Instead of the traditional ‘Euclidean’ zoning approach to planning, we should think about the more fine-grained approach of form-based codes
A few hundred yards down the road from Nana Chowk to Tardeo, next to Sunkersett Mansion on the road’s left, there stands a small temple. It has a handsome arched entrance and clear space on three sides. This is not one of the over-built modern temples that substitute spirituality with size and commerce; this is an old, quiet place of worship that appears ageless. It also looks like a last act of defiance against the towering monstrosities that surround it. A little further on is another, an agiary. That, too, has withstood the steady onslaught of commercial high-rise development.
These city holdouts are fast disappearing, and you have to look much harder to even see them as, one by one, they get engulfed by outsized construction. The view over the city from the balcony or rooftop of one of these tall buildings — ideally, a building on one of the city’s few remaining hills — is remarkable, and for all the wrong reasons. The first impression is one of unredeemed ugliness: virtually every one of these new buildings seems to have been designed by an alumnus of the post-aesthetic school of design. Worse, none of these buildings seem to bear any relationship whatsoever to their surroundings. At Nana Chowk, there are over four towers so tall it is almost impossible to see their tops from the street; and these stand in an area where the average height is perhaps no more than three or four floors. The same story repeats itself near Khetwadi and Kotachiwadi, at Khar and Santa Cruz, at Hughes Road. More horrors are planned at Bhendi Bazaar. The trouble is typified by a nascent proposal for the development of a defunct textile mill at Prabha Devi. This 8-acre plot is being allowed to use an FSI of 10: three million sq ft of built up area. In Lower Parel, a 62-floor supertall skyscraper called the Namaste Tower is proposed (with, it seems, the primary objective of catering to the Big Fat Indian Wedding). At the narrow Hughes Road intersection, that uncrowned king of all things over-the-top, Mr Donald Trump, is building a 60-65 floor condominium; and at the even narrower Marine Lines Road near Charni Road station we are soon to have another splendid addition to Mumbai’s deluxe hotels.
Site of the proposed Trump Tower, Hughes Road, Mumbai
Artists’ impression of the proposed Trump Tower, Hughes Road, Mumbai
The proposed Namaste Tower, Hughes Road, Mumbai
All these oversized developments are permitted because FSI and building rights are treated in isolation from all other factors, divorced from the needs and requirements of the locality and, consequently, the city itself. When there is a single flattened FSI that does not account for differing community or area needs, the result is what we see coming up before us. These constructions bear no relation to the roads on which they stand, the capacity of those roads, or, for that matter, the supporting infrastructure, let alone the physical or visual feel of the vicinity.
This is precisely the trouble with our outdated planning laws which require the preparation of what is called a “Master Plan”, a city-wide design that, by its nature, cannot possibly factor in local details to the extent required. Increasingly, this is a planning method that is being abandoned everywhere for a more granular approach to local area design and needs, more intensive public participation at a community level, an abandoning of isolated fixed parameters like FSI and, consequently, a better city.
Despite the protests of many architects, planners in complex cities are veering to using form-based codes. The traditional zoning used in our master plans segregates and freezes land-use. Using abstractions like FSI, setbacks and marginal spaces, it results in incongruities. The built form is ignored: what will the city look like? How will its buildings be used? Form-based codes attempt an upending of this view. They assess buildings in relation to each other, to city blocks, streets and public use. Form-based codes integrate an essential aspect of all planning: meaningful public participation in planning. These codes also set community standards for open and public spaces, building design and function, landscaping, signage, traffic and environmental issues. They are more sensitive to existing character and context. These codes are framed inclusively—the entire design is participatory and all stakeholders are represented.
