Land Use Planning Principles for Commissions and Boards

Land use planning principles, which should be applied by groups such as municipal planning commissions and town councils any time future land use is discussed, should include these considerations:

1. Respect and plan around the physical characteristics of the land, including slope, soil types, rare geological or environmental characteristics, floodplains (whether or not currently protected by levees), wetlands, and coastal zones.

This should be fairly obvious, but because we tend to ignore our local realities so often, we place this at the top of our list of land use planning principles.

To see how this applies, imagine you are forced into a linear configuration, such as a beach community between the ocean and adjacent jurisdictions, or a valley community between mountain ranges.

In those examples, you will of necessity have more than one business center to prevent people constantly having to drive from one end of a corridor to another.

2. The capacity and characteristics of the transportation system, including transit and bridges, are the second most important deteminant for land use.

Sometimes transportation planning is undertaken at a different level of government, so be sure you know what your county or state highway departments have in mind for you. In a U.S. metro area, you will have a Metropolitan Planning Organization designated for you, and they are responsible for allocating federal transportation dollars, which are very important dollars indeed in major road building.

Heavy traffic generators should be placed on the larger capacity streets. Major shopping and other traffic generating uses should be placed at major intersections so there is access from two high-capacity streets. If you understood only these two land use planning principles, you would be ahead of many small town and small city planning commissions.



Restrain your impulse to line major streets with businesses and busy driveways. This defeats the purpose of a hierarchy of streets based on their capacity; soon your supposed high-capacity roads will be the slow, traffic-clogged arteries.

3. Recognize or designate the existing downtown and any other major shopping or activity centers, and then plan to allow auxiliary services to group near them.

Generally more dense and intense land uses should be closest to the activity centers. In the event that your downtown is too large because your population is shrinking, the land use planning update is an opportunity to right-size it by planning for future multi-family housing or mixed-use development.

4. The density of the housing allowed also should relate to the capacity of the transportation system and physical characteristics of the land. Discovering ways to make increased housing density and commercial intensity acceptable as land use planning principles in your community is a very important project.

This importance stems both from the need to avoid suburban sprawl and the desire to keep your community's carbon footprint as small as possible in this time of possible global warming and certain increasing demand for energy use world-wide.

5. One of the most important land use planning principles is making transitions gradual. This is why you should not place your heaviest industry by your largest lot single-family detached homes. Residential should give way to neighborhood-scale retail, then to more intense retail and light industry. Heavy industry, sanitary landfills, and visually unappealing or stigmatized uses deserve some well-considered transitions from your most desirable real estate.

6. Change your designations of ideal future land uses when there's a reason as you progress through the mapping part of land use planning, or as future land use or zoning changes are requested.

If there's a sea of existing and future residential together when you see the color-coded maps, you may want to think of neighborhood-scale commercial where there's some vacant land at an intersection.

7. Mixed-use development is extremely worthwhile, as described on our page about the topic, but should be allowed a large enough area to make it feasible.

Many smaller communities are naturals at mixed-use, since that was their historic pattern. They will be relieved to find that their corner stores and houses next to offices are now legitimate according to contemporary land use planning principles.

8. Transit-oriented development in general should be mixed-use development, although of course there are exceptions. But do allow for intense future land use around future or current fixed transit stations. This would mean a physical facility of some sort, such as a terminal or a track, not every bus stop or even a bus stop with a small shelter.

9. Keep in mind that some industry still uses heavy rail, so of course provide some access if you intend to attract those types of industries. Recent research shows that about 40 cities in the country have potential for a cargo-oriented development zone, so keep that idea in mind if you find a truck freight and rail facility within relatively close proximity to each other.

10. Consider appropriate scale for your community as one of your land use planning principles.  Sometimes we try to change the character of an entire neighborhood by building one, two, or five houses, and that probably will not be enough.   On the other side of things, we think we can somehow allow the development of 200 new contemporary design homes on the edge of a neighborhood of 300 historic homes without forever changing the character of the historic area.  That probably won't work either.  This is what we mean by scale.

In some cases, that means prohibiting any further development of a particular type. For example, you might already have too much speculative office space near your downtown.

In other cases, this principle will mean aggressively mapping for additions to current land uses that you have in undesirably small quantities.

11. In general, try to create districts approaching a square, as opposed to long oblongs. For instance, rather than strip development along a highway, create a wholesaling district. Of course for retail and entertainment districts, try not to make them linear.

Streams and bikeways should be linear, but shopping needs plazas, benches, and fountains in the middle, don't you think?

12. In all cases, document in words why you are making particular mapping decisions. Although a policy-based plan is highly desirable, if you decide to take a map-centered approach, you still need to record what land use planning principles you were considering as the map was being drawn or changed.


A Few More Important Land Use Planning Principles

13. If you are part of a metropolitan area, even a mostly agricultural part of a Census-designated metropolitan area, pay close attention to what is happening in the metro area. Are population, number of jobs, and property values increasing?



Is the population composition changing in any way, due to immigration, aging in place, or lack of in-migration of people from other cities? Are major employers leaving or arriving? Is your airport expanding or contracting? What about military bases? These should give you some important clues about future land use.

14. If you have active agricultural land uses in your community, consider their value to future generations. Consider their value to you in case of national emergency threatening the integrity of the food supply. And think of their value as open space.

However, if your policy is to convert agricultural land use to residential and other urbanized land uses, make sure that population increases in your metropolitan area justify this conversion. Otherwise, don't plan conversion to urban uses. If you think the land is more appropriate as conservation land because it is poorly producing ag land, that's reasonable too.

15. If you are at the edge of a metropolitan area, or if you are planning for a town or small city that encompasses most of the urbanized land development within your boundaries, consider establishing open space buffers or greenbelts at the periphery of your town as urban sprawl solutions. You'll send the signal that this marks the end of the urban development, and future expansions should fit within that boundary.

16. In most cases give private developers some choices. If you map only one parcel of undeveloped land in your entire community for commercial development, that pretty much closes the case if that parcel is not for sale. Expect an uproar or a lawsuit. Obviously, in some cases outlined above, you might win, but really do your homework when you want to limit future development of a particular land use sharply.

For a more "in depth" look at land use planning principles and practices, here are two classic books we would recommend:

1. Burke and Godschalk's steady Urban Land Use Planning

2. Community Planning: An Introduction to the Comprehensive Plan

Other Pertinent Articles:


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