Form Based Codes and Zoning Ordinances

The physical form of our towns and cities affects the quality of our lives and form-based codes have been created to help improve and protect this quality. Whereas traditional zoning ordinances typically emphasize land use regulation, the separation of land uses, and controlling development intensity through parameters such as dwellings per acre, building setbacks, parking minimums, and floor area ratios, form based codes primarily stress physical form and urban design. This approach to regulation recognizes the intrinsic relationship between public areas such as streets and sidewalks with the private realm of homes and buildings.

By recognizing the relationship between public and private space, form based codes address the interaction, form and mass of buildings with each other, as well as the scale and types of streets and blocks. Because form based codes are designed to convey three-dimensional design concepts, the Code's regulations and standards are illustrated and presented in diagrams, cross sections, and in other visual depictions, as well as expressed in text. To ensure that an overall coherent design is achieved, these codes are linked to a community plan and vision.

Form based codes often reflect and complement the traditional design fabric of a neighborhood or surrounding area, and also encourage a less automobile-dependent development pattern. Design flexibility is also encouraged because these codes promote a range of desired development formats and types within overall design parameters, they can encourage more design flexibility. Form-based codes may also result in developments that reflect a particular aesthetic character.


Form Based Codes offers the following benefits:


The following limitations may be associated with form based codes:

How To Use This Tool

Form-based codes can be incorporated into municipal zoning ordinances. While traditional zoning regulations stress the separation of land uses and the establishment of rigid development densities, form based codes reverse this perspective. Because the primary basis of this type of regulation is the establishment of desired building types, these codes initially concentrate on the visual aspects of development: building height and bulk, façade treatments, parking locations, building massing, and the relationship of the buildings to the street and to one another. Form based codes therefore emphasize the appearance and qualities of the public realm and the community-oriented places created by buildings.

Form based codes typically express their design parameters through the use of a "transect", which represents cross-sections of different parts of a municipality; the transect shows areas ranging from areas with low levels of development or natural areas, transitioning to areas with more development. The rural-urban transitional zones describe the physical form and character of a place.

View the City of Bradenton's (Florida) "Transect Zone Descriptions" from its form-based code. View the entire form-based code.

Form-based codes should include the following elements:

Legal Basis

The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code, Act 247, Section 619, enables municipalities to establish land use policies through the comprehensive plan and land use controls such zoning and subdivision and land development, which can accommodate Transit Oriented Developments.


There are no examples of form-based codes that have been adopted in Chester County yet, although the Borough of Phoenixville has been considering such a code.


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