Form over Use: Form-Based Codes and the Challenge of Existing Development

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

My grandmother spent most of her adult life in Brownsburg, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis. When she first moved there in the 1950s, it was a traditional American small town. There was one stoplight at the corner of Main and Green Streets, with a two-block downtown area featuring a bank, a mom and pop drug store with a soda fountain, a movie theater, a restaurant, a bar, and a cafe. Just a few minutes' walk down the sidewalk was the public library. The owners of these downtown businesses lived above their stores in apartments. My grandparents' first house was on O'Dell Street, a residential, tree-lined street within walking distance of the downtown area. Everyone knew everyone, and my mother complained that she couldn't go to the drug store without her parents hearing about it from nosy neighbors.

Over the years, however, more and more cars began crowding the narrow streets, and a one-stoplight town became two, then four. My grandparents moved to a house a mile outside of town, surrounded by cornfields, to get away from the traffic and noise. Eventually, the buildings at Main and Green were razed to make room for expanding streets, and the library was moved to the far end of town. In their place, large shopping centers with huge parking lots were built. No one walked on the sidewalks anymore because everyone needed a car to get where they wanted to be in a practical amount of time. The town began to sprawl out in cookie cutter subdivisions, office parks, and strip malls. For most of my childhood, my grandmother complained about all the "new folks in their ugly houses" and the "endless construction" in town, but was mostly immune to these changes in her little house amidst the cornfields. Then, a farmer nearby sold his lot to a developer who would build another subdivision, and another farmer across the street sold his lot to a church. Sprawl had finally come to her backyard.

Today, on the corner of Main and Green Streets, there is a CVS on one side with a large, and usually empty, parking lot, and a bank on the other with an equally large, empty parking lot. In fact, in Brownsburg's new proposed zoning ordinance, over eleven pages are dedicated to parking standards and requirements alone. (1) The town is dominated by big box retail stores, fast food restaurant chains, and large thoroughfares allowing residents to travel in their cars from home, to work, to school, and to shop. In fact, they cannot get to any of these locations without traveling in their car.

The reason Brownsburg has transformed from the cohesive, community-oriented small town it used to be to the sprawling, commercial, unremarkable place it is now is conventional, or Euclidean, zoning ordinances. By mandating single-use zones, such as residential, commercial, and office, and creating stringent setback, parking, and low-density requirements, conventional zoning incentivizes towns to spread indefinitely, often without a comprehensive plan in mind. (2) This spread then requires amply wide roads to accommodate the amount of resulting traffic, which is unsafe for pedestrians-and daily needs are usually so far away that they are not walkable at any rate--thus, a car-centric, rather than pedestrian-centric, culture results. (3)

If my grandmother were around to see Brownsburg today, she would probably say she liked it better the way it was in the 1950s. And the New Urbanists, proponents of the new zoning alternative called form-based codes, would agree with her. The New Urbanism movement grew "out of widespread dissatisfaction with suburban sprawl," and advocates high density, mixed-use development in place of conventional zoning's low density, single-use pattern. (4) The choice, as New Urbanists see it, is between "either a society of homogenous pieces, isolated from one another in often fortified enclaves, or a society of diverse and memorable neighborhoods, organized into mutually supportive towns, cities, and regions. …