Bringing street regulations to life with Formr

The blueprint for all American cities is written in two documents: zoning regulations, and street design guidelines. Zoning regulations define parking minima, and building setbacks, heights, as well as use; and AASHTO’s “Green Book” sets street-space for people walking, on bicycles, on buses and (mostly) in cars.

Most of the unpleasant, sprawling places you’ve been perfectly fit these guidelines. They have abundant surface parking, buildings are spaced out and car lanes are wide. On the other hand, most of the pleasant places you’ve been, the kind of places you’d pay money to visit on vacation, do not fit these guidelines. In these places the streets and lanes are narrower (or, if wide, they’re broken up into “complete” streets) the buildings address the street, there are a mix of uses – corner stores! – there are cycle paths and the compact form supports usable transit systems.

Avenue Kleber in Paris

Streets like these are good pedestrian environments, but what is the relationship between the street and the codes behind them? Many do not know.

We now know these guidelines have impoverished America. From municipalities unable to maintain huge swaths of asphalt, and fire and police departments stretched to cover sprawling subdivisions, to the rise in childhood obesity and the dramatic drop in children walking and biking to school, not to mention the foreign policy impacts of oil dependency and climate change. The blueprint even kills the innovation-sparking serendipity that just can’t happen when uses are separated and everyone’s in a car.

And yet, the status quo is a very difficult thing to change. Although movements such as Strong Towns, Sprawl Repair and the New Urbanism are gaining greater audiences every day,changing these guidelines is slow work. Street and zoning regulations are very boring documents: it’s hard to picture the difference that changing a few numbers on the page might make.

3D Massing from Form Based Codes

The purpose is to be able to quickly produce images almost like those used in form-based codes, and to be able to see the impact of different regulated numbers (setback, height, travel lane and sidewalk width) on the “feel” of the street.

Formr is designed to help. By allowing people to manipulate street and zoning regulations directly, and easily see the results in real-time, Formr can help citizens and government understand the impact of these regulations on walkable streets. By comparing the form of pleasant, walkable places with their own local streets, voters can learn what updating a few simple guidelines can do for the health, wealth and happiness of their neighborhood.

Formr is an opensource javascript app, and very much a work in progress: the to do list is here. If you’ve ever fancied learning how to program 3D in the browser, then please dive in and add a line or two of code.
Formr demo
Formr source

AASHTO Green Book / TAC Geometric Design Guide (Canadian equivalent)
Zoning bylaw examples: Euclid, Ohio / Vancouver, BC

scenariopt

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