Typical Percentage of Land Uses

Last Reviewed: June 14, 2024

Visitor Question: What proportion of the land in cities and towns typically is taken up by each type of land use?

Editors Reply: The answer to this is that generalizations about this really are not readily available, are not standardized across the country to any degree that would allow comparability, and will vary widely depending on accidents of geography, history, culture, and urban character.

For instance, in major cities, we found fairly recent existing land use data that will be shown below. Data should not be considered comparable, due to differences in definitions, dates when data were compiled and published, and ways in which streets and highways were counted or not counted in the tabulations.

As another example of why the data cannot really be compared across cities, some of the cities below lump all residential together, but Cincinnati had categories including single-family residential, condominiums, congregate housing (presumably things such as dorms and nursing homes), two-family buildings, and multi-family (presumably conventional apartments).

Now for some not-so-comparable percentages of the land in each city devoted to each type of land use, we found:

Single-family residential 49 percent
Parks, open space, cemeteries 14 percent
Major institutions and public facilities and utilities 11 percent
Multi-family residential 8 percent
Commercial and mixed use 6 percent
Industrial 5 percent
Vacant land 5 percent

San Diego
Parks and open space 28 percent
Residential 24 percent
Institutional including military 17 percent
Roads 14 percent
Industrial 4 percent
Commercial 4 percent
Vacant 4 percent
Water bodies 3 percent

Residential 34 percent
Vacant 20 percent
Parks and open space 11 percent
Institutions and public facilities 8 percent
Commercial 7 percent
Other 20 percent

Residential 30 percent
Transportation 24 percent
Parks and open space 13 percent
Industrial 13 percent
Institutional 9 percent
Commercial 5 percent
Vacant 5 percent
(Note some obvious rounding problems, but we are using data from the City's plan)

Residential 39 percent
Institutional 20 percent
Parks and open space 15 percent
Commercial 7 percent
Industrial 6 percent
Vacant 6 percent
Other 7 percent

So does this tell you anything? Other than vacant land and industrial land staying relatively stable at 5 to 6 percent in most cases--but not all--probably you didn't learn too much. In the case of San Diego, you see that a substantial military base or similar campus can really skew the figures.

The proportion of land used for "institutional," meaning anything from schools to colleges to government buildings to churches, nursing homes, prisons, or symphony halls, surprises some people with how substantial it is. The other one that surprises many people is the extent of parks, recreational facilities, and purposeful open space.

If it is difficult to obtain comparable data and then make any generalizations for large cities in the U.S., imagine how much that difficulty might be magnified when trying to compare different sizes of cities or just smaller cities in general.

In a smaller city, one large factory or a new college campus could skew the land use distribution substantially. Even a very large subdivision of large-lot homes might make a big difference. Thus comparisons would be even less likely to be fruitful.

So other than just plain intellectual curiosity, we are not sure you can derive much value from looking at the land use percentage distributions.

What is vastly more important is the future direction of those percentages. If your community wants more open space, it must come at the expense of something else. If land for industry is scarce, what land use classification should decrease in comparison? If residential uses are not dense enough, how would any decease in percentage of land use for residential purposes be handled?

If you are living in a city that has meticulously counted up its acreage devoted to streets and parking, what will happen when autonomous vehicles roam the streets and when personal automobile ownership becomes uncommon? How will streets that are narrowed or even abandoned be converted to positive use?

These are questions that are tremendously worthwhile for your community to answer. Wondering about percentages of land uses may be worth minor consideration, but comparison with norms probably is not.

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