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Form-Based Codes

Best Practice Category:

Compact Design Complete Neighborhoods Street and Network Connectivity Site Layout, Parking Layout, and Building Design


A form-based code is a land development regulation that replaces traditional zoning codes. Using physical form rather than separation of uses as the organizing principle for the code, they aim to produce predictable built results and a high-quality public realm. 1 A form-based code is a binding regulation, not a mere guideline. Form-based codes can be adopted into law as part of a Specific Plan process, a General Plan update, or as a focused addition to a comprehensive zoning code update.

Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan credit: Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan

Form-based codes (FBCs) focus less on the type of activity taking place inside a building (i.e. the use) and more on the overall form and character of a neighborhood. While use is still regulated, more emphasis is placed on the placement and form of buildings, the character of the street frontage, and the relationship between buildings and public spaces. By regulating the design of new development, form-based codes address the size and mass of buildings in relation to one another. Form-Based Codes are presented through graphics, charts and minimal text, with a focus on readability and a succinct presentation style.

There are several benefits of FBCs for transit-supportive places:

  • They usually lead to a more predictable built environment, and they allow mixed-use walkable projects to be built by right (whereas this must be explicitly allowed in conventional zoning, it is inherently permitted in form-based codes).
  • FBCs promote compatible infill, allowing more opportunity for individual land owners to develop property, resulting in more diversity in architecture and style.
  • The public process to develop the code is often more understandable for the public, since the discussion revolves around what a development should look like, rather than abstract concepts such as FAR or use tables. This encourages greater public participation.
  • There is heightened emphasis on the design character of building facades and ground floors is critical for transit districts due to the high level of pedestrian activity.

Although they may include the same categories of elements as Design Guidelines, Form-Based Codes are regulatory, rather than elective.  Form-Based Codes typically replace existing conventional zoning codes for a particular area. Form-Based Codes can apply to a particular zone, a collection of zones, or apply city- or town-wide.  A Form-Based Code may be adopted for a “Transit Village,” an area of ¼ or ½ mile around a transit stop or transit corridor, or several station areas or corridors combined together; or more broadly for a whole city or town.


  • Walkable, bikeable, and pleasant urban character
  • Establishment, reinforcement, and/or preservation of the particular aesthetic and spatial character of a district
  • Buildings and entries that are oriented to the street to activate the public realm
  • Sustainable design and growth


East Los Angeles Third Street Form-Based Code.

Metro Gold Line; GTD Aquitaine

To handle the expected changes around the Gold Line stations of Indiana, Maravilla, Civic Center, and Atlantic, located in the unincorporated community of East Los Angeles, a Specific Plan and form-based code were created.

The Plan establishes development standards to encourage transit-friendliness through the following eight Transect Zones:

  • 3rd Street (TOD)
  • Cesar E. Chavez Avenue (CC)
  • 1st Street (FS)
  • Atlantic Boulevard (AB)
  • Neighborhood Center (NC)
  • Low-Medium Density Residential (LMD)
  • Civic (CV)
  • Open Space (OS)

Every transect zone has a set of accompanying form-based regulations and guidelines. These standards are calibrated individually to each zone’s existing context and desired evolution. They describe the allowed building types (which include House, Duplex/Triplex, Rowhouse, Court, Hybrid Court, Lined Block, or Flex Block), required frontage types (Front Yard/Porch, Terrace, Stoop, Forecourt, Shop Front, Gallery, Arcade), building form, building placement, parking, and civic space. Furthermore, each building type has specific requirements for pedestrian access, vehicle access and parking, open space and landscaping, and building massing. Similarly, frontage types are illustrated with dimensioned drawings and diagrams that detail the size and width of ground floor elements and architectural features.

