University of Wisconsin–Madison

Land Use

Written by Walker Kahn, Gianmarco Katz, Griffin Beronio, Max Prestigiacomo, & Gabriel Kahan

What's the Problem?

Quality parks and greenspaces are critical

Land use policy regulates the built environment through tools like zoning, building codes, and urban planning.  These policies affect virtually every aspect of life in local communities, including access to housing, jobs, schools, public space, public services, and transportation. Historically, land use is a policy area where local governments face little interference from state and federal governments in their efforts to improve health, environmental, economic, and social outcomes.

However, many communities maintain car-centric, low-density development land use policies that are economically inefficient, environmentally unfriendly, and reproduce socioeconomic disparities. To combat these negative outcomes, land use policies should be updated to promote compact mixed-use development; coordinate efficient transportation systems with housing economic activity; fight racial, economic, and health disparities; and encourage environmental sustainability and resilience. Tools like inclusionary zoning, transit-oriented development, and parking requirement reform are powerful tools that local governments can use to improve the overall wellbeing of their communities. 

What are People Currently Doing? 

Progressive land-use strategies can help create more equitable, accessible, and sustainable communities. As communities change and grow, municipal governments must work to make housing affordable for all residents.  encourages economically diverse neighborhoods and affordable housing through a mix of requirements and incentives. Cities like Jersey City, San Francisco, and Denver have used inclusionary zoning to require all developments of a certain size to include a baseline number of affordable housing units; however, they also offer developers incentives for exceeding this baseline by offering zoning allowances for things like building height or unit size. Chicago’s Connected Communities Ordinance uses similar affordable housing requirements and zoning incentives to create more affordable housing near mass transit. 

High-density zoning can help fight urban sprawl and drive efficient land use. Minneapolis’s city-wide ban on single-family zoning and Portland’s rezoning to allow triplexes, fourplexes, and townhouses on every residential lot in the city allow more people to live near centers of cultural and economic activity. Madison recently updated their zoning to allow Accessory Dwelling Units—detached secondary housing units that share a lot with a larger primary home—across the city. These types of rezoning projects add density gradually, without altering the character of a neighborhood.

Another way to combat low-density zoning is to allow or even require mixed-use zoning. Mixed-use zoning co-locates businesses and housing, improving quality of life by creating vibrant, lived-in neighborhoods, reducing commute times, and replacing single-occupancy vehicle trips with foot, bike, and mass transit. Typically, mixed-use zoning involves retail on the first floor of a multistory office or apartment building. Codes may also enable different uses on individual parcels in close proximity, allowing for businesses like corner stores in a residential neighborhood. Mixed-use zoning regulations in Colorado’s Jefferson County and development standards guidelines in Alameda County, California provide examples of effective flexible mixed-use zoning policies that can be tailored to the character and needs of existing neighborhoods. 

Transit-oriented development (TOD) coordinates the development of transportation, business districts, and housing to create compact, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods and reduce automobile dependence. Madison’s TOD policy introduced a new zoning overlay allowing duplexes to be constructed within a quarter-mile of major public transit routes, even within formerly single-family-only areas. Chicago’s Transit-Oriented Development Plan and the Bay Area’s Transit-Oriented Communities (TOC) encourage dense, mixed-use zoning near existing public transit corridors: households in Chicago’s TOD zones have access to almost twice as many job opportunities as other households. The Center for Neighborhood Technology’s EDOT tool creates location-specific projections on the impact of TOD policies on housing, jobs, transportation access, and local revenue. 

In the United States, we have more parking space than registered vehicles. This over-allocation of land to parking spaces creates unlivable and unsustainable cities. Parking takes up a huge amount of land, spreading out development and making walking, biking, and transit less efficient and less safe. Excess parking (especially parking that is supposedly “free”): competes for space with housing and commercial real estate, driving up prices. Cities like Honolulu and Minneapolis have taken a simple but effective first step in parking reform by eliminating minimum parking requirements and allowing businesses and developers to make their own determinations of adequate parking provisions. Seattle’s reduction of parking minimums saved the city an estimated $500 million by reducing construction costs, with the city capturing some of this value through increased commercial redevelopment. San Rosa, Austin, Houston, and Portland coupled parking management strategies with TOD programs by strategically pricing parking and devoting increased revenue fund TOD strategies. ProGov21 contains parking management guides and case studies of successfully implemented reforms, such as this report by SPARCC on equitable parking and TOD strategies, and the Department of Transportation’s guide to parking pricing and associated case studies.

Taking it to the Next Level

Localities can use land banks to take control of land use decisions rather than deferring to the private sector. Land banks are public or non-profit entities that buy and aggregate distressed properties as both investments and strategic resources for community development. The Denver Urban Land Conservancy strategically purchases vacant and delinquent land near future transit routes for future development. Denver leads the nation in acquiring low-value properties near planned transit infrastructure, allowing the city to capture increased property values and create affordable, transit-adjacent housing. The City of Madison Land Bank was used to purchase underutilized land for mixed-use development, creating new housing and jobs while raising nearby property values. Detroit and Kansas City use land banks to reduce barriers to homeownership by purchasing homes for resale as affordable housing. Seventeen states currently have legislation enabling land banks, with more on the way. See the Center for Community Progress’ National Land Bank Network for technical assistance and more resources.

Helpers, Allies, and Other Useful Organizations

  • Center for Community Progress fosters strong, equitable communities where vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties are transformed into assets for neighbors and neighborhoods.

  • Lincoln Institute for Land Policy seeks to improve quality of life through the effective use, taxation, and stewardship of land. 

  • Local Housing Solutions is a clearinghouse of comprehensive and equitable local housing policy that works to promote affordability and inclusion.

  • Local Progress is an organization of local elected officials committed to building power within underrepresented communities, distributing innovative policy ideas, and fighting to reshape what is possible in local communities across the country.

  • State Smart Transportation Initiative provides research, technical assistance, and information-sharing services for transportation officials and the communities they serve for adapting practices to modern policy around efficiency, equity, and the environment.


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