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Urban Planning - Module 1 of 5

Module 1: Urban Planning

Overview of Land Use Law

The origination, growth and long-term success or failure of human communities has greatly depended on how well they use their lands. Throughout history, people who have practiced poor land stewardship have suffered the consequences, including famine, disease, destruction of natural habitats, impoverishment, forced mass emigration and even societal collapse. The 1930s “dust bowl” in the central United States and the ongoing devastation of rain forests worldwide in favor of slash-and-burn farming are two relatively recent examples of how short-sighted land use policies or the absence of land use planning altogether can have long-term adverse effects on local, regional and global quality of life.  

It is, therefore, understandable that worldwide governments at all levels, from national to local, have enacted laws and policies to promote logical, practical and sustainable use of public and private lands. This is the fundamental motivation for land use planning.

At the macro level, the federal government exercises land use control and influence over federally owned lands through several agencies. The Bureau of Land Management, the Department of the Interior, the US Forestry Service, the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Administration each play a role in shaping and enforcing land use best practices on federal lands. State governments have their own agencies to accomplish the same objectives on lands under their purview, and state land use laws enable land use planning at county and municipal levels.

Land use laws affect standards of living by authorizing or restricting several areas of individual and community economic and social behavior. They influence economic activity by determining what lands are available for agricultural, commercial and industrial activity and resource extraction. They can enhance or lower property values and can impact community livability by setting aside lands for ecological preservation or recreational use. They affect energy availability and use through the creation of easements for pipelines and power lines. They contribute to national security by designating lands as restricted training areas for military use. These are only some of the human endeavors, large and small, public and private, that land use planning can significantly affect.  

Given the many ways that government land use laws bear on society and continue to evolve, land use planning is the subject of much attention and study. Many books, articles and other media address the topic, colleges and universities offer degrees in it, and terms like “Land Use Planner” and “Urban Planner” are job titles. This course will focus on urban planning, while protection of natural resources and similar aspects of land use laws are covered in environmental law and natural resources courses. 

One of the first challenges in the study of “urban planning” is to define what it is within the broader context of land use planning and comprehensive planning. No uniform legal definitions exist for these and other often-used terms such as comprehensive planning, regional planning, and urban design, and considerable overlap exists among different planning types. Compounding the confusion is that, in the United States, people involved with planning tend to use all of these terms interchangeably.

  • Urban planning is the narrowest term, covering land use laws and regulations in municipal areas like towns and cities and their surrounding environs at the county or borough level.
  • Land use planning includes urban planning, but also addresses planning for larger geographic areas or regions. Land use planning countenances land use at all levels, including federal lands and state lands.
  • Comprehensive planning incorporates land use planning (and thus urban planning, as well) and adds additional long-term considerations important to community development such as community goals, transportation planning, utilities planning, recreational planning and more.

The motivations for urban planning are both positive and preventive. The positive goal is to promote better quality of life for municipal residents. This can be fostered by planning for efficient access to essential and desirable services and amenities, such as education and healthcare, recreational opportunities and environmental preservation.

At the same time, urban planners seek to make life better by avoiding the consequences of a lack of planning or poor planning. Some of these challenges are:

  • Preventing land use conflicts. One example of this is the siting of residential areas sufficiently distant from industrial areas to keep the noise and pollution effects of factories, railroads and airports from disturbing people in their homes. Moreover, distancing suburban residences from agricultural lands minimizes the prospect of odors associated with farms and dairies.  
  • Minimizing traffic congestion. An inadequate road network can lead to a host of problems associated with excessive traffic: noise, air pollution, lack of parking and traffic delays. Thoughtful planning can reduce traffic choke points and route heavy traffic such as trucks away from residential areas.  
  • Preventing urban sprawl. A more recent concern that some cities attempt to alleviate through urban planning is to reduce the rate and extent of urban expansion by using urban growth boundaries. These encourage cities to grow “up” instead of “out” by building more high-density housing in already-developed parts of the city instead of constructing new single-family homes in suburban areas.

Development of Urban Planning

How to effectively control land use became a serious question for human beings as soon as they began to create communities. For example, identifying sources of clean water and preventing contamination of the water supply with human waste were important considerations when forming the earliest villages. As these villages evolved into towns and cities with larger populations, land use concepts had to evolve accordingly. Livability concerns required greater attention to facilitating the movement of people and their abilities to perform specialized roles, which, in turn, made necessary the efficient development and connection of supporting agricultural, mining, timber and other resources with surrounding settlements via roads and waterways.   

