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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Miami 21 leads the way on zoning reform

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 7, 2010

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I’ve been meaning for some time to write about the progressive new zoning framework, Miami 21, adopted by the city of Miami last fall.  But it’s a bit of a complicated and somewhat abstract subject. 

The nutshell is that Miami 21 is a form-based code that regulates building types and sizes (“forms”), and their relationship to the street, rather than traditional “Euclidean” zoning that segregates land uses from each other.  Miami skyline, condos in foreground (by: Mr. Thomas/Christopher, creative commons license)Under a Euclidean code, for instance, it will often be illegal to open a coffee shop or dry cleaner’s in or next to most residential neighborhoods.  Euclidean zoning districts also tend to be large, so that large tracts of land become isolated monocultures of commercial, industrial, single-family residential, or whatever; this virtually guarantees an automobile-oriented culture since distances between common trip origins and destinations are, in effect, mandated to be beyond walking range.  Form-based codes are much more compatible with the goals of smart growth.

Anthony Flint, director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, wrote in The Boston Globe in 2006:

"You know, a lot of this problem could be solved if we just changed zoning.

“That's right. Those rules for what gets built and where - spelled out on color-coded maps hanging in most every town hall. Soaring gas prices have made a lot of us yearn to drive less, walk more, and work near home. OK, you say. Let's start arranging ourselves differently - let's build neighborhoods where we don't have to jump in the car for every errand. But zoning rules in Massachusetts and across the country forbid proximity. Most municipalities strictly prohibit what planners call ‘mixed-use’ development: homes jumbled together with shops and restaurants and offices. In other words, the traditional New England town center, or Roslindale Square, or Back Bay.

“What we need is to abolish zoning as we know it. Start over. Short of that, we should change the most outdated provisions that stand in the way of compact, concentrated development.”

  traditional vs. form-based (by: LSL Planning, 1000 Friends of Florida)

That’s what Miami 21 does.  A form-based code works to make everything compatible through developmental design and orientation, promoting walkability and a sense of place.  It is more about how the interaction among buildings and streets create a neighborhood.  This is how the Form-Based Code Institute (now there’s an attention-grabbing name for an organization) puts it:

“Form-based codes address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks . . . This is in contrast to conventional zoning's focus on the micromanagement and segregation of land uses, and the control of development intensity through abstract and uncoordinated parameters to the neglect of an integrated built form.”

While some good neighborhood development has taken place in Miami and elsewhere under current law, the problem is that in almost every case it has required regulatory exceptions to do so.  Miami 21 aims for more of this (by: Steve Price via Wikimedia Commons)Rather than being the norm, smart growth has borne the extra burden of justifying zoning variances case by case.  The biggest accomplishment of the new framework will be a lightening of that burden.

Sadly, the local AIA chapter, progressive as ever, opposed Miami 21, finding it overly prescriptive.  Some of their criticisms, such as an insufficient emphasis on expanding transit, may not be misplaced.  But it isn’t like the code can’t be supplemented by other additional policy measures and tweaked where experience indicates a need for improvement.  And it certainly isn’t like AIA offered a better idea for a policy to promote sustainability and walkable neighborhoods. 

Daniel Nairn, one of my writing cohorts in the Sustainable Cities Collective, has done a superb job of introducing the politics surrounding Miami 21.  Apparently it is still not an entirely done deal, since the enabling law hasn’t taken effect yet.  But implementation seems likely, and there will be lots of opportunities for public input along the way as the city fills out the particulars.  I think the effect will be positive and quite likely precedent-setting.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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JohnJan 7 2010 09:38 AM

Just a point of clarification, it was the CITY of Miami, not Miami-Dade County, that adopted Miami 21.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 7 2010 10:45 AM

Thanks, now corrected. I had meant to check that before publication but got in a rush. Wishful thinking on my part? ;)

Max B.Jan 7 2010 05:12 PM

I'm being devils advocate here so bear with me.

After reading this I understand that Miami is adopting a form based zoning law and that it regulates building scales/massing, etc rather than it's uses. I don't really know how this will really change things other than mixed use buildings will be easier to develop.

Mixed use buildings are great, but aren't neccesarily the cure all, nor are mixed use buildings impossible to develop in a traditional euclidian zoning environment. If you gave some concrete examples of why this plan is such a good thing it would help the non-Miami based reader out.


Kaid @ NRDCJan 8 2010 08:53 AM

Max - first, thanks for reading and commenting. I'm hoping that some of the backers of Miami 21 and other form-based codes will also comment and help answer your question.

My impression as an informed but less than expert observer is that the phrase "form-based" has come to stand not just for its literal meaning but also for a new generation of more contemporary thinking with regard to land use regulation. Theory and practice regarding walkability, streetscapes, and desirable functions of neighborhoods have evolved so much in the last couple of decades that it is easier to reflect them in a new system than by additional tweaks to the old system.

Thus, if I'm right about this, planners can accomplish very much the same things for neighborhoods under the structure of traditional zoning law, but it's more complicated, because the default presumptions are different. Starting over with a different set of presumptions - more mixed uses and an emphasis on walkability, for example - is a cleaner way to accomplish progressive planning goals.

To put some flesh on that, visit the Miami 21 site's explanation of types of zoning codes, other progressive planning trends reflected in the new law, and illustrative examples of good planning using those principles.

