In Top Form

July 10, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Planners won’t need to consult with author Dan Brown, or even have to channel Leonardo da Vinci, to decipher this code.

The Form Based Code Study developed by the Grand Valley Metro Council is an urban design template that public officials and area planners can use to bring consistency to all residential and commercial sectors within a community, regardless of size.

It’s such an interesting development that the Institute of Transportation Engineers will give the code a national mark of distinction. ITE will present its 2006 Best Project Award to the council for its code at the organization’s annual meeting next month in Milwaukee.

Although the Metro Council’s code keeps the traditional town and city forms, it clearly is a different way to look at the zoning process. And even though it supports such settings as main streets, village greens and neighborhood centers — areas that are vital to the council’s planning document, the Metropolitan Blueprint — the code also recognizes something that urban planners have said is wrong with standard zoning guidelines.

They have long said that these conventional principles have placed too much emphasis on use, by separating uses into specific sectors instead of mixing uses together in a district. The result has been physically segregated communities that haven’t pleased some residents.

“There have been some unintended negative consequences, I would say, from only focusing on use. We don’t get those mixed-use areas anymore, and it’s difficult to recreate some of the locations that people prized or loved most,” said Christina Anderson, a planner and urban designer with Farr Associates, by phone from her office in Chicago.

“Often those locations were something that was done before zoning. It’s usually ‘mixed use’, it’s ‘active’, it’s ‘walkable’ — these are terms that they generally use to describe it,” she said about the residents’ favorite locales.

Instead of focusing solely on use, the council’s code takes a close look at form. Anderson said the form-based code doesn’t ignore use, it just doesn’t give it primary focus.

“It focuses on what is a building going to look like in the end, as well as what it is going to be used for. And that way you start to look at how does that potential form fit in with the character of the community, or how does that form fit in with the character a community would like to have,” explained Anderson, who added that her firm has almost finished a specific form-code study for the city of Allegan.

The Metro Council enlisted Farr Associates and Meyer, Mohaddes Associates Inc. of Minneapolis to develop the code, and part of that undertaking was to interview residents throughout the Grand Valley region to discover what some of their favorite places were. Doing that gave them a better idea of what cities, townships and villages should look like and how transportation in these communities could have better flow.

A few of the residents’ favorite places included part of Ottawa Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids, nearby East Fulton Street, Gladstone Drive in East Grand Rapids, Bronson Street in downtown Ada, and areas in Lowell and Rockford. Anderson said residents also listed some more rural settings in locales like Jamestown Township as favorite places.

To create the code, the planners included building types, storefronts and windows as forms, along with such details as porches and stoops. But Anderson pointed out that about half the document serves as a template for street types, a design element that conventional codes haven’t included for a couple of decades.

“They can use these street types to lay out their street network. In the study is a template that shows how they can lay out the streets and how they relate to each other and how they relate to the development that occurs along them,” she said. “I think that is the thing that ITE recognized.”

The Metro Council, the region’s planning agency, is unveiling the code this week. GVMC planners Andy Bowman and Jay Hoekstra will take the code to the members and answer questions that may arise. More information on the code is available at

“The point of the document was to create a template so that communities within the Grand Valley Metro Council umbrella, the ones that they work with, could use it to start to examine their neighborhoods and work towards creating a form-based code,” Anderson said.

“There is a whole section that talks about how to map a community and how important it is to look at neighborhoods, to really focus on mapping those neighborhoods and how those work together to create communities.”    

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