Although the origins of urban planning were likely based on trial and error experience, people all over the world quickly learned and implemented basic forms of organized urban land use. Evidence of city planning dates back 4,000 years to the earliest civilizations in China, the Indus Valley, Egypt, Mesopotamia, the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea and Central America.[1] Some of the common features of early urban planning were the introduction of the grid pattern for the layout of city streets, the creation of use-specific areas within cities such as residential neighborhoods and commercial districts and the emplacement of drainage systems to improve sanitation.  

Perhaps the zenith of urban planning in the classical era was the city of Rome, the population of which probably exceeded one million during the peak years of the Roman empire. This population was possible because of its extensive supporting network of roads, ports, public health, government and entertainment facilities, water supply aqueducts and sewage disposal systems.[2] The decline and fall of the Roman empire was a setback for urban planning in Europe; the population of Rome declined to a low of fewer than 30,000 during the so-called “Dark Ages,”  and it was not until the early 19th Century that a European city – London – reached the one-million residents threshold.

Today, land use laws have developed considerably from their early days and have benefited from the availability of more advanced technologies in engineering, construction, energy and medicine. Modern urban planning is now essential to maintain a global population of more than seven billion, with more than five-hundred urban areas that are home to a million or more residents.[3]  

Development of Urban Planning in the United States

When the United States gained its independence, the federal and state governments had no body of laws for urban planning. This was a time in America’s history when the concept of limited government was particularly strong, as was the idea that, absent specifically enumerated government powers to act, individuals were free to exercise their property rights without interference. City governments generally declined to exercise authority to take active roles in urban planning and concerned themselves, instead, with providing fundamental services, such as police protection. It was police power, however, that eventually became the source of legal authority for urban planning: the duty of state and local governments to defend the health and welfare of their residents.  

Possibly the most significant problem confronting early American communities was a lack of adequate sewage facilities. This deficiency contributed to cholera outbreaks in New York City in 1832, 1849, 1854 and 1866 that resulted in the deaths of more than 10,000 people.[4] Unsurprisingly then, the earliest efforts at urban planning in the 19th Century were connected to the development of improved sewer systems and other sanitation measures.

Although sanitation improvements solved some health problems, the rapid population growth of the United States in the latter half of the 19th Century and it’s gravitation to towns and cities – the population nearly tripled between 1860 and 1910, with almost half living in municipalities of 2,500 or more – led to new life quality challenges connected to overcrowding, pollution, impoverishment and the spread of infectious diseases like tuberculosis.  

In response, beginning in the 1890s, urban planning took on these issues through changes in architectural design, street layouts and use of open space. The thinking was that making cities more aesthetically pleasing places to live would uplift city residents to become more moral and law-abiding, thereby reducing the frequency and severity of social disorders such as crime and rioting. This urban planning philosophy became known as the “City Beautiful” movement, which continued into the 1920s.[5]

The next major development in US urban planning was the introduction of zoning, beginning with the first zoning law in the city of Los Angeles in 1908. Zoning was an outgrowth of earlier laws that precluded certain industrial uses of private land within city limits.[6] These limited activities that created unpleasant environments (such as tanneries and slaughterhouses) or that were inherently dangerous (such as the manufacture or storage of large quantities of explosives). Zoning dictates the uses to which land may be put, the types of buildings that may be built and the sizes and shapes of those buildings.[7]  

The Los Angeles zoning law created two types of zones: residential and industrial. Today, urban planners designate zones to be residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural and recreational, in addition to other possible classifications.

Improvements in building construction methods and materials in the early 20th Century led to the creation of the earliest skyscrapers, but without urban planning these towering structures would negatively affect surrounding properties. The most notorious example was the construction in New York City of the Equitable Building, a 41-story skyscraper built so close to surrounding residential neighborhoods that it blocked them from receiving sunlight. In response, New York enacted its own zoning ordinance in 1916 which imposed ratio-based building height restrictions based on the type of zone and the width of its streets.   

Zoning laws became increasingly common in the 1920s, their development encouraged through the creation of the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act in 1924.[8] Although the United States Commerce Department was the promulgating agency under the Act, it did not serve as federal legislation but rather a model law for states to use when drafting their own zoning laws, which most states did by the end of that decade. State zoning laws also serve as the enabling legislation for counties and local communities to formulate their own zoning ordinances.

