Land Use


Land use involves the management and alteration of natural land environments and functions with the intention of creating human structures and facilitating agricultural and industrial development.


Land is any solid portion of Earth's surface. The land's location often determines how it is used and evaluated. As population increases in a given area, the use of land and its value to people changes. Farming and livestock industries provide people with food. Certain land features can form a watershed or reservoir form water collection and use. Land provides space for urban areas, and suburban areas provide opportunities for recreational activities. Land is also the depository for solid waste created by modern society. Growing population increases pressure on land resources. Economic development and a rise in the standard of living have brought about more demands for the products of the land, and these demands threaten to degrade land.

Conflicts among competing land uses have created the need for land-use planning. Previous generations have used and misused the land as though the supply was inexhaustible. Today, goals and decisions about land use must consider information provided by the physical and biological sciences with the current social values and political realities. Misuse of land can lead to problems such as desertification, a process in which the topsoil historically used to grow crops fails to do so because of drought and human activities.

Land characteristics and ownership provide a basis for the many uses of land. Some land uses are classified as irreversible, for example, when the application of a particular land use changes the original character of the land to such an extent that reversal to its former use is impractical or impossible. Reversible land uses do not change the soil cover or landform. Land managers have many options when overseeing reversible land uses.

Public health role and response

Land-use planning has its origins in public health. The Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century led to rapid growth of factories, and people moved to cities in search of work, causing overcrowding. Urban slums developed, with lack of sanitation. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries public health organizations played a growing role in helping to improve community health and city services for residents in these areas.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, land-use planning increasingly required recognition that plans, policies, and programs must consider physical, biological, economical, and institutional factors of the land. The physical framework of land focuses on the inanimate resources of soil, rocks and geological features, water, air, sunlight, and climate. The biological framework involves living organisms such as plants and animals. A key feature of the physical and biological framework is the need to maintain healthy ecological relationships. The land can support many human activities, but there are limits. Once the resources are brought to these limits, they can be destroyed, and replacing them is impossible. Failing to preserve open spaces affects local habitats and the well-being of nearby residents, both human and animal.

Common diseases and disorders

Crowded urban conditions have led to rapid spread of infectious diseases. Overuse of land or water pollution can lead to disease among nearby residents from organisms or chemicals. Obesity has likely increased because people living in cities with high development typically get less exercise than those living in rural settings. Asthma and other breathing disorders can be caused or worsened by air pollution. Urban sprawl has reduced land for farming and the production of local food. In addition, people have higher risks of injury than ever from transportation and other infrastructures in cities. Using land without sustainability in mind can lead to habitat destruction, upsetting the natural balance of ecosystems that local plants and animals depend on.


Attitudes play an important role in influencing land use decisions, and changes in attitudes will often bring changes in institutional frameworks. Since the 1950s, land use in the United States has shifted from state and national parks and wildlife refuges to substantial areas of urban and transportation uses. The use of land has become one of the most serious environmental concerns. Today's land use decisions will determine the quality of future lifestyles, human health, and environment. The land use planning process is one of the most complex and least understood global concerns. Additional changes in the institutional framework governing land use are necessary to allow society to protect the most limited resource on the planet—the land we live on. Efforts to make communities more sustainable have led to energy savings, walking paths, support of urban farms, and other efforts to improve public health.

See also Factory farming and industrial agriculture .



Farr, Douglas. Sustainable Nation: Urban Design Patterns for the Future. New York: Wiley, 2018.

Montgomery, Charles. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design. New York: McMillan, 2014.


McClure, Roderick J., et al. “Simulating the Dynamic Effect of Land Use and Transport Policies on the Health of Populations.” American Journal of Public Health 105, suppl. 2 (2015): S223–29.


United States Department of the Interior, United States Geological Survey (USGS). “Climate and Land Use Change.” (accessed March 24, 2018).

Terence H. Cooper
Revised by Teresa G. Odle, BA, ELS

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.