Land use planning is the process of regulating the use of land by a central authority. Usually, this is done to promote more desirable social and environmental outcomes as well as a more efficient use of resources. More specifically, the goals of modern land use planning often include environmental conservation, restraint of urban sprawl, minimization of transport costs, prevention of land use conflicts, and a reduction in exposure to pollutants. In the pursuit of these goals, planners assume that regulating the use of land will change the patterns of human behavior, and that these changes are beneficial. The first assumption, that regulating land use changes the patterns of human behavior is widely accepted. However, the second assumption – that these changes are beneficial – is contested, and depends on the location and regulations being discussed.
In urban planning, land use planning seeks to order and regulate land use in an efficient and ethical way, thus preventing land use conflicts. Governments use land use planning to manage the development of land within their jurisdictions. In doing so, the governmental unit can plan for the needs of the community while safeguarding natural resources. To this end, it is the systematic assessment of land and water potential, alternatives for land use, and economic and social conditions in order to select and adopt the best land use options. Often one element of a comprehensive plan, a land use plan provides a vision for the future possibilities of development in neighborhoods, districts, cities, or any defined planning area.
In the United States, the terms land use planning, regional planning, urban planning, and urban design are often used interchangeably, and will depend on the state, county, and/or project in question. Despite confusing nomenclature, the essential function of land use planning remains the same whatever term is applied. The Canadian Institute of Planners offers a definition that land use planning means the scientific, aesthetic, and orderly disposition of land, resources, facilities and services with a view to securing the physical, economic and social efficiency, health and well-being of urban and rural communities. The American Planning Association states that the goal of land use planning is to further the welfare of people and their communities by creating convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient, and attractive environments for present and future generations.
Land use planning nearly always requires land use regulation, which typically encompasses zoning. Zoning regulates the types of activities that can be accommodated on a given piece of land, as well as the amount of space devoted to those activities, and the ways that buildings may be situated and shaped.
The ambiguous nature of the term “planning”, as it relates to land use, is historically tied to the practice of zoning. Zoning in the US came about in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to protect the interests of property owners. The practice was found to be constitutionally sound by the Supreme Court decision of Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. in 1926. Soon after, the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act gave authority to the states to regulate land use. Even so, the practice remains controversial today.
The “taking clause” of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from taking private property for public use without just compensation. The case of Dolan v. City of Tigard demonstrated the criteria that determine the threshold of what is considered taking. One interpretation of the taking clause is that any restriction on the development potential of land through zoning regulation is a “taking”. A deep-rooted anti-zoning sentiment exists in America, that no one has the right to tell another what he can or cannot do with his land. Ironically, although people are often averse to being told how to develop their own land, they tend to expect the government to intervene when a proposed land use is undesirable.
Conventional zoning has not typically regarded the manner in which buildings relate to one another or the public spaces around them, but rather has provided a pragmatic system for mapping jurisdictions according to permitted land use. This system, combined with the interstate highway system, widespread availability of mortgage loans, growth in the automobile industry, and the over-all post-World War II economic expansion, destroyed most of the character that gave distinctiveness to American cities. The urban sprawl that most US cities began to experience in the mid-twentieth century was, in part, created by a flat approach to land use regulations. Zoning without planning created unnecessarily exclusive zones. Thoughtless mapping of these zones over large areas was a big part of the recipe for suburban sprawl. It was from the deficiencies of this practice that land use planning developed, to envision the changes that development would cause and mitigate the negative effects of such change.
As America grew and sprawl was rampant, the much-loved America of the older towns, cities, or streetcar suburbs essentially became illegal through zoning. Unparalleled growth and unregulated development changed the look and feel of landscapes and communities. They strained commercial corridors and affected housing prices, causing citizens to fear a decline in the social, economic and environmental attributes that defined their quality of life. Zoning regulations became politically contentious as developers, legislators, and citizens struggled over altering zoning maps in a way that was acceptable to all parties. Land use planning practices evolved as an attempt to overcome these challenges. It engages citizens and policy-makers to plan for development with more intention, foresight, and community focus than had been previously used.