Form-based Zoning: An Alternative that Promotes Great Placemaking



The Drawbacks of Conventional Zoning
The conventional method of zoning in Ontario and indeed throughout North America has, for almost a century, been standard “Euclidian” zoning, where uses that are considered to be “incompatible” are separated from each other through the establishment of zones, forming part of a by-law adopted by the local government.  Uses are assigned to these zones, and zone maps are then produced and adopted along with regulating text, with the endgame being creation of a series of homogenous districts throughout the planning area.

Generally, little attention is given in zoning by-laws to the physical form of the built environment, either on private property or within the public realm.  Attention is directed to regulating the location and density of uses and structures, rather than the quality of the resulting built form and environs.

Conventional zoning has, over decades of use, tended to isolate low density residential areas from all other types of development. This often makes it difficult, if not impossible, to walk from home to purchase even a quart of milk. Public transportation has become increasingly less efficient in these areas, and travel by personal automobile, by default, then tends to make more sense. As a result, automobile traffic flow becomes a top priority for street design, to the detriment of other users such as pedestrians and cyclists.

All of the above was quite acceptable in an auto-centric society, however about 30 years ago the realization that this was not a sustainable practice began to set in, spurred on by rising oil prices, deteriorating public spaces, and a new generation increasingly dissatisfied with living conditions in “cookie-cutter” low density developments, where there was little or no opportunity for work or recreation close-by.

In Comes Form-based Zoning
In the 1980s, a group of planners and architects sought to create an alternative to conventional zoning, focused less on use and more on scale, intensity of development, the shape of public spaces, and the interrelationships between buildings. Leading the way in this endeavour was the design firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, which drafted what was to become the first modern form-based zoning by-law (referred to as “code” in the USA) to guide the development of a new community based on the principles of traditional neighbourhood design, Seaside, Florida.

Founding of the Congress for New Urbanism followed shortly thereafter, in order to promote this fresh new approach to placemaking. Nearly 25 years later, CNU has become a major voice in the international conversation surrounding the promotion of sustainable, integrated, aesthetic communities.

Form-based zoning is a method of development regulation that emphasizes the physical character (the form) of development, and deemphasizes the regulation of land uses, the main focus of conventional zoning.  Although land uses remain regulated, they are typically regulated more broadly, with land use “categories” in lieu of long lists of specific permitted uses.

What Form-based Zoning Can Accomplish
Form-based zoning focuses on how development relates to the context of the surrounding community, especially the relationships between buildings and the street, pedestrians and vehicles, and public and private spaces. It addresses these concerns by regulating site design, circulation, and overall building form.

Due to this emphasis on design, form-based zoning usually provides greater predictability about the visual aspects of development, including how well it fits in with the existing context of the community. It offers a community the means to create the physical development it wants, and provides developers with a clearer understanding of what the community seeks. Over time, these benefits can foster greater community acceptance of new development.

Form-based zoning can be customized to the vision of any community, including preserving and enhancing the existing character of one neighbourhood or dramatically changing and improving the character of another. Typically, it does both.

The regulations and standards in form-based codes are presented in both words and clearly drawn diagrams and other visuals. This approach contrasts with conventional zoning’s focus on the micromanagement and segregation of land uses, to the neglect of an integrated built form. Not to be confused with design guidelines or general statements of policy as found in an Official Plan, form-based zoning is regulatory, not advisory. It is drafted to implement an Official Plan and/or Secondary, Precinct and Block Plans.  It attempts to achieve a community vision based on time-tested forms of urbanism. Ultimately, a form-based zoning by-law is a tool; the quality of development outcomes depends on the quality and objectives of the Official Plan that the by-law implements.

Form-based Zoning Charrette at the OPPI Conference
The “Getting to Form Based Zoning” Charrette
Jointly developed by the OPPI Community Design Working Group and CNU Ontario, October 08, 2015, 10:00am-5:15pm

Many municipalities in Ontario have recently completed new official plans and will be developing new comprehensive zoning by-laws. They will have the opportunity to introduce form-based zoning as a mechanism to advance community building from a site-specific scale to an area-wide or community-wide scale.  Held at the OPPI Conference last October, this charrette focused on developing a made-in-Ontario approach to form-based zoning and included an analysis of conventional zoning vs. form-based zoning (presentation available at Participants were guided through an interactive exercise where groups were challenged to take an example built-form typology, and develop a form-based provision that permitted that form.  Speakers included:

Form-based Zoning Toolkit being Developed
With the Charrette now completed, feedback from participants is being used to develop a “how to” toolkit on form-based zoning which will be made available by CNU Ontario to Ontario municipalities interested in exploring this zoning option.  Stay tuned to our website for information on this initiative. (

Form Based Codes Institute (
Ontario Professional Planners Institute (
City of Markham
Town of Richmond Hill