AARP Livability Fact Sheet Series

Form-Based Code

By using the physical form rather than the separation of uses as an organizing principle, form-based code offers a powerful alternative to conventional zoning

The use of zoning regulations began in the early 20th century in response to urban overcrowding and the intrusion of heavy industry into residential and retail areas.

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Communities chose to address the problem by separating incompatible uses and limiting residential density. That's why we now have commercial and office buildings in one part of town, houses in another, retail and restaurants in a specific area and a lot of high-speed (though often congested) vehicle roadways as the sole way for people to travel from one location to another.

Published by AARP Livable Communities and the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute as part of its Livability Fact Sheets series, “Form-Based Code” explains how communities nationwide can do a much better job of land use planning and local zoning.


Because traditional zoning rules often promote low-density development and limited “one-size-fits-all” housing choices, the policies encourage excessive land consumption and automobile dependency.

Such zoning can stand in the way of communities seeking to create vibrant, walkable neighborhoods that give residents the option of walking to a store, park or work. Some zoning ordinances can even interfere with a person working from home or operating a home-based business.

Unlike conventional zoning, form-based code offers the following benefits:

  • Instead of dictating or limiting activities, the code focuses on such elements as parking locations and limits, building frontages and entrances, window standards, streetscaping and building elevations.

  • With form-based code what matters are the relationships between buildings and the street, pedestrians and vehicles, public and private spaces and the size and types of roads and blocks.

  • Form-based code can be customized to fit a community’s vision, be it to preserve and enhance a neighborhood’s character, dramatically change and improve it or do a bit of both.

The fact sheet provides form-based code success stories from Redwood City, Calif., (which now has a downtown that's "more active than it has been in decades"), Cincinnati, Ohio, (where the entire city will be remapped using form-based code) and Nashville, Tenn., (where the taxable value in the districts using form-based code increased by 75 percent).


Because the fact sheets in the Livability series are only four pages each, the materials are quick and easy to read online or to download and print for sharing.

The "Form-Based Code" fact sheet can be used by policy makers, urban planners, transportation planners, land use officials, community leaders and citizen activists to educate themselves and others about how to smartly plan, build and update a community's map and zoning standards.

Fact sheet published Summer 2014
Summary by Melissa Stanton, AARP

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