Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is Land Use?

3 minute read

Land use might seem self explanatory, but it has a very specific meaning in the context of U.S. planning history.

Land use might seem like a self explanatory term, but in the context of the legal powers to regulate the use of land and the history of planning in North America, the term is laden with numerous meanings. In politics and culture, the term is broad, intersectional, and incredibly slippery. But an understanding of the concept of land use in planning is irrevocably foundational: to understand land use as defined by planners is to understand planning as practiced throughout the 20th century United States, as well as the legacy of that history in the communities of the 21st century. 

Reflecting that broad meaning, definitions of land use can sometimes rely on aspirational, but vague, terms. On Wikipedia, the Canadian Institute of Planners is credited for defining land use planning as the scientific, aesthetic, and orderly disposition of land, resources, facilities, and services for the purposes of securing the physical, economic, and social efficiency, health and well-being of urban and rural communities. Also on Wikipedia, the American Planning Association is credited for describing the goal of land use planning as furthering the welfare of people and their communities by creating convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient, and attractive environments for present and future generations.

Since the invention of zoning codes at the beginning of the 20th century, land use has been defined in more pragmatic terms, referencing the government power to determine what can be built, and where. The fundamental regulatory consideration of planning is the use of land in the future, as envisioned by all varieties of planning documents and granted regulatory power by zoning codes and other implementation tools. 

The word “use” from the larger term “land use” is the key clue about how planning practice defines the term. Land use, according to planners, is defined by its most common varieties: residential, commercial, retail, industrial, and a few others that might pop up in specific community or environmental contexts. Comprehensive plans (also known as General Plans, among other names) determine the future distribution of land uses around the spaces available in any given planning jurisdiction. Zoning codes turn those plans into law to implement the vision presented on that plan. Zoning can sometimes allow for mixing of those varieties of use, and differing scales for the uses allowed one parcel to the next, but how each planned development will be used is the fundamental issue upon which all variations are built. 

In both the urban and the rural context, uses are defined by goals set in terms of population density, access to infrastructure like drinking water or paved roads, the demographics of the surrounding area, weather patterns and other environmental considerations, and more. Deciding on the most desirable land use for any given corner of the world requires a nuanced understanding of the many contributing factors shaping that corner of the world. While those factors change over time, and from place to place, the question, “What should we do with this land?” is common to all of those contexts.

That’s not to say, however, that zoning is the only kind of land use regulation. One city in particular, Houston, rejects the notion of land use regulation entirely, while still achieving effects from regulations that look a lot like the results of land use regulation. In recent decades, the Congress for the New Urbanism has argued that planning’s foundational concern with land use is the source of inefficiencies and shortcomings in the practice, and has pushed for the adoption of zoning codes that treat the forms of buildings, rather than uses, as the foundational concept for regulation. Form-based codes, like those most famously implemented in Miami and Denver, are a political reaction to land use-based planning history.


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