Form-Based Foolishness

My own community of Bloomington/Normal IL has caught a version of the St. Louis flu (see yesterday’s blog).  For the past few years, the powers-that-be in our Midwestern community have seen fit to bring in consultants to tell everyone how a city should look.  As best I can tell, it all starts with pictures.  Were I to show you a picture of a run-down building and a nice tree-lined street with happy people sipping lattes outside on a balmy afternoon, which would you prefer?

Mmmmmm…is this a trick question?

Gosh, Aren't They Happy?

Yes, it is.  Doug Farr, a Chicago-based “new urbanist,” has a vision for us.  His vision claims to be an improvement on zoning laws, which dictate how a property is to be used (commercial, residential, etc.).  Instead, Farr wants cities to dictate how buildings are built, how interiors are designed, and how easy (pardon me, difficult) it is for people to drive.  His web site, explains all.  And no, the URL is not my idea of a delicious joke.

Farr and his ilk realize that convincing people that being forced to conform to his vision of “the future” is tricky.  Thus, the process starts with something called charrettes.  In architecture, this typically means finishing up a project with haste and at all costs.  The meaning has not been lost on Farr, who has the following to say about getting the job done:

“Because the projects are routinely deemed illegal under local zoning laws and go against most conventional development practices, the new urbanists have pioneered new approval techniques (notably the town planning charrette).”

In other words, get a bunch of people together who are likely inclined to want to tell others what to do, appear to be busy looking over darling pictures of bohemian settings, and hope no one notices before you ram it through the City Council.

Form-based code envisions high-density living and car-unfriendly design.  It has not occurred to form-based zealots that such design has not emerged on its own because people don’t want to live that way.  If they did, plenty of developers would have been eager to build such communities.  That is, unless other zoning laws made it difficult to do so.  Never expect a city council to be consistent.

Lest one think this is all some ethereal issue affecting only future development and of little interest to regular folk, understand that if one’s property were to burn down, form-based code would require things like three-story form with mixed use by design–for example, residential space above retail space whether the owner wants to be a landlord or not.

When some of our local liberty-loving citizens caught wind of this bad joke from the farce side, they rightly raised hell.  Now the cities of Bloomington and Normal are meekly backing down, with at least one of the mayors saying that the forms should be voluntary.  Do tell.  Well, if they are to be voluntary, then why do we need them at all?

It is because, like Farr, they do not appear to be terribly concerned with whether individual property rights get trampled in the name of the New Urbanism.  They know what’s best, private property owners be damned.  Saying the codes will be voluntary is simply a code for “we will approve those proposals that meet the code…er, rather the code that is voluntary…you know, because we don’t want to force anyone to comply.”  Please.  We are not that stupid.

Here is an idea.  Go home.  That’s right.  End Council meetings early before you get tired and start thinking that meddling in private matters is part of your job.  We may need you to manage some fundamental services like the police force.  Beyond that, some of us are hard-pressed to figure out why we have to take the time to keep you from foisting stupidity like this on us.  Keep it up and you’ll soon have a lot more time to figure out how you want to design your own house and place of business.


Terry’s views of course have nothing whatsoever to do with Illinois State University or its affiliates.  He frankly doubts most of them know there is a libertarian in their midst.  He also doubts they will care much when they find out, but he prefers a disclaimer to accusations of hijacking the University’s good name.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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4 Responses to Form-Based Foolishness

  1. Jeff Strange says:

    Great Article. I hope many residents of Bloomington – Normal read this article.


  2. Jason says:

    This is a remarkably uneducated post. It’s fine if you aren’t concerned about environmental degradation, the ability of older or disabled people to be able to get around, the negative public health aspects of a sedentary car-based lifestyle, or any of the many other problems associated with the type of development we’ve seen in the past 50 years. I can’t force you to be enlightened or to care about the well being of others. But, I would suggest you learn some history before you spout off. For one thing, our current sprawling mess of a country was in fact greatly encouraged by zoning laws and federal housing and transportation policies made by people who did not have the foresight to recognize the devastation that would occur. A civilized society should learn from it’s mistakes, which is what Farr is advocating. Your simplistic attempt to use market logic to explain urban development patterns illustrates an ideological bias that is obviously closing off your mind from reasonable consideration of rational arguments. An increasing number of people are realizing that the auto-dependent sprawl lifestyle is lacking. There is plenty of data backing this up. Sure, not everybody wants to live in a dense urban environment. But, those are not the only two choices. As an educated person, you should also be well aware that property rights are social constructed legal fictions, not something handed down from the heavens in one true form. To suggest that a community cannot have a say in shaping the contours of those rights further demonstrates that you have not thought very hard about these issues. Limited government is an important principle, but in the wrong hands, it becomes dangerous. Smart government should be the goal and sadly, it seems that you have blocked such possibilities from your mind. I expect more from a professor.


  3. Terry Noel says:

    Jason, I replied in today’s blog.


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