Land Use Planning Tips for Cities and Towns

Last updated:  June 19, 2024

Land use planning allows your community to allocate what you predict to be the right amount of land in a variety of locations for the real estate development, economic growth, schools and other institutional uses, and open space that will need in the future.

aerial photo with some colored marker drawing on it

Commonly communities undertake this venture as a major part of a comprehensive plan, which might be called a master plan or general plan. In most states, this type of planning is a legal and logical requirement prior to zoning.

Typically state laws assign the primary responsibility for generating the plan to a planning commission, sometimes called a planning and zoning commission. Usually the commission delegates the actual research and writing to a consultant or staff, but in some cases, especially in smaller towns, you'll find the commission itself burning the midnight oil toiling away on a map.

Land Use Policies Set the Stage for Quality Decision-Making 

In many minds, the land use plan is a synonym for the preferred future land use map, and the map is the plan. However, the concept of preparing a policy plan in addition is much more legally defensible.  A policy plan contains a series of statements and explanatory text detailing the rationale behind assignments of future land use.  The land use policy plan is organized into logical headings, and the policies themselves may be organized under goals, objectives, and the like. If your community decides to write its first policy plan or substantially alter its current one, you can find many examples online to help you decide on a format.

In the long run a policy-based plan is more politically defensible than a stand-along map as well. It gives future decision making bodies some ammunition if they want to act contrary to public opinion in denying or affirming a particular land development proposal.

This document does not have to be the length of a Ph.D. dissertation; a few pages may record the end result of the community's thought process. In fact, it's important that the plan itself be as transparent as possible; the whole point is a level playing field for all community stakeholders.

Whether you're undertaking land use planning for the first time or updating an old one, land use planning principles are similar. (If you need a review, or if you just want to get everyone on the same page, visit that part of our site for a good list.)

Most often a land use plan is only a sub-section of a master plan or comprehensive plan. If you are uncertain about that term, see our page on comprehensive plan contents. In a comprehensive plan update process, consider the evolution of ideas and techniques since your last plan was formulated, including possibly new land use classifications.

Deciding How to Prepare the Land Use Plan

Yes, you can do it yourself, but no, you really shouldn't, if you can afford staff or city planning consultants.

Before making too many decisions about how to go about this, make sure you have a general understanding of the methodology of planning. You can learn about that on our community planning process and neighborhood plan pages.

If you can't afford either, maybe you can find help in doing some of the research and organizing information through obtaining an urban or regional planning graduate student for an internship. A law student who is interested in municipal law or land use planning also might be an able assistant. However, do not expect that students can actually write the plan while you, the elected officials, planning commission, or interested citizen, stay disengaged from the process.

If you decide to hire a land use planning consultant, check out our tips on consultant selection and management.

When the consultant is on board, be very careful about accepting what is recommended without asking enough questions. It's your complete right to understand what steps were taken, who was interviewed, what data were collected, how data were analyzed, what assumptions were made, and generally why each land use designation that would change future land use was selected.

It's the job of consultants to help their firm make money, and if you think they're doing your land use plan because they love you so much, think again.

At some point if you ask too many questions, change your mind too many times, and want too much information collected and analyzed, they're going to back off and not perform. So it's important to give considerable attention to what they propose as their Scope of Services. Then be a good client and don't make them attend more meetings than they are contracted to attend, and so forth. Think before you sign.

Another issue that arises is how to make the future land use map and any supplemental maps you would like to produce. If you have in-house mapping capability, employees should be able to handle this. But if your local or county government doesn't have much map-making capability, there may be a soil and water conservation district, extension office, resource and conservation district, utility company, university, or business nearby to help you with mapping.

Most map-making occurs now by computer, using what is called GIS (geographic information systems). The GIS system not only makes maps, it makes layers on the maps, which can be shown or not shown when you print out a particular map. It also attaches the points on the map to a database, which can be quite elaborate and contain property ownership information.

The computerized nature of a GIS system will come in handy during future land use planning because it enables you to try out many more options than just a generation ago when maps had to be made by hand.

Ask Your Residents About Land Use Early and Often

Good land use planning involves community engagement in a discussion of land use policy. In reality, this may include one or more public forums, social media outreach, online surveys, workshops, and even field trips for citizens. If you are using a consultant, work with the consultant to design a process that will work in your particular community. Resist any of their suggestions that do not seem sound to you. 

Incidentally, it is possible that the mayor and the planning commission should be the face of your resident engagement process, even if you have a consultant. Consultants offer the advantage of appearing to the public to be more objective and less political, but a popular mayor will have more rapport with the people and be able to sense nuances and shifts in public opinion faster than your consultant.

You might begin the resident input phase by probing for problems that land use decisions have created, or you might choose to generate interest among residents by focusing on a large tract of undeveloped land that has been the subject of recent discussion around town. Use a "hot button" issue to stir up interest, although that could be bad advice if that issue is extremely polarizing and if almost everyone has an opinion already. 