The Third Street station areas will be encouraged to transform into “transit centers” with vibrant mixed-use buildings containing retail shops, restaurants, or offices that support both the community and will serve as a destination for visitors and commuters. A variety of housing types will be promoted near stations to accommodate residents of different ages, incomes, and household sizes. Each station area has a vision (“important gateway,” “strong visual identity and functional cohesion,” “comfortable, vibrant places,” etc), and a strategy (“accommodates urban, mixed-use building types,” “massing and scale of buildings that face Alma Avenue will be residential in character, while the portion facing the station will be more commercial in character,” etc). Examples of helpful transit-friendly standards in the plan include:

  • No minimum parking requirements for properties with non-residential uses, which are located within 500 feet from any Metro rail station.
  • To improve the appearance of the urban realm, building sides and backs that are visible from the street must have the same level of architectural care and finish as the front.
  • Blank walls without windows or doors are only allowed on internal-block side-property line walls.
  • Landscape screening is required for parking areas with living plant material, of at least 30 inches in height at the time of installation.
  • 15 foot maximum height for outdoor light fixtures to encourage a human-scaled urban environment.
  • Material and surface requirements to enhance the ground floor aesthetic, such as the use of only smooth stucco, limitations on the use of decorative concrete, the requirement for the use of graffiti-resistant coating for any blank exterior wall, and the prohibition of reflective glazing on windows.

See more Pages 27 to 65.

Lancaster TOD Zone

The City of Lancaster created specific zoning around its Metrolink station in order to promote new, mixed-use development. The zoning implements the community’s vision and expand the ongoing revitalization by providing unique and focused development standards that enable and promote high quality, walkable, mixed-use and transit oriented neighborhoods. The new zones are:

  • Station Area (SA). Buildings are up to 5-stories tall and are located at or near the sidewalk to generate an active and pedestrian-oriented public realm.
  • Corridor Commercial (CC). Consists of single-use or mixed-use buildings up to three stories tall that accommodate office and retail uses on ground floors and residential or office uses on upper floors.
  • Employment Commercial (EC). Office and retail uses in buildings up to 3 stories in height, residential uses are prohibited.
  • Workshop District (WD). Accommodates various light industrial and warehousing uses.
  • Neighborhood Medium (NM). Moderate density housing and in a wide array of building types
  • Neighborhood Low (NL). One- and two-story single family houses, duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes set back from the street.

Form-Based Codes

The zoning code is “vision-based” and describes community expectations for the urban character and form of these neighborhoods. These place-specific zones encompass the subjects of land use and development intensity, but also include significant amounts of information about the design of the neighborhood streetscapes, the scale and form of new buildings, and the intended physical character of each area. The Plan contains a menu of allowed building types and frontage types by zone, creating a clear physical expectation for new development.

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Los Angeles Cornfields Arroyo Seco Plan

The Cornfields Arroyo Seco Plan (CASP) area is in the communities of Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park and Chinatown. The Plan area includes two Gold Line Stations and is adjacent to a third. Having languished as an underused, underdeveloped district for decades, the Plan strives to transform roughly 660 acres of mostly industrial and vacant uses to a more residential area mixed with light industrial areas designed to attract green and environmentally clean businesses. A form-based tool was used to implement the community vision, and to provide flexibility and certainty for both developers and neighbors. Certainty for neighbors, who have discussed and generally approved the types of allowed projects – how dense, how high. Certainty for developers, as the Plan provides very precise guidance on intensity, building form and design, and street frontage character. Very little in the code is discretionary or subject to review – rather, mathematical formulas dictate the amount of floor area available in different zones and with the application of various bonuses. Affordable housing and community benefits are rewarded; for example, applicants may add 3 square feet of floor area for each square foot of public open space, and 6 square feet of floor area for each square foot of Community Facility space.

The plan contains four new form-based zones:

  • Urban Center: a denser zone close to rail, meant for job-creating uses but with residential space.
  • Urban Village: a mixed-use ‘village’ zone, focused on housing, with some ground-floor retail.
  • Urban Innovation: employment-focused zone with flexible space geared toward anything from artists' studios to light manufacturing.
  • Greenway: oriented toward enhancing the river as the neighborhood's frontyard.

Form-Based Codes

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Santa Ana Renaissance Transit Zoning Code.