The other links in the post above shed even more light on the subject. As I said at the outset, it's a bit of an abstract subject to write about, but on the whole I see it basically as comprehensive zoning overhaul to reflect smart growth and new urbanist principles. Because an emphasis on building form as it affects the street, and a de-emphasis on use regulation, are two of the key features, the phrase "form-based" has come to stand for what is really a larger and more comprehensive theory of zoning reform.

Erick ValleJan 8 2010 09:46 AM

It will be interesting to see how this form based code will take root within our development community which perceives such regulations as costly $$$ requirements not necessary in this or any economic market. I can imagine that its likely to be used as an excuse for not being able to move forward with their development. I hope to be proven wrong!

Andrew GeorgiadisJan 8 2010 10:12 AM

Well, maybe some mixed-use buildings are possible under the old Miami zoning code (nicknamed "11,000" by the way) but not mandatory, even at some of Miami's bustling, high-traffic, cross-roads places, where mixed-use development ought to be built. Also, Miami 21's great innovation was the transitioning of heights and massing from skyscrapers located along corridors to the lower scale, mostly residential blocks behind them. The old zoning code was indifferent to this issue.

Speaking of houses, the old code mandated a suburban (and therefore less walkable) format for houses and apartment buildings. The relationship of house to lot and house to street allowed for the worst type of suburban development to be built, even in very central, transit-served locations. Miami 21 corrects this, and even introduces urban housing types that have long been missing in Miami largely because they were not encouraged- or even disallowed- by the old code.

Miami-Dade County has an excellent and currently unfunded plan for expanding transit, which would serve most of the territory of the city of Miami, the area regulated by Miami 21. A transit plan within Miami 21 would be redundant to the County's efforts. Miami 21 complements the County's effort by providing the means to create transit-supportive urban fabric, rather than the drive-only development patterns that have been the default since World War II.

If anybody else wants more detail as to why I am a fan of Miami 21, I'd be glad to provide it.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 8 2010 10:36 AM

Thank you, Andrew.

Victor DoverJan 8 2010 10:54 AM

Form-based codes represent an upgrade for many reasons, but at their best are usually coupled with-- and driven by-- a detailed plan for the neighborhood's future. That's why the flexible mixed-use aspect of other form-based and transect-based codes is just a small part of the story. Sometimes the real breakthrough is just using FBC's to permit/require urban synergy at all, and achieving a basic level of predictability. Street-oriented architecture, which is at least improbable and usually prohibited under conventional suburban zoning's baggage of deep setbacks, high parking requirements and the like, becomes legal again in the best form-based codes. So, @ Max: It won't just be easier to develop mixed-use buildings, it will be possible to develop buildings with doors and windows and porches and storefronts facing the public spaces without lots of variances, and it will be far less likely that your neighbor will get away with wrecking your block by building blank walls or dead facades down your street. @ Andrew: Suburban zoning tries to reduce the impact of everything on everything else, by pushing things lower, wider, flatter, and farther apart. The cool thing about Miami21 is that it recognizes great cities form when we deliberately bring things closer together, by design, in ways that respect scale and privacy but maximize positive interactions between things. @ Erick: To developers that are paying attention, this will be a boon, not a burden, because the new requirements reflect the basic ways to add more value. (They may still moan and complain, as is habitual.) A lot depends on the first few projects to demonstrate the new code; here's to their profitability.

Will SchroeerJan 8 2010 12:23 PM

One hesitates to follow Victor Dover on FBC, but one point that may not come through in the comments so far is this: The use inside the building both matters less than it used to (to those outside the building), and changes more quickly than it used to. So, yes, you probably could do in a traditional code anything you can do in an FBC. But given that the whole notion of making "uses" the point of departure makes less and less sense, the FBC says "let's pick a new point of departure: the form."

Sandy SorlienJan 8 2010 12:58 PM

One of the things a transect-based code like Miami21 can accomplish is the allocation of zoning standards based on the character of each Transect Zone, or habitat. Thus you actually *don't* end up with all the uses "jumbled up" as Anthony Flint suggested; rather there is a recognized difference in intensity from the lower T-zones to the higher so there are meaningful choices in habitats for humans. A T-3 zone is mostly residential and low-rise; a T-6 zone is thoroughly mixed use with taller buildings. Real walkable neighborhoods will have two or more T-zones within walking distance of each other, so that even those who live in residential areas can walk to shopping and transit. The formal elements that make up the character of each T-zone are analyzed based on the best local existing conditions and written into the code. (The SmartCode model code template was used as the basis for this one, with much excellent material added.) Thus the DNA of Miami21 comes from the best parts of Miami. The local transect, from the sub-urban zones to the urban core zones, provides a framework for understanding how different parts of a neighborhood coexist. When you get down to the block and building scale, the frontages that pedestrians walk by are very important, as Victor Dover suggested. Not only do attractive frontages encourage walking, but "eyes on the street" provide safety where blank walls and surface parking lots do not. And where retail is present, there must be shop frontage types that help retail thrive. Private frontage types are rarely regulated in conventional codes but are extremely important.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 8 2010 06:24 PM

Excellent and very helpful commentary. I knew the real experts would come out at some point.

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