HIP Tool: Form-Based Zoning

In contrast to zoning which separates and regulates land uses, form-based zoning systems focus on the character of the built environment’s building size, design, street/block scale, streetscape and open space standards, as well as cohesion with surrounding development. This allows a variety of uses to co-locate within a zone. The codes are not merely advisory; they mandate development regulations (e.g., setbacks, building height and bulk, parking requirements) and are supplemented by design guidelines to shape how the district should look, feel and be experienced.


Form-based codes seek to codify and regulate the forms of development in a neighborhood or zone, rather than the uses. Form-based codes de-emphasize development regulation detail, adding development flexibility and making the code more easily understood. Generalized form prescriptions make the code easier to enforce as well, often by relying on simple visual cues. Density is often specified in terms of floor area ratio (FAR) and building height maximum/minimums instead of units per acre or minimum lot sizes.

The Form-Based Codes Institute outlines several common form-based code elements, including planning documents, public space and building form standards, as well as definitions and program administration.

The emphasis on character and style of development and the codification of architectural standards (e.g., opacity, rooflines, façades, signage) allows communities to fold design guidelines into their code. Form-based codes are intended to be complete packages for land use regulation, incorporating street and other public utility, parking, open space, and design regulations in one document.

With an increased emphasis on urban form and architectural standards, some builders may worry about increased development costs. Proponents of form-based codes counter this claim by noting how intricately the review process and standards are woven into the code. Administrative clarity and certainty, and a willingness to work with developers can relieve anxieties about discretionary review. Coordinating a community outreach strategy to educate developers and property-owners about the code and ensuring that permitting and building officials are well-trained and up-to-date can ease a transition to a form-based code.

Tool Profile

Focus Areas

  • Urban Centers
  • Transit-Oriented Development
  • Expensive Housing Markets

Project Types

  • Single family
  • Multifamily
  • Ownership
  • Rental
  • Market Rate

Affordability Level

  • 80 to 120% AMI
  • Less than 80% AMI

Housing Goal

  • Diversity