How to Get By-Right Zoning Right

By-Right Zoning seen as a critical strategy to help solve the affordable housing crisis, offering a streamlined approval process for developers. However, By-Right Zoning also acts as a better way to regulate walkable neighborhoods in the face of critically flawed conventional zoning policies.

The Win-Win of Form-Based Codes and a By-Right Process

Fortunately, we have a proven solution: Form-Based Codes (FBCs). FBCs regulate the form of the buildings in a prescriptive manner and at a sufficient level of detail so that the outcome is predictable. This renders the design review process unnecessary, enabling by-right review. FBCs work like this:

1. Create a Detailed Community Vision

First, the community comes together to create a physical vision for their places, including important details about how the buildings must be built to contribute to the public spaces that are our streets and plazas. The community can dial up or down the level of detail they include based on what they want to allow or require in their neighborhoods.

Importantly, the visioning should also include a community discussion and decision-making about how much and what type of housing is needed and where to put it, preventing later project-level battles. This is the best time and place for communities to show leadership in advocating for all constituents’ right to decent, affordable, walkable housing options, and for neighbors to consider their desires for their own neighborhoods within the context of how many families are homeless or paying too much of their income for housing and transportation.

Importantly, the Form-Based Coding process also ensures that the discussion about where and what type of housing to allow happens at a community level, rather than on a project-by-project basis.

2. Write Prescriptive Regulations

Once these decisions are made, the FBC is written to prescribe what can be built, mostly by focusing on the form of the buildings as they shape the public space, although also including simplified use regulations. Examples include regulating front build-to lines—rather than setback lines—and maximum footprints to prevent buildings that are too large for the neighborhood character. All of these regulations are carefully written to reflect the context—the regulations for a downtown main street will be different than for a streetcar suburb or for a large city center. They are also written to regulate only what is truly necessary, removing unnecessary or obsolete standards.

Because of the prescriptive and simplified nature of FBCs, the community can more easily understand what the code is allowing and can work with city staff to vet the code to ensure the prescribed outcome is appropriate for the neighborhood. In other words, everyone can actually understand the code and its intention, so everyone can help make sure it’s right.

In 2016, Chattanooga adopted a form-based code making it possible for most development proposals to be approved “by right” by staff at the planning desk. Development can avoid a protracted review process. Proposals that significantly deviate from the code are reviewed by a nine-person Form-Based Code Committee.

3. Enable a By-Right Approval Process

Once the desired outcome is prescribed appropriately in the FBC, the code can then include a by-right review process. A discretionary process is no longer necessary because the community can be confident that what will be built will be appropriate.

The by-right review process then enables developers to know all of the requirements before they start the design process, so they can create a more accurate pro forma to determine whether the project will be viable. They will also only have to design the building once, saving the cost of multiple redesigns. The lower cost and lower risk of development under a by-right process will contribute to making projects more viable, leading to more housing being built, and to lowering the cost of that housing. In addition, this lower risk on all of their projects within FBC areas can enable developers to lower their profit margin thresholds, since their profit margin will not need to cover the cost of projects that did not survive a risky discretionary review process.

By-Right Zoning may have Jane Jacobs rolling in her grave.

By-Right Zoning is Needed, So Let’s Get It Right

By-Right Zoning is critically important to increase housing affordability at all levels of the housing spectrum. To get it right, conventional zoning codes need to be updated to FBCs to effectively prescribe the outcome desired by the community, enabling communities to confidently let go of discretionary review. FBCs with By-Right Zoning contribute to housing affordability, ensure that development meets the community’s vision, and help to provide housing options for everyone who wants to live in a walkable neighborhood.

This article was written by Karen Parolek, originally published at on Optico Design’s website

Karen Parolek helped launch the field of information architecture and she applies her expertise in communication, usability, and information advocacy to her work at Opticos Design, Inc- an architect and urban planning firm in Berkeley, CA . Well-recognized for her work, she has spearheaded cutting-edge initiatives to create smarter and more sustainable corporations, spoken at national conferences, and consulted with international organizations. Her unique mix of skills in graphic design, information design, and architecture—combined with her aptitude for computers and engineering—lend themselves to her ability to make things easier to use, clearer to understand, and more accessible to everyone.

Karen is founding board member of the Form-Based Codes Institute, and has co-wrote a book on the topic of Form-Based Coding. Prior to joining Opticos in 2000, Karen worked at the internationally recognized design firm Pentagram where she worked with Michael Beirut to create all the wayfinding signage for the Wall Street area of New York City, as well as helping to create signage for Disney’s town of Celebration, Florida.</i>

Cover Image: Dan Herbin, Modern Cities