This zoning code is a Hybrid Code that regulates form as well as land use. As with many Form-Based Codes, this Transit Zoning Code uses a Regulating Plan that divides the plan area into zones based on a transect of intensity from most urban to least urban:
  • Transit Village (TV)
  • Government Center (GC)
  • Downtown (DT)
  • Urban Center (UC)
  • Corridor (CDR)
  • Urban Neighborhood 2 (UN-2)
  • Urban Neighborhood 1 (UN-1)
  • Industrial Overlay (I-OZ)
  • Open Space (O)

The Transit Village, which is the densest urban zone, has a 25 story height max for a Tower-on-Podium building type and allows 7 out of 12 building possible types, whereas the least dense zone, UN-1, has a 2 story height max and permits only 4 out of 12 possible building types. In other words, the densest and more urban zones permit bigger buildings with more varied types.  Parking requirements are reduced slightly as the zones intensify and parking in-lieu fees are only available in the denser zones. Other key aspects of the code are:

  • Corridor Zoning. The Code’s Corridor Zone is an interesting aspect of the plan, wherein properties fronting existing commercial corridors are given their own zone so that certain selected corridors are transit-supportive and pleasant to walk, bicycle, and drive along. In these areas, parking is accommodated on-street or screened in surface lots away from streets and toward the rear of lots.
  • Architectural Style.  This Code includes six architectural styles that all future development is recommended to follow, such as Main Street Commercial, Art Deco, Craftsman, and Mission Revival. They are presented as guidelines rather than standards. The guidelines explain what elements of a building should be present to qualify for each style, relating to building facades, walls, materials, roof-wall connections, windows, massing, and landscape.
  • Block Sizes. For subdivisions, block length must be between 150-400 feet, a good rule of thumb for walkable transit-friendly urban condition.

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Azusa Development Code

As part of a comprehensive zoning update, the City of Azusa elected to move forward with a form-dependent regulatory geography. The form-based code is mandatory and separates the City into 17 planning areas of distinct character. Within these planning areas, there are three types of regulatory areas that correspond to distinctive local conditions: Neighborhoods, Districts and Corridors. Neighborhoods have a mixed-use center unless in proximity to another mixed-use focal point. There is a city-wide regulating plan but each neighborhood follows a separate regulating plan divided into four neighborhood zones with both guidelines and standards. Districts and Corridors have their own regulating plans and sub-areas as well. The code is highly illustrated and envisions a town of distinct and compact neighborhoods surrounding a vibrant downtown. Extensive fieldwork, public participation and input from City staff established the boundaries, existing and desired character, and physical conditions of the City and, in addition, helped to envision the future of each of Azusa’s existing places.

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Additional Examples

Petaluma SMART Code: SMART Rail Station Areas.

Master planning for the SMART train station areas in downtown Petaluma generated a form-based code. Examples of helpful transit-friendly standards in the plan include:
  • From 60% maximum (General Urban Zone) to unlimited lot coverage (Urban Center and Urban Core Zones).  This allows a denser urban condition where a building may cover more of the lot.
  • Minimums of 50% (General Urban Zone), 75% (Urban Center Zone) and 95% (Urban Core Zone) for principal building frontage required to be at the front lot line or setback.  This establishes a tight street condition, where buildings are closer to the street and thus more engaging to passerbys and less “suburban” in character.
  • 30ft minimum ground floor space depth for the principal frontage of a building. This standard prevents non-inhabitable, vacant, and non-activated street edges.
  • 50ft maximum distance between entries for ground floor uses (Urban Center and Urban Core Zones) to avoid blank walls along the sidewalk.
  • Parking is disallowed within the 1st and 2nd layers of a lot; surface parking is allowed only toward the rear of a lot.
  • Transit-supportive parking requirements
  • 50ft minimum and 80ft maximum distances from the right-of-way where the transition between two adjacent zones can occur.

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Palo Alto Pedestrian and Transit Oriented Development District Context-Based Design Criteria

The PTOD allows higher density residential dwellings on commercial, industrial and multi-family parcels within a walkable distance of the Caltrain station, while protecting low density residential parcels and parcels with historical resources. Found in Section 18.24.050 of the Zoning Code .

Other tools, toolkits, resources, or manuals that influence or relate to this tool

Library of Codes (Form-Based Codes Institute)

Form-Based Codes: A Step-by-Step Guide for Communities

1 Form-Based Codes Institute. (2015). “Form-Based Codes Defined.” Retrieved from