Our point is that you should think carefully about what would cause your residents to participate, rather than simply putting out a call for residents to participate in a structured activity about "land use policy." Most of them will yawn and plan something else for that time period, and you will be left with only the people who use municipal government watching as a hobby and those who envision a big gain or loss if land use planning policies change.

Make sure that you manage the community's expectations as soon as you announce the future land use planning initiative. Try to make clear in every possible venue and occasion that the future land use plan will not specify all of the detailed requirements or qualifications that might be placed on a future land development. At the future land use map stage as part of a comprehensive plan update, the community is working in generalities. Detailed land use planning occurs during the preparation of the zoning map, and during deliberations about zoning changes, conditional use permits, and site plan approvals.

Involving your residents does require time and patience, and it introduces an element of the unknown into the planning process.  However, the offsetting benefit of a robust citizen involvement process is an elevated level of discussion in future zoning and development approval decisions. When policies that residents helped to develop are invoked as the reasoning behind a particular decision, people are less likely to be suspicious that the decision makers have hidden agendas.

Information Needed for Land Use Planning

Data wishes for land use planning can be almost infinite. Rein in your consultant if the company seems intent on spending your money to gather esoteric information that seems insignificant to you after you listen to the consultant's explanation.  If not using a consultant, don't despair. You can think through what information is essential for preparing a decent land use plan.

First and foremost, you will need an accurate inventory of existing land uses. If you have a full planning program, we hope that you have that information already available. However, some communities will need to do a new inventory based on actually driving or walking all streets. (If you have a consultant but need to keep fees in check, it may be possible to train trusted community volunteers or college students to do the inventory.)  Use the traditional land use classifications unless your zoning districts or planning emphases suggest otherwise. Your record of building and demolition permits, as well as business licenses, should be a supplemental source of information and a method of cross-checking your records or field observations.

If your city or town includes a considerable number of vacant and abandoned buildings, consider whether you have the resources to note all of that information on the existing land use map or a supplemental map as well. This should tell you that there is no longer a demand for a particular land use in a specific neighborhood, and help you avoid the error of designating more land for a use that the market is not supporting even now.

The second major type of data you need concerns population data. This includes a breakdown of ages, since obviously a young population will be producing more new residents and use space differently than an older population. If you don't understand much about population characteristics, they are briefed at the neighborhood demographics page

You also need a projection of population for some future interval or intervals. These projections (predictions) should be made using professionally acceptable methods. Your consultant, if you have one, will take care of this. However, be aware that all population projections can be altered if you change the assumptions behind them. For instance, you might say that because of new state requirements for setbacks due to sea level rise, our rate of population growth will slow. You may think that because of your aggressive and so far successful campaign to grow new tech businesses, your population is likely to rise at a higher rate for the next 10 years than it has risen for the last 50 years.

This brings us to the third and fourth category of data needed for land use planning. Thirdly, you must consider economic development trends and initiatives. Most communities are growing or shrinking in large part due to major economic forces at work in their nation and world. Don't be afraid to say that because coal mining, steel production, or department stores are declining economic forces in your nation, your community should lower its estimate of future population. Make sure your planning commission, staff, and consultants are quantifying these extraneous forces with the seriousness they deserve.

Also give some weight to the data behind your community's purposeful economic development initiatives, whether they are led by the public or private sector, or both. But our advice is to attach significance only to trends that you actually see coming into existence and that can be quantified, and not to well-intentioned economic development work that has not yet borne any fruit. You will be fighting the inherent optimism of economic development players here, but our experience is that only efforts that are actually working, or negative events that have actually happened or been formally announced, should be factored into future land use mapping.

Fourth, you may have other types of trends at work in your community. For example, your area might be expected to face serious impacts from climate change. Thirty years ago your planning commission might not have given much attention to sea level rise; now that might be a major factor in both your land use policies and mapping.  Your state recently might have legalized marijuana, so that now suddenly you have grower and dispensary public policy questions. Your state or nation might have enacted a new law about annexation, wildfire prevention, flood prevention, or any number of things that would affect your particular community rather dramatically. Your state highway department, acting on the incentives and disincentives given them by the federal government, may have decided to add or subtract highway lanes through your community, seriously changing the land use planning equation.

If any of these things apply, gather data on the impacts of these events on other communities, if at all possible. Our point is that you should try not to let the discussion of these factors rely on emotion only. Find plausible numbers from other similar communities.

Beyond Land Use Planning to Neighborhood Character Planning

Next, we will discuss three important trends in land use planning that you will want to discuss and evaluate before you start mapping:

  • A neighborhood character emphasis
  • Advantages of a mixed-use approach
  • Acceptability of increases in density and intensity

We begin with discussing community character.

In a community that is mostly fully built, your future land use planning can concentrate on laying out a few infill principles that would be applicable to your few vacant tracts. If you have just one or two vacant tracts of any size, give those considerable deliberation, as they could influence the neighborhood character in their area for the better or worse.

What is unique in your town, what themes need to be carried out, and do you need what type of land use designations and regulation, if any, would bring about that character? 

