmental Planning. He resides in Arizona.