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Early city founders were the first American land planners when they would lay out in detail the streets and areas of their new cities and regulate how the land would be used. But formal zoning laws didn’t really exist until 1916, when New York City became the first to enact an ordinance that was the first comprehensive zoning law.

And that law came about all because of a single skyscraper . . . the Equitable Building.

One critic called this building a “monstrous parasite on the veins and arteries of New York.” Neighbors of the Equitable Building hated the shape and the scale of the skyscraper so much, they filed reduced property valuation assessments because their property fell under the large shadow the building cast. The resulting public criticism led city officials to enact a change.

Opposition to the super-tall building was only one of the catalysts for zoning laws. New York City wasn’t the first to wrestle with the problem of zoning ordinances. Other cities were in the process of answering how to best use their land to protect the public and balance the rights of the public with the rights of the landowners.

Pretty soon, the rest of the nation followed and modern zoning laws came into fruition.

Where Land Planning and Zoning Laws Are Today

All real estate in the United States is regulated through land use regulations and zoning laws. Zoning is the most common form of land-use regulation and is used by cities and municipalities to control and direct the development of real estate within their borders.

There’s a difference between land planning, land use, and zoning. Many people believe they are one and the same; however land planning and land use is the way that people adapt the land to suit their needs whereas zoning is how the government regulates the land.

Did you know? Land-use and land planning regulation doesn’t just control existing buildings and uses – it guides future development?

Now that we’re clear on the difference between the two, let’s chat about how it affects you – a potential buyer and developer of real estate.

How Zoning Laws and Land Use Regulations Affect You

If it were as easy as buying a piece of land, designing and building a beautiful building anywhere you wanted, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.

However, before purchasing a plot of land and beginning the building process, you must first determine if you can before you even bid.

It all starts with the master plan. Most cities and municipalities follow a comprehensive land plan that takes future land planning into account. In many cases, they’ve created an official map that outlines zoning, subdivision developments, street plans, public facilities, and other building regulations.

The city or municipality will have been divided into zones – residential, commercial, and industrial.

All of these will affect what property you can buy and how you use that property.

But there’s more.

Not only must you take into account the type of building you are going to place on the property and how you’ll use it, you must also follow additional restrictions that will be unique to each municipality and area.

These restrictions may include:

  • Specific requirements to the type of buildings allowed
  • Location of utility lines
  • Restrictions on accessory buildings
  • Building setbacks from the streets
  • Boundaries
  • Size and height of the building
  • Number of rooms
  • Frontage of lots
  • Minimum lot area
  • Side yards
  • Off-street parking
  • Historic or cultural site preservation
  • Ecological considerations

The list can be varied and extensive, so before you buy, you must first check all zoning regulations to be sure that you can do what you want to do with the property. Learn more about the details that go into land use planning.

Types of Land Uses

There are several types of land use in urban areas and each has specific designations and rules.

The top seven types are:

Residential – This type of land use regulates where people live. This is one of the more complex designations since there are different types of regulations in regards to density and types of residences that are allowed to be built from low-density (houses), medium-density (town houses), and high-density (apartment buildings). There’s even a separate category that allows for mixed-use development with a mix of residential, commercial, and recreational.

Transportation – Used to help people get from one destination to another. It’s not just streets and railways but the buildings associated with those activities as well such as airports, train stations, and subway stations.

Commercial – This is another designation that has separate “sub-designations” as well. Commercial land use may be warehouses, office buildings, restaurants, shops, or other commerce type buildings.

Agricultural – Where residential regulations may restrict the number and types of animals on the property, agricultural land allows for the growing and harvesting of crops and livestock such as farms, ranches, and pastures.

Industrial – This type of land use includes factories, warehouses, and shipping yards. Industrial use may be limited by types of industry and environmental concerns.

Public Use – Hospitals, schools, and municipal buildings land in this category as well as churches. These areas are set aside for the general public use.

Recreational – This land is set aside for parks, golf courses, open spaces, athletic fields, playgrounds, and swimming pools.

To view various examples of each of these types of land uses and how Think Architecture designed each land plan and structure, view our portfolio.

Types of Land Use Zoning

When city planners map out the city plan, they characterize each land use zone and this affects urban development. There are four types of land planning and land use zoning:

Functional Zoning – The seven types of zones outlined above are an example of functional zoning. Each zone is defined according to their function – commercial, residential, industrial, etc. Each has rules and regulations about the types of buildings and activities that can be built.

Form-based Zoning – This is zoning based upon physical characteristics or urban identity. Think of “downtown” areas.

Intensity Zoning – Defined by level of permitted intensity. Reflect back on the residential land use that is split between high, medium, and low density housing. This is an example of intensity zoning where a certain number of residential units are allowed per unit of surface.

Incentive Zoning – Economically depressed areas are often part of revitalization or development plans and developers are incentivized to build new buildings and areas through tax abatements or infrastructures such as light rail.

Whew! If that weren’t enough to keep track of, there’s more!

Non-Government Restrictions: Restrictive Covenants and Easements

As if zoning laws and land use restrictions weren’t enough, you could be contending with restrictive covenants and easements that are placed on the property by land developers or prior owners of the property on the deed.

What does that mean?

Let’s dive into the description of each of these:

Restrictive Covenants: These are provisions in a deed that limits the use of the property and prohibits certain uses. This could be placed on the deed by the previous owner, but are most commonly used by developers to establish and plan communities. Community planning preserves the character of the neighborhood by establishing minimum house sizes, setback lines, and other aesthetic considerations.

Easements: An easement is the right to use the property of another person. In some cases, where a property is landlocked, an easement gives the property owner the right to access his property across another person’s property by building a road. Another type of easement might not allow someone to build on a parcel of land in order to preserve somebody’s view or to preserve open land for environmental reasons.


When it comes to purchasing real estate for business or development reasons, understanding the variety of zoning, land use regulations, and covenants and easements is critical before you write that check.

And this is where we can help.

How Think Architecture Can Help

Hiring us is the best first step you can take.

Our team has developed a spectrum of projects across all types of land use zones, from municipal buildings to city parks to high density residential buildings and commercial buildings. We bring our experience to the table in land planning and can help you assess potential locations.

We have a deep understanding of how to manage each project and how to address each zoning regulation. Every parcel of land is unique and we’re up to the challenge of understanding the various rules of each zone and designing a building that conforms to those regulations.

Consult with us on your next project by calling (801) 269-0055 or send Think Architecture a message.