Form-Based Codes: A Paradigm Shift in Cincinnati Planning

This is the first in a series about Cincinnati’s Plan Build Live project.

Plan Build Live is a project of the Department of Planning and Buildings made possible by a $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Plan Build Live is the designed to bring citizens into the process of reviewing, reforming and streamlining the city’s building regulations and zoning codes to reflect and respect the unique built environments of Cincinnati’s neighborhood. Read the project overview here.  The first phase of Plan Build Live will culminate in a four day Citywide Form-Based Code Charrette April 28-May 2 where residents and professionals will work together to identify what the Form-Based Code should contain.

Form-Based Codes

A major component of the Plan Build Live project is the creation of Form-Based Codes (FBCs) for the city of Cincinnati. Read more about Form-Based Codes here. The Form-Based Codes Institute explains: “Form-based codes foster predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code…”

In the following video, Vice-Mayor Roxanne Qualls explains how Form-Based Codes work and why other American cities have found success with them:

On March 6, the City Planning and Buildings Department presented on form-based codes to the Livable Communities Committee at City Hall. Daniel Parolek, principal of Berkeley-based design firm Opticos, presented the different aspects of form-based codes to the committee:

If you’re interested in urban Cincinnati, you should watch the presentation to understand fully the paradigm shift that form-based codes mean to the future of the city. Additionally, the city could not have hired a better person than Dan Parolek to lead its adoption to form-based codes. Parolek is the author of the “definitive handbook on the subject” of FBCs, a member of the New Urban Guild (like friend of OTR Steve Mouzon – Mouzon’s photos of OTR are here), and a founder of the Form-Based Codes Institute.

The City Planning and Buildings Department did a nice job live-tweeting the event @CincyPlanning with the hashtag #planlivebuild.

One imporant feature of FBCs is removing and replacing unclear regulations. To illustrate this point, Parolek showed a multi-colored map of Over-the-Rhine that was highlighted by zoning type.

“If you try to regulate a place like Over-the-Rhine by use, you have 5 or 6 or 7 plus zones to try to regulate it because the uses are really complex. If you just step back and say “Let’s think about it in terms of the form.” The form in Over-the-Rhine, there’s really maybe one or two forms that happen in Over-the-Rhine. So you can think about simplifying those zones if you approach it by form and then make it much less complicated to regulate and even to navigate the code.”

Parolek later referenced Cincinnati’s potential in its vast assortment of urban housing types.

“In terms of the residential building types, Cincinnati has one of the most diverse pallettes of urban housing types of any community I’ve worked in in the country. This is a HUGE bonus. The important thing about this, this housing isn’t about competing with the suburbs directly but about providing a different, walkable, urban choice…You already have here what many other cities really want but don’t have which are walkable, urban neighborhoods – a framework of them already.”

Undoubtedly, this is one of the distinguishing aspects of Cincinnati’s character that many native Cincinnatians take for granted or cannot truly appreciate. Visitors and transplants to the city recognize this unique attribute and are usually shocked to discover it since the city has not heretofore made an attempt to be forthrightly urban in its approach. Fortunately, the city has been making great strides in recent years and the timing of its implementation of FBCs could not have come at a more propitious moment

The next post in this series will focus on ways you can participate in Plan Build Live, and I will share some of my ideas for the project.

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