Land Use

What is land use?

Think for a moment about the city you live in, or a city you’re familiar with. What types of buildings and open spaces do you see — what are they used for? Some buildings and spaces are going to be used for habitation (residential), others for business (commercial), civic functions (e.g., schools, fire stations, city hall), manufacturing (industrial), or recreational activities such as parks. All of these areas have been modified to some degree from their natural state to be utilized by humans. Each is a different land use.

Land use differs from land cover in that the latter refers to what is physically there (houses, trees, water, ice), while land use refers to how the land is used. Any parcel of the Earth’s surface can be described in terms of land cover, but only those areas used by people can also be defined in terms of land use. Today, much of the Earth’s land surface is used in the service of humans, so certain land uses such as urban and agricultural are quite extensive. Even forests may be considered a land use if the trees are harvested or otherwise used for human purposes.

Common urban land uses seen in central Omaha, Nebraska.

Land use can be described in terms of its function (for what purpose is it being used?), its distribution (where is it found and in what spatial arrangement?), and its intensity of use (to what degree is the particular type of activity occurring within a given space?). Urban land use, for example, is often used for a variety of purposes including dwelling, business, manufacturing and transportation. Urban land use can vary in intensity from low-density suburban development composed mainly of single-story buildings with ample green space (think suburbia), to high-intensity multi-story development with little open or unutilized land (think downtown).

The value of a particular parcel of land is due to it’s land use, geographic position, and the intensity to which it is utilized. In cities, land value is typically greatest near the center of the city where accessibility is highest. The land uses in the city center are therefore commonly high-rise residential apartments and office buildings, as these uses are profitable enough to compete for the space.

What is the most common land use?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS), grassland pasture and range comprises 29% of all land use in the U.S., making it the most common land use in country. The next most common land use is forest (27.9%), followed by cropland (17.3), miscellaneous land use (8.7%), and urban (3.1%). The remaining 14% is composed of “special uses” including defense and industrial land uses, farmsteads, parks, and rural roads and highways.

Worldwide, the most extensive land use is agriculture, with over 35% of the Earth’s land surface devoted growing crops and raising livestock (Goldewijk et al. 2010). This is an incredible amount of land; about 50 million km^2. And it has also grown at an astounding rate; just 300 years ago agricultural land comprised just 4% of Earth’s land surface. Managed forests and woodlands cover nearly as much area.

Land use by humans is so extensive that some scientists have suggested that we have entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene, which would follow the previous area, the Holocene. Additionally, given the degree of influence people have had on Earth’s surface and its physical systems including the atmosphere and hydrosphere, it may be more accurate to describe the landscape in terms of anthropogenic biomes, or anthromes, rather than ecological biomes.

global anthromes

The world’s major land uses, or anthromes. Source: NASA, Elllis et al. (2010).

Land use and zoning

In urban areas, land use is primarily regulated using zoning. One of the first manifestations of zoning was instituted by New York City in 1916 to regulate the size and shape of towering skyscrapers that were thought to block healthful light and air from pedestrians far below. The ordinance, however did not dictate for what purpose the land could be utilized. That would happen a decade later when the Village of Euclid, OH took Ambler Realty to court because they wanted to build an industrial plant in the middle of a primarily residential neighborhood. The supreme court ultimately ruled in favor of Euclid, establishing zoning in the U.S., and giving local governments broad powers to regulate the use of private property.

mixed-use development
A new mixed-use development with retail on the ground floor and offices above.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, zoning became rather strict, forcing not only obviously incompatible uses such as houses and heavy industry to separate, but also traditionally compatible land uses, particularly residential and commercial. To combat suburban sprawl, many zoning ordinances now include “mixed use” zones in which both residential and commercial land uses can exist side-by-side. Such zones may even permit the traditional urban layout in which businesses and residences occupy the same building (known as vertical mixed use). Often, retail businesses are on the ground floor, and either offices or residential units are found above.


Ellis et al. 2010. Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 19: 589–606.

Goldewijk et al. 2010. The HYDE 3.1 spatially explicit database of human-induced global land-use change over the past 12,000 years. Global Ecology and Biogeography.

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