Even in communities that have a considerable amount of land available for development, you may want to say in your land use plan or plan update that you should consider a form-based code, also discussed on our zoning regulations principles page. This newer type of code can be applied on a community-wide scale, or more likely, in particular parts of your city or town.

Especially if the value of land is high in your community, and every development requires discretionary reviews, you may want to put most of your emphasis on thinking and writing into neighborhood character goals rather than traditional land use goals.

New Ideals in Land Use Planning: From Separation to Mixed-Use

Older materials on land use planning emphasize segregation of land uses by type, and many active citizens still think that is the principle. Some of your planning commissioners and elected officials may think so too. However, a newer emphasis is on the performance of any particular type of land use.

If your plan has not been updated for many years, look for opportunities to specify that mixed-use development could be appropriate in particular locations.

Bear in mind that you may not need to work out the details of what the mix of uses would be or how they would be regulated. You could merely identifying potential locations that are appropriate for a particular location, and then require applicants to come before the planning commission and city council to approve a particular mixed use concept.

However, I suspect that in many communities, public opinion will demand that you spell out exactly what mix you have in mind and where, if you propose to introduce the mixing of land uses where most parcels have been developed.

Your policy plan should spell out the principles that will underpin decisions about how mixing the land uses actually plays out. For instance, you may want to keep the neighborhood retail at the end of a block or end of a vista. The same principle applies to smaller governmental and institutional uses. Alternatively you might decide that as long as these uses are the same size, architectural character, and layout on the lot as surrounding residences, placement on the block or series of blocks does not matter.

Be sure to accommodate also the fact that mixed-use development may be vertical, i.e., within the same building. On the land use planning level, simply mark certain tracts as appropriate for mixed-use, but generally don't set it up so that is the only future land use permitted unless you're really sure this is the public policy you want to promote.

If your community has transit stations, the surrounding areas within a five-minute walk are particularly great choices for encouraging mixed use development. Both businesses and residents would like to locate near transit. If interested in this topic, keep reading this page but also check out our page on transit-oriented development.

Making Density and Intensity Acceptable

If I knew the answer as to how to make people accept more density near their homes, I'd be wealthy. Recently we added a page though on a rather new movement called YIMBY (Yes, in My Back Yard) that aims to actually promote density, so there is a tiny bit of motion in that direction.

But I do know that as difficult as it is politically, you need to think about the density you need to make your transportation system efficient, to make walkable communities, to make expensive land yield enough profit that the development community will pay attention to you, and to avoid development in environmentally sensitive lands that might be adjacent to or within your boundaries.

Stop and do the extensive public education that it will require to make the reasons behind your wish for density acceptable. Bring in experts (or their books or website) to explain the benefits of compactness to your community and the metro area, if any.

Address directly the fear of property value loss. Calculate and explain in detail the fiscal benefits of density. If necessary, hire an architect to produce really great-looking renderings of the aesthetic possibilities under the density under consideration.

Sometimes elected officials fear that calling for a higher density will drive the development community away. If so, educate them about the mood of land developers today. Point out the publications and conversation at the Urban Land Institute, which is basically an organization of developers serving developers.

But do be courageous about planning the future of your community.

The Traditional Land Use Planning Method for Small Free-Standing Cities and Towns

Traditionally, the amount of land you need for each land use category was determined by making a projection about your future population, determining the amount of land used for each category currently, and then projecting future land use needs. If you need more detail on this way of thinking, see our answer to a site visitor's question about typical percentages of land uses.

This only works if you think your economy will stay about the same in composition, and you have agricultural land that is free to be developed surrounding your borders if you think your population will grow. But that applies to some of you, so here it is.

Population projections actually can be done by amateurs nearly as well as professionals. It even can be explained in one paragraph. Look at the population trend for perhaps the last 50 years, at 10-year intervals or whatever you have. If you have annual estimates, also look in detail at what has been happening in the last 10 to 20 years.

You can use your algebra (O.K., your computer) to make a straight line projection of what will happen in the next 20 years, or whatever your planning interval might be, based on the past 20 years, or a different interval if you have reason to think that 20 years would misrepresent the trend. Then adjust the results up or down based on known future developments, such as the withdrawal of a major employer.

Determine the current acreage or square miles used for each type of land use you're studying. Then divide by the current population to determine the acreage needed per person for each type of land use. Lastly, multiply this decimal by your population projection.

Then adjust again for likely or known future events. Is a major plant leaving town? Then it's silly to project a need for additional industrial land; you will have a surplus.

Is your economy rapidly changing because the state gave you the intersection of two major highways, so now you're a warehouse center? Well, maybe you need less land for factories and more land parcels near the transportation hub for a warehouse district.

Develop a common vocabulary for talking about the small town character if you're a place of under about 5,000 people. This too will help you shape the likely future land use needs of your community.

Next Read These Articles Relevant to Land Use Planning

  1. Making and Keeping a Good Community
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  3. City Planning
  4.  > Land Use Planning

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