Advantages of form-based zoning account for its growing popularity

Form-based zoning is starting to catch on with local governments in Michigan. There is a long list of advantages of form-based zoning.

More and more discussion is taking place about “form-based zoning” in Michigan. It is a philosophically different approach to preparing a zoning ordinance and has a number of advantages over the conventional or common type of zoning seen throughout most of Michigan. See “Form-based zoning becoming popular for its difference from conventional zoning” for a comparison of Form-Based Zoning and conventional zoning.

First, form-based zoning (FBZ) is different from conventional zoning because its emphasis is on the form of the built environment and not as much emphasis on what goes on inside the built environment. Conventional zoning’s largest emphasis is on the types of land uses allowed in a zoning district, segregating different land uses to different zoning districts.

FBZ is particularly attractive and successful in an urban setting – cities, villages and those parts of townships/counties that are urban in character. FBZ accommodates a number of issues which are particularly attractive for built-up areas, but FBZ also has advantages for all areas. Some of the advantages are:

  • FBZ is a prescriptive, not proscriptive, regulation focusing more on what is wanted, rather than trying to prohibit what is not wanted (and the problem of trying to pre-identify everything that might not be wanted).
  • It is very good at shaping a high quality public realm (parks, streets, public spaces), that goes a long way toward placemaking
  • Encourages public participation by allowing citizens to “see” what will happen – higher comfort level, and fewer “not in my backyard” reactions from the public.
  • Allows enough flexibility that it encourages independent development by property owners – entrepreneurial friendly.
  • Focus is on form, not architecture, so it provides for diversity of architecture, materials, uses and ownership.
  • FBZ is easier to understand and apply, and thus better for use by nonprofessionals (e.g., lay-people and permit applicants).
  • The focus on form eliminates what may be long complex design guidelines in conventional zoning ordinances.
  • FBZ avoids development regulation problems often inherent in urbanized areas. For example, it allows morphing of land uses, while form of buildings remains the same. In this way adoptive reuse of existing buildings can take place with much less effort. This also leads to creativity of uses.
  • It is no longer critical to try to anticipate “yet-to-be-thought-of” land uses, as is the case with conventional zoning. In 1970, one would never have anticipated and listed “coffee shop” or “personal computer repair” in a zoning district.
  • FBZ provides a very good system for creating a vital downtown and builds upon the positive qualities already there. The same is true for reinforcing “real” neighborhoods which are identifiable and walkable. These aspects of FBZ lead to a stronger ability for zoning to reinforce and keep a unique community character.
  • Very good system for preserving natural features and cultural heritage.
  • Faster review times under FBZ, because the process itself is quicker, and there is less need for detailed reviews such as special use permits and planned unit developments.

Because of these advantages and many others not mentioned here, zoning ordinances are being updated to include FBZ districts or re-written, as FBZ. There are now about two dozen local governments in Michigan which have adopted FBZ.

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