Ongoing Development of Urban Planning

Although zoning is the basic building block of urban planning, variations to urban planning have emerged in response to social and economic changes as American society continues to evolve from its agrarian roots through the industrial era and into the modern age. Some of these variations include:

  • Systems planning: Early planning models focused on physical considerations, such as the location of municipal areas and where to situate zones within and around them. Systems planning developed as a result of the rapid growth of American urban centers in the decades following the Second World War. It reflects a multidisciplinary approach to planning that includes public health, safety, environmental and other layers of planning to promote a comprehensive and coherent design and maintenance of city systems.[9]
  • Democratic planning: This planning model seeks to expand public participation in shaping the urban planning process, to include stakeholders from citizen groups that otherwise may be marginalized or left out in community planning systems. Democratic planning may also be referred to as advocacy and equity planning.[10]
  • Environmental planning: Traditional urban planning considers how environmental conditions can affect municipalities and the decisions on where and what to build. Environmental planning contemplates the effects of urbanization on the local environment with the objective of encouraging planning and development practices that foster long-term environmental sustainability.[11]
  • Smart growth planning: Smart growth planning is the most recent form of urban planning and incorporates elements of its predecessors. This planning model seeks to anticipate and manage urban growth while simultaneously limiting the phenomenon of “urban sprawl” as cities expand outward to accommodate increasing populations. This planning theory emphasizes planning for higher population densities without adversely affecting quality of life or the environment. Urban growth boundaries, increased use of alternative and mass transit systems and the more efficient redevelopment of existing areas within the city before contemplating expansion into surrounding areas are common features of smart growth planning.[12]

Benefits of Urban Planning

It should be apparent at this point that the first benefit of urban planning is that it is superior to not having any system in place to manage urban growth. More specific advantages connected with urban planning include:

  • Enhanced preparedness for emergencies. Urban planning helps ensure that city neighborhoods and other zones consider public safety, public health, and avoidance of natural hazards such as flood zones or areas prone to landslides. In this way, urban planning helps to reduce the risk of natural disasters, fires, epidemics and other potential threats to the well-being and safety of the city’s inhabitants.
  • Better economic development. Carefully planned towns and cities make it easier for cities to logically situate transportation, commercial, manufacturing and industrial activities with nearby residential areas for workers to facilitate movement into and within the city and encourage economic activity. 
  • Happier and healthier residents. Minimizing traffic congestion, air and water pollution, overcrowding, and health and safety hazards contributes to an urban population that is more content and less susceptible to negative social influences such as criminal activity.[13]
  • Cities that can grow in an environmentally friendly manner. Preservation of the local ecology, better natural resource management over forests and watersheds, and reducing the loss to development of productive agricultural lands all contribute to a city that can grow without overtaxing surrounding areas or contributing to larger problems of waste disposal and pollution. Long-term environmental planning also makes municipalities less vulnerable to short-term environmental variables such as droughts or excessive precipitation.


The fast growth of urban populations in the United States and worldwide has made land use planning generally and urban planning in particular essential to the maintenance of healthy, orderly, prosperous and cohesive societies at local, regional and national levels. Without the application of lessons learned through millennia of trial and error in urban planning and development, modern civilization as we know it would be difficult to sustain. Therefore, understanding how urban planning laws and regulations affect population management and growth contributes to social stability and to the preservation of law and order.

In our next module, we will look at zoning ordinances and their roles in urban planning.

[1] Susan S. Fainstein, Urban Planning, Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/urban-planning (last visited July 12, 2019).

[2] David Galbraith, Graph of Population of Rome Through History, http://davidgalbraith.org/trivia/graph-of-the-population-of-rome-through-history/2189/ (last visited July 12, 2019).

[3] The Globalist, Just the Facts: World’s Million-People Cities (July 30, 2015), https://www.theglobalist.com/world-million-people-cities-china/ (last visited July 12, 2019).

[4] Disasters: New York City Cholera Epidemic of 1832, The Weissman Center for International Business at Baruch College/CUNY (2018), https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/nycdata/disasters/cholera-1832.html (last visited July 12, 2019).

[5] William H. Wilson, The City Beautiful Movement (1989).

[6] 1 Zoning and Land Use Controls § 1.02 (2019).

[7] 1 Zoning and Land Use Controls § 1.02 (2019).

[8] See 1 Zoning and Land Use Controls § 1.02 (2019).

[9] City of Ann Arbor, Mich., Systems Planning, https://www.a2gov.org/departments/systems-planning/Pages/default.aspx (last visited July 12, 2019).

[10] Geoff Gilbert, Interview: Gar Alperovitz, Democratic Planning (May 23, 2015), https://wiki.p2pfoundation.net/Democratic_Planning (last visited July 12, 2019).

[11] What is Environmental Planning? American Planning Association, https://planning-org-uploaded-media.s3.amazonaws.com/document/What-Is-Environmental-Planning.pdf (last visited July 12, 2019).

[12] City of Arlington, Va., Projects and Planning, Smart Growth, https://projects.arlingtonva.us/planning/smart-growth/ (last visited July 12, 2019).

[13]  6 Zoning and Land Use Controls § 34.02 (2019).