Back to the Future: Is Form-Based Code an Efficacious Tool for Shaping Modern Civic Life?
11 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Change 75 (2007)
30 Pages Posted: 9 Feb 2007 Last revised: 13 Jun 2019
Date Written: February 9, 2007
This Essay serves as a critique of the New Urbanism in general and of form-based code in particular as a tool of the New Urbanism. It may be true that form-based code offers more flexibility than traditional zoning schemes and thus may offer some respite from acknowledged ills such as social and racial divisions created by exclusionary zoning and other tools, and from the relative inutility of single or limited use districts. However, I will argue that these benefits are eclipsed by some of the problems of form-based code. Form-based code is frequently hailed as a back to the future approach to both urban and suburban living which will cure numerous ills such as the physical decay, racial segregation, and economic downturns that are endemic to many United States cities and towns, but it may not be an effective means of addressing the decline of civic life. This is first because form-based code, in advocating for norms to re-create the city of the past, seeks to implement by design what was essentially a spontaneous and self-generated form of social organization driven largely by economic concerns rather than social or political concerns. Next, Urbanism, which is purportedly at the heart of New Urbanist planning schemes such as form-based code, is itself a contested notion, subject to many alternate visions of the city of the past. As a result, the implementation of form-based code premised on New Urbanism may lead to an ersatz Urbanism. Finally, and perhaps most salient among the critiques I present, form-based code's reliance upon the community to formulate design standards through the charrette process has the potential to further isolate those who are already disadvantaged.
Keywords: Community governance, form based code, land use, New Urbanism, planning, urban planning, Urbanism, racial segregation
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