Planner Speak: What on earth is land use?

Have you ever had a conversation with a community planner? Sometimes it can sound like they’re speaking another language. They might throw around terms like infrastructure and acronyms like NAICS without even batting an eyelash.

We want to translate ‘planner speak’ into language that everyone can understand without having the ‘Dictionary of Urban and Regional Planning’ on hand. Each week, we’ll break down a term that planners use to discuss cities and regions. This week, we’ll introduce you to ‘land use’.

Land use (n.) is the way a property is utilized. For example, whether you live in an apartment, house, mobile home, or condominium, your home is a residential land use. General categories of land use include residential, commercial, industrial, institutional, and vacant.

     Residential2          Industrial

 Institutional          Vacant


When a property has more than one type of land use, it is called a mixed-use development. For example, if a glass blower lives above her studio and gallery, that would be a mixed-use development. Her studio is an industrial land use because she is manufacturing glass art and dinnerware. Her gallery is a commercial land use because people come to buy her glass products. If she lives above her work space and shop, then that adds residential to the mix of land uses. We will dig deeper into the term ‘mixed-use’ in a future entry.

When planners talk about ‘land use planning’, they mean figuring out how to arrange land uses. If land uses are arranged well, the government can better meet people’s needs, protect limited resources, and prevent conflicts between different types of land uses. A conflict might arise between land uses if something that makes loud noises or smells is too close to where people live or if a business that is for adults only is too close to a school or neighborhood. If the places that people live, work, play, and shop are close together, then they won’t have to travel as far and may even be able to walk or bike there.

A land use plan establishes the type, character, and magnitude of different land uses within an area. The character of land use involves things like how the buildings are designed and arranged along the street. The magnitude of land use is about the scale or intensity. For example a residential land use could range in magnitude from a home for one family to a collection of apartment buildings for hundreds of families on a single property.

A land use plan is only one of many types of plans. Check back next week for a deep dive into the term ‘plan’, the many types of plans that exist, and how they are made.



Dumouchel, J. R. (1975). Dictionary of development terminology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Robert, R. W. , & Webber, S. (1978). Land use in a nutshell. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company.


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