Zoning Out: Why Cities are Rewriting their Codes to Transform their Look


Zoning is the DNA of a community: it controls how you live, shop, and work.  After nearly a century of many cities separating those uses, now, they’re going back to the future: trying to recreate an old way of life. Streetsboro, Ohio is one such place. Drive down its main commercial district and it has nearly every chain store you can imagine: A Walmart and a Target, a Lowes and a Home Depot.


Streetsboro's big box stores are set way back from the street. The city wants to change that with new zoning. (Photo: Dan Bobkoff)

Some call it sprawl. Streetsboro calls it economic development. This six-lane strip of big box shopping centers has served this city well since its explosive growth started in the 1960s. It just doesn’t look like a traditional town.

The town center is an intersection with a grassy knoll on one side. But Jeff Pritchard is in charge of planning there now and he’s aiming for a future Streetsboro that would look very different. These big box stores could eventually be replaced by attractive housing and shops. The way towns and cities used to be.

“A place where they can walk to a corner store, maybe live above a store, says Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “And, those kinds of things, that’s illegal in America today in so many of our communities. “

Illegal because of zoning.  In many cities and towns, zoning codes don’t allow living and working in the same place. And, when zoning spread across the country in the 1920s and 30s, that was considered a good thing.

“ You didn’t want to have a slaughter house next to a residential apartment,” Flint says.

But those issues aren’t as big a deal anymore. As the Great Lakes region reinvents itself, there’s a growing feeling among planners and thinkers that much of the public wants to spend less time in their cars. They point to rising gas prices, and think fewer people will want the single family home separated from everything else in their lives. So, cities as diverse as Peoria with its historic downtown, and Pontiac, Michigan, with its post-industrial woes are joining Streetsboro in rethinking their zoning.

Jeff Pritchard (Photo: Dan Bobkoff)

The change could be dramatic: something called form-based code. In his Streetboro planning office, Pritchard shows the city’s current colorful zoning map: purple for industry, yellow for homes, pink for those big box stores.

Streetsboro's Current Zoning Map

But there’s no overlap, no mingling of uses. Form-based code is the opposite. It encourages mixing. The city controls how a building looks and operates: say, three stories high, up against the curb, parking in the back. But it doesn’t dictate the use. So, it could be housing and shops in the same building.

How does this work in the real world? A decade ago, Miami, Florida had a mess of buildings, but some streets had few shops at street level. So, city planner Ana Gelabert-Sanchez pushed for parts of the city to try form-based code.  She says the zoning now allows for the kinds of streets more residents want to live and walk on.

“Younger people started moving into downtown because they wanted to live close by,” she says. “They wanted to work close by. So, it’s happening. And, what I think is great is that it’s happening at every age.”

But is this a life everyone wants? Critics say this is government dictating how people should live and that there isn’t enough evidence that a broad swath of the population really yearns to return to dense, urban areas.

“I sort of chuckle at those sorts of arguments,” says Lolita Buckner Inniss of the Cleveland Marshall College of Law. She says form-based code, and the larger so-called New Urbanist movement, is based on a nostalgic notion of cities. For many people, they had no choice but to live in a dense neighborhood.


“That wasn’t necessarily something that they sough or that was beneficial,” Inniss says.  “That was how they lived. Many of those people, when they got the opportunity, looked for less density, more fresh air.”

That’s not stopping Streetsboro officials from trying to turn a part of this exurb into more of a traditional town. It will likely take years or decades before the changes are noticeable. Standing in front of Walmart, Sean Smetak and Becky Slattery had a hard time imagining this strip having sidewalks and people walking.

“No, no, it’s too busy, definitely too busy,” they said.

But, they have no love for the way it looks now.




3 Replies to “Zoning Out: Why Cities are Rewriting their Codes to Transform their Look”

  1. Great article. But I wouldn’t want people to be confused about form based codes. You can do mixed use planning, zoning, and development in your community without form based codes. A form based code is great for a fixed area, such as a historic district, a downtown, a town center, etc., or where you have a definite idea on how you want a certain area to develop or re-develop. But form based codes don’t work well as a zoning district with city-wide application. One of the reasons is that the form based development standards are determined beforehand and can be so specific that there is little room for flexibility. Once the design criteria is codified you are locked in and have to amend the zoning ordinance when a better design idea comes along.

    Many cities are using hybrid zones to create pockets of mixed use development in an effort to change the face of their communties. A hybrid zone gives you the best of both worlds: new urbanist development concepts with the flexibility to match the good design ‘moving target.’ There are some planning consultants steeped in form based codes who would have you believe that they are the only ones who can implement mixed use development. Look around—there are a lot of good mixed use ordinances out there that are more practical than purist form based codes—and they cost a lot less for you to modify and implement in matching the values of your your unique community. That being said, I whole heartedly endorse communities re-thinking their zoning ordinances and encouraging mixed use development.

  2. Miami now has a citywide FBC, as does Denver. The planners there like form-based codes a lot. Ask them why…

  3. Dan, I enjoyed your article and am glad to hear this discussion about form-based codes (FBCs) happening across the country. Even the City of Cincinnati is at the beginning of a process to apply FBCs.

    There is a best practice standard for FBCs (see http://www.formbasedcodes.org, or “Form-Based Codes” published by Wiley) that has proven to be effective time after time (I often say like a proven recipe). If you choose to do a hybrid code, that effectiveness is likely going to be compromised. In our experience, developers and communities both like the predictability you get with an FBC.

    In response to Ms. Buckner Inniss, New Urbanism and Form-Based Coding is about providing choice, responding to the growing demand for walkable urban living, and removing barriers in zoning to enable urban places to revitalize and be built from scratch. According to Chris Leinberger of the Brookings Institute, 30-40% of buyers want to live in walkable urban places and only 5-10% is being provided in any given market. See the latest issue of Metropolis for an article on New Urbanism that gives an extensive list of accomplishments by New Urbanists over the last 30 years.

    One last point, FBCs were initially used for project-specific areas, but have proven to be effective in city-wide applications (Grass Valley, CA, Livermore, CA and Flagstaff, AZ, Cincinnati, Ohio and Denver and Miami that Alan mentioned), county wide (Beaufort County, SC now in progress), and even to implement regional plans. Peorria, Illinois won a Driehaus Form-Based Code Award last year for integrating an FBC into their city-wide code.

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