Northfield to Change Paradigms?

traditionalcommercial.jpgNext year Northfield will be rewriting its Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinances. In my nickel summary, a city’s Comprehensive Plan looks at historic patterns of development, the current situation and outlines a community’s vision of its future and the Zoning Ordinances detail how that vision will be realized in development projects.

Northfield, like most communities in America, has been guided for the past hundred years by Euclidean (Ohio, not geometry) Zoning. This approach, again in my nickel summary, is based on the separation of uses. In the best case, it keeps meat packing plants out of neighborhoods. In the worse case, it keeps grocery stores many miles away from our homes. It can politely be termed the Conventional approach to zoning.

However, there is another paradigm emerging. It is based on the approach taken for the many hundreds of years before the last century and can be found in the 300 year old communities on the east coast or 900 year old communities in Europe. It is often called the Traditional approach to zoning.

Currently, it is being called “Form Based Zoning”. Rather than focusing on segregating uses, this approach concentrates first on the visual aspect of development like building height and bulk, the location of parking, and the relationship of the buildings to the street and other buildings. Some people have said that the Conventional approach has produced great neighborhoods that are divided by crummy corridors.

One benefit of the form-based approach is that it is considered to be more democratic. It is based on images instead of jargon and is therefore more readily understood by residents who are not otherwise involved in land use or development professions.

A strong selling point for me is that the implementation of Form Based Zoning requires substantial public participation up front. So find out more at the Form Based Code Institute and share your thoughts with a Planning Commissioner, City Council Official or Planning Staff Member.


  1. Griff Wigley said:

    Ross, are there any communities in Minnesota using this form-based zoning that you’re aware of?

    October 25, 2006
  2. Steve Wilmot said:


    It is worth mentioning that in recent history Northfield’s “Conventional Zoning” does not appear to work that well, as all of the recent developments have gone the PUD route, essentially being planned by the project rather than by the planning and zoning maps.

    One would hope that the “Form based” zoning would allow things to happen more organically, more understandably, and in context with what we already have.

    October 26, 2006

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