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Land Use

Last Updated: 2006

As a governmental arena, land use involves the public control over the use of privately owned real estate. Municipalities and counties are the dominant actors. They are general purpose local governments that exercise zoning and other regulatory and planning powers over the physical layouts of their communities. State and national governments also influence local and regional land-use patterns, both in their own directly administered programs and in facilitating or constraining local government actions through a variety of grants of power, mandates, fiscal measures, and policy conditions. This entry summarizes the respective roles of local, state, and national governments; their interconnections; and the policy tools they employ.

Most attention is paid to the processes of urbanization, as communities increase in population and convert land from less to more intensive uses. But the land-use arena also encompasses public efforts to rehabilitate older urban cores and to preserve rural lands with environmental, agricultural, and forest values. In addition to the physical accommodation of population growth, land-related programs deal with housing, transportation, air and water quality, public infrastructure, open space, economic development, public finance, and quality of life issues.

Cities, counties, and many towns and townships in the United States have considerable discretion over land in their jurisdictions, as seen in the wide variation from community to community in the mix of uses allowed and the degree to which urban growth is supported or limited. Local control is prevalent in this policy arena, more so than in many other local government programs such as K–12 education, public health, and law enforcement. Central to this control is the exercise of the police power—the authority to regulate private behavior for health, safety, and general welfare purposes. As the most visible expression of this power, local zoning allows the separation of residential, commercial, industrial, and other land uses into different geographical districts, prescribing building densities and allowable uses for each zone. Land-use regulations also include subdivision and building codes, nuisance and noise ordinances, urban growth boundaries, and other types of development controls.

Some local governments frame the application of such tools through comprehensive plans, policy documents that assess community conditions and needs, identify land-use and growth priorities, and project future changes. The plans provide a rational basis for limiting private property rights, thus legally protecting local land-use controls when challenged in court. Going beyond traditional planning, the concept of “growth management” has taken hold in recent years to justify more active governmental control over the local impacts of land-use change. This includes balancing preservation and economic development objectives, rationing the extension of public infrastructure to limit sprawl, and requiring private development to pay the full costs of its public service impacts.

State governments are involved in the land-use arena primarily by empowering through legislation and constitutional provisions their legal creatures, the general purpose local governments, to zone and use other regulatory and planning tools. While the grants of power are largely open ended, leading to the local discretion noted above, states also mandate some actions. They include requiring comprehensive plans to cover certain areas and consistency between plans and zoning. Since the 1970’s, a few state governments have been more aggressive than most in pushing local governments in certain directions, such as making their actions compatible with state planning policies, avoiding the conversion of natural resource and agricultural lands, and adopting growth management and smart growth strategies to make urban conversions more efficient. States also influence local policy through their own programs—most notably, highway construction and the location of other facilities—and their acquisition and management of large chunks of land as state parks and natural preserves. Some states also directly control land uses within designated sensitive areas, such as California’s coastal strip and the Pinelands in southern New Jersey.

The federal role in local and regional land-use control is also profound, if less direct. In fact, it has a history that predates the local and state land-use actions. The 1785 Land Ordinance adopted by the Confederation Congress established the rectangular system of land surveys now used in most parts of the nation to identify property location. This facilitated in following decades the disposition of much of the public domain—acquired by the federal government in the various territorial annexations—to state and local governments and private owners. Twenty-nine percent of the land mass of the nation is still owned by the federal government. The management of these national forests, parks, grazing lands, defense facilities, and other public lands has major effects on adjacent communities and their states.

Especially after World War II, other kinds of federal policies greatly affected local land-use policies through more centralized housing, urban development, and environmental programs. Included were mortgage guarantees and tax incentives for single-family home ownership—a major contributor to the suburbanization of the past half century—financial aid to local planning departments, downtown revitalization, public housing subsidies, and such environmental protection efforts as clean water and endangered species laws.

What best illustrates the intersection of local, state, and federal roles in the land-use arena is the operation of metropolitan or regional planning agencies, a product of the post–World War II period. Often called Councils of Governments (COGs), they typically have general planning responsibilities for multicounty regions, but lack the independent taxing, regulatory, and service delivery powers of general purpose local governments and single purpose regional governments such as sanitary, water, and recreation districts. They collect and publish data on regional trends, provide technical assistance to local governments, help distribute transportation funds and other state and federal aid, and provide an intergovernmental forum for the deliberation of regional issues. The COGs have their legal basis in state legislation, but came into existence as a result of congressional requirements in the 1960s that federal aid to communities undergo a regional review process. The COGs are both a vehicle for disseminating federal and state funds and mandates and a form of voluntary collaboration among the local governments in a particular region.

SEE ALSO: Metropolitan Planning OrganizationsPublic LandsUnfunded MandatesState-Local Relations


Richard F. Babcock and Charles L. Siemon, The Zoning Game Revisited (Boston: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1985); William C. Johnson, The Politics of Urban Planning (New York: Paragon House, 1989); and Jay M. Stein, ed., Growth Management: The Planning Challenge of the 1990s (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1993).