How does this help the city? By shifting focus to the urban form from a 20-year frozen land-use pattern, this method of planning allows development without sacrificing quality of life. Buildings remain; their uses may change over time. Where development is proposed in existing residential or commercial areas, form-based codes are more sensitive to existing character and context. They inhibit disproportionate and out-of-scale construction and support the mixed-use neighbourhoods and spread of housing types that are even today a part of our daily life. The focus is, as it should be, on form, size and placement and not on land-use. This approach is community-driven and result in urban environments that are also gentler and more urbane; or, as one writer puts it, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Public spaces — and this includes intersections, street and road corridors and pedestrian walkways and plazas apart from parks — are created or destroyed by the form, design and siting of buildings. Allow edge-to-edge building construction unrelated to the public spaces and the latter are destroyed; regulate building and these public spaces can be created or transformed. Take any of the constructions here and imagine the difference if the buildings were lower, set further off the road and melded into the neigbourhood. Developers benefit too: competing development is equally controlled, and once local standards are defined, the permission process is shorter and more predictable. Most of all, developers do not have to make in-house arrangements for local infrastructure as this is already part of the local area’s form and design. Imagine buildings in the mill lands area around large central parks and median parking; or lower but more expensive apartments in Dadar next to older, less expensive ones, all sharing common public amenities. The drive should be to be build better, not build more. There is no advantage to constructing acres of built-up space that remain unsold.
The biggest difference perhaps is that these codes design for mixed-use: residential blocks above ground-floor retail spaces, for instance, or a mix of housing types. In the traditional “Euclidean” zoning method, this kind of mix is hard to achieve: commercial units aren’t permitted in residential areas, for instance. The result is often long commutes rather than walkability and all the attendant problems of traffic and public transport, plus areas that are inefficient, bland or just plain ugly. The workaround is to make exceptions; but every exception weakens the overall plan. This is exactly what a form-based code sidesteps.
The other major difference is how the two types of planning regimes are structured. Traditional master plans are wordy and often in the negative—they tell you what you can’t do, on the basis that anything that isn’t prohibited is permitted. This is of course a dream situation for lawyers but is often confusing and not very helpful (we have, for instance, an “intimation of disapproval” or IOD, which is actually a negatively worded intimation of approval). Form-based codes on the other hand are specific and positive: they tell you what you can do, and also what you must. They’re also graphic and visual so it’s much easier to understand what the end-result is going to be. With this, and its emphasis on a collaborative, community-participation model, a form-based code forces an agreed vision. It’s certainly more laborious and time-consuming in its initial stage, but the time lost there is offset by the certainty and the elimination of objections at later stages.
In 2009, Miami approved a form-based code. Denver followed a few months later and now over 300 such codes have been or are being adopted across USA and Canada. Miami’s code, Miami 21, involved over 500 public hearings. The result, in some neighbourhoods, was that public protests against high-rise development in residential areas finally found acceptance. The city’s planning director, Anna Gelabert-Sanchez, said that the new codes reflected many community demands such as conservation and a restriction on out of scale development incompatible with the neighbourhood.
To be sure, the method is not without its critics mostly from architects who fear their creativity will be stifled. They argue that these codes are not based on a vision but are only intended to make easy regulations, and that architects are reduced to decorators of facades. This is incorrect. Architects don’t actually have unbridled freedom to build anything they like; they already work within design guidelines, zoning codes and building regulations. These codes are both more descriptive and also more flexible — they can be tweaked for smaller planning units without significant city-wide ramifications — and therefore more predictable.
If urban design is seen as a process of social engineering, then form-based coding yields a more equitable result. Part of the reason for our urban inequities and inequalities is the very great deal of uncertainty that seems to be built into planning laws and their resultant master plans. Stabilizing the law with greater certainty can only yield a more just result; if there is one thing on which the rule of law and justice depend, it is certainty.
But form-based code planning also reflects another principle well known in law and justice, though in a completely different context: the neighbourhood principle. If that principle, so far only applied to product liability and negligence cases, which says that a duty of care is owed to your neighbour, could be translated into city planning we might yet see a more just and humane city.
A few hundred yards down the road from Nana Chowk to Tardeo, next to Sunkersett Mansion on the road's left, there stands a small temple. It has a handsome arched entrance and clear space on three sides. This is not one of the over-built modern temples that substitute spirituality with size and commerce; this is an old, quiet place of worship that appears ageless. It also looks like a last act of defiance against the towering monstrosities that surround it. A little further on is another, an *agiary*. That, too, has withstood the steady onslaught of commercial high-rise development.