Landscape Planning and Land Use Planning: Definitions, History and Roles
by Mark O’Rourke, ASLA


Land use illustration for the City of San Luis Obispo, California. The planning established
the first form based zoning ordinance in the Central Coast.
Image courtesy of Rick Engineering Company.

In assessing the data from the PPN survey, the Co-chairs recognized a need to explore, discuss, and clarify “landscape planning,” “land use planning,” and their relationship. This piece defines these specialties, and describes how they developed, how they are similar and differ, and how they have evolved.

Common Roots of Landscape Planning and Land Use Planning

Landscape planning and land use planning are two separate though complementary fields. The roots of landscape architecture are embedded in both landscape planning and land use planning. Frederick Law Olmsted was a landscape planner (the Emerald Necklace) and a land use planner (Riverside, IL). Today, many landscape architects practice both landscape planning and land use planning.

Definition, History and Focus of Landscape Planning

Landscape planning can be defined as the scientific study of landscapes to assess past, current, and future capabilities to support different land uses that also accounts for environmental and ecological health. It has evolved into a scientific discipline practiced by landscape architects, planners, and natural resource scientists. In practice, landscape architects who use McHargian overlay analysis and assessment as part of their design process are doing landscape planning.

Landscape planning can be traced to ancient architects and builders. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (born c. 80–70 BC, died after c. 15 BC) wrote about the importance of microclimates, vegetation, and hydrology in the planning of new settlements and cities. The modern practice of landscape planning can be traced from Olmsted with his holistic approach to planning park systems. Patrick Geddes (1854–1932), the first bio- and socio-regional planner, and Warren Manning (1860–1938), a pioneer of early overlay analysis, were great influences in the modern development of landscape planning.

In the 1960s, an evolution in landscape planning occurred in concert with a new and vital environmental awareness. Ian McHarg (1920–2001) reintroduced the concept of overlay analysis with an emphasis on ecology and conservation of natural resources. The evolution of overlay analysis by McHarg was instrumental in the design and development of geographic information systems (GIS) as an invaluable analysis and assessment tool in all fields of planning. The field of landscape planning has evolved into a first step in the regional or land use planning process. In the United States, it is more frequently practiced by natural resource scientists in the fields of hydrology, forestry, geology, and watershed management. However, academically, landscape architects are very involved in the multidisciplinary process of the analysis and assessment of landscapes.

Definition, History and Focus of Land Use Planning

Land use planning is analogous to regional planning, community planning, urban planning, and any other planning exercise that ultimately plays a role in defining how land is used.

Within the professional planning community, the term land use planning is not commonly used. This is the result of the evolution of planning from strictly planning land use to a more equal concern with economic development, environmental justice, and social and economic equity. In the last two decades, the planning profession has again been more focused on land use planning, but has changed the terminology to Smart Growth, Sustainable Planning, Regionalism, etc. The tools for land use planning are zoning laws, subdivision and land use laws, and stormwater laws and regulations. Land use planners have also been involved in the transfer of development rights, purchase of development rights, farmland and forestry preservation programs, and additional programs to help guide land development. They also determine appropriate land uses based on ecological carrying capacity, historic land use, future regional development pressure, and economic development needs.

Current and Future Uses of Landscape Planning and Land Use Planning

Landscape planning and land use planning are synergistic in that landscape planning informs the policy-making and legal structure of comprehensive land use planning. Some examples where this occurs are the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, New Jersey Highlands Council, and the Cape Cod Commission. They all have conservation of water resources as the basis for making revolutionary land use planning changes in their regions.

The future of land use planning and smart growth is tied to comprehensive landscape planning in concert with economic development and socio-economic equity planning. With the new found awareness of stormwater and water quality issues in the planning community as a result if the EPA’s NPDES Phase II, the planning community is turning to landscape planners to provide a scientific rationale for smart growth that encompasses the stormwater and water quality goals of the EPA and state stormwater regulators.  

Mark O’Rourke, ASLA is a landscape architect and landscape planner, and is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He can be reached at:


“Link and Respect” regional perspective for treatment
of neighborhoods around Greater Downtown San Jose,
California. Work by Rick Engineering Company and SMWM
Architects. Image courtesy of Rick Engineering Company.

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Stan Clauson, ASLA, Chair
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