Form-based codes and winter cities make for a hot combination

A good form-based code can help a winter city ‘crank up the heat’ of public street life by creating compact, mixed-use neighborhoods and more.

Form-based codes are often cited for the many quality-of-life benefits they offer communities, resulting from improved walkability, better building design in terms of attention/orientation to the public right-of-way, and higher-quality public spaces to name a few. While these are strong enough reasons for any community to embrace form-based coding, winter cities in particular can benefit from the adoption of form-based codes.

At the most basic level, compact, mixed-use neighborhoods that are often the goal of form-based codes, reduce travel distances to fulfill daily needs, make walking or cycling more practical and appealing in the winter and have relatively less snow-management expenses. Furthermore, a form-based code that is well-calibrated to the climate allows community residents to make the most of opportunities to stay outdoors through design features that capture the sun’s warmth, protect public spaces from the wind and create intimate, human-scaled streetscapes.

According to Norman Pressman, University of Waterloo professor emeritus of urban and regional planning, there are three primary components that an ideal winter city must have. The first is numerous high-quality microclimate urban spaces. The second is infrastructure to accommodate the winter needs of the most vulnerable groups in society. The third is education: teaching inhabitants how to understand and enjoy winter. Certainly the first two components are products of an appropriately calibrated code, and the last could be too through the community workshops, design charrettes, and public outreach efforts of the form-based code’s development (however, education shaping winter attitudes is most impactful at the elementary age). In Shaping Cities for Winter: Climatic Comfort and Sustainable Design, Pressman writes:

“Our perpetual summer state of mind has been a serious impediment to the development of meaningful solutions for comfortable winter living. We must rediscover a ‘sense of place’ with climate being one of the primary sources of inspiration in the decision–making process”.

The practice of tailoring the built environment to the climate-at-hand is generally referred to as climate-responsive design. By paying attention to local climate and regional ‘Place’, a subset of regional building typologies will emerge that make better use of passive natural systems by integrating these ‘forces of nature’ into the architectural form of buildings. Orientation to the sun with larger windows and longer facades facing the south is one such design consideration. However, climate-responsive design can be applied at the urban scale to improve the overall comfort of the public realm too according to Duzan Dopel, in Creating Comfortable Climatic Cities: Comfort and Climate as Instruments for Healthy Interior, Architectural & Urban (Re)Design.

At the urban scale, attention to building placement and building mass are considerations that can be addressed in a form-based code. For instance, building designs with stepped facades reduce wind shear and allow more sunlight to reach the street and neighboring properties. Combined with the careful placement of vegetation, such considerations can positively affect the microclimate of the block or street (for more community design considerations see Living in Harmony with Winter and Smart Growth and Winter City Design).

In addition to climate-responsive design, the use of regionally significant building materials and traditions helps to reinforce the community sense of place. Such factors can be handled with architectural standards in the form-based code. For winter cities, other architectural standards might include the use of bright, naturally warm building colors to offset the often drab, gray and white of winter.

The City of Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula includes winter design considerations in the South Marquette Form Based Code within the district-wide principles and standards, landscaping, buffering, and screening standards, and in a separate set of winter design considerations. Winter design standards require building designs that minimize the shedding of snow and ice onto pedestrian areas and development site designs that accommodate onsite snow storage from clearing of pedestrian walkways, among other standards. Marquette is one Michigan city that embraces its winter climate in an effort to be “A premier livable, walkable, winter city.” This subtitle from the Community Master Plan is appropriate, considering the document includes an entire chapter on winter city planning and design considerations.

This article is a companion article with the Michigan State University Extension article: What is a winter city’s placemaking strategy? For more information about planning, design, and promotion of winter cities visit the Winter Cities Institute. For more information about leveraging regional assets to create a unique sense of place, visit the MiPlace website or contact an MSU Extension educator at our Land Use Education Services webpage.

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