Contents - Previous - Next

Chapter 1. Nature and scope

What is land-use planning?
When is land-use planning useful?
Making the best use of limited resources
The focus of land-use planning
Planning at different levels

What is land-use planning?

There is bound to be conflict over land use. The demands for arable land, grazing, forestry, wildlife, tourism and urban development are greater than the land resources available. In the developing countries, these demands become more pressing every year. The population dependent on the land for food, fuel and employment will double within the next 25 to 50 years. Even where land is still plentiful, many people may have inadequate access to land or to the benefits from its use. In the face of scarcity, the degradation of farmland, forest or water resources may be clear for all to see but individual land users lack the incentive or resources to stop it.

Land-use planning is the systematic assessment of land and water potential, alternatives for land use and economic and social conditions in order to select and adopt the best land-use options. Its purpose is to select and put into practice those land uses that will best meet the needs of the people while safeguarding resources for the future. The driving force in planning is the need for change, the need for improved management or the need for a quite different pattern of land use dictated by changing circumstances.

All kinds of rural land use are involved: agriculture, pastoralism, forestry, wildlife conservation and tourism. Planning also provides guidance in cases of conflict between rural land use and urban or industrial expansion, by indicating which areas of land are most valuable under rural use.

When is land-use planning useful?

Two conditions must be met if planning is to be useful:

• the need for changes in land use, or action to prevent some unwanted change, must be accepted by the people involved;

• there must be the political will and ability to put the plan into effect.

Where these conditions are not met, and yet problems are pressing, it may be appropriate to mount an awareness campaign or set up demonstration areas with the aim of creating the conditions necessary for effective planning.

Making the best use of limited resources

Our basic needs of food, water, fuel, clothing and shelter must be met from the land, which is in limited supply. As population and aspirations increase, so land becomes an increasingly scarce resource.

Land must change to meet new demands yet change brings new conflicts between competing uses of the land and between the interests of individual land users and the common good. Land taken for towns and industry is no longer available for farming; likewise, the development of new farmland competes with forestry, water supplies and wildlife.

Planning to make the best use of land is not a new idea. Over the years, farmers have made plans season after season, deciding what to grow and where to grow it. Their decisions have been made according to their own needs, their knowledge of the land and the technology, labour and capital available. As the size of the area, the number of people involved and the complexity of the problems increase, so does the need for information and rigorous methods of analysis and planning.

However, land-use planning is not just farm planning on a different scale; it has a further dimension, namely the interest of the whole community.

Planning involves anticipation of the need for change as well as reactions to it. Its objectives are set by social or political imperatives and must take account of the existing situation. In many places, the existing situation cannot continue because the land itself is being degraded (Plate 2). Examples of unwise land use include: the clearance of forest on steeplands or on poor soils for which sustainable systems of farming have not been developed; overgrazing of pastures; and industrial, agricultural and urban activities that produce pollution. Degradation of land resources may be attributed to greed, ignorance, uncertainty or lack of an alternative but, essentially, it is a consequence of using land today without investing in tomorrow.

Plate 2: A land-use problem: illegal clearance of forest in Sri Lanka

Land-use planning aims to make the best use of limited resources by:

• assessing present and future needs and systematically evaluating the land's ability to supply them;

• identifying and resolving conflicts between competing uses, between the needs of individuals and those of the community, and between the needs of the present generation and those of future generations;

• seeking sustainable options and choosing those that best meet identified needs;

• planning to bring about desired changes;

• learning from experience.

There can be no blueprint for change. The whole process of planning is iterative and continuous. At every stage, as better information is obtained, a plan may have to be changed to take account of it.


Goals define what is meant by the "best" use of the land. They should be specified at the outset of a particular planning project. Goals may be grouped under the three headings of efficiency, equity and acceptability and sustainability.

Efficiency. Land use must be economically viable, so one goal of development planning is to make efficient and productive use of the land. For any particular land use, certain areas are better suited than others. Efficiency is achieved by matching different land uses with the areas that will yield the greatest benefits at the least cost.

Efficiency means different things to different people, however. To the individual land user, it means the greatest return on capital and labour invested or the greatest benefit from the area available. Government objectives are more complex: they may include improving the foreign exchange situation by producing for export or for import substitution.

Equity and acceptability. Land use must also be socially acceptable. Goals include food security, employment and security of income in rural areas. Land improvements and redistribution of land may be undertaken to reduce inequality or, alternatively, to attack absolute poverty.

Box 1
The planning process

Land-use planning can be expressed in the following questions:

• What is the present situation?

• Is change desirable? If so:

- What needs to be changed?

Land-use problems and opportunities are identified by discussions with the people involved and by the study of their needs and the resources of the area.

- How can the changes be made?

Planners seek a range of ways to make use of the opportunities and solve the problems.

- Which is the best option?

Decision-makers choose the best option, based on forecasts of the results of implementing each alternative.

- How far is the plan succeeding?

Once a land-use plan is put into effect, planners monitor progress made towards its goals and change the plan if necessary.

One way of doing this is to set a threshold standard of living to which those of target groups should be raised. Living standards may include levels of income, nutrition, food security and housing. Planning to achieve these standards then involves the allocation of land for specific uses as well as the allocation of financial and other resources.

Sustainability. Sustainable land use is that which meets the needs of the present while, at the same time, conserving resources for future generations. This requires a combination of production and conservation: the production of the goods needed by people now, combined with the conservation of the natural resources on which that production depends so as to ensure continued production in the future.

A community that destroys its land forfeits its future. Land use has to be planned for the community as a whole because the conservation of soil, water and other land resources is often beyond the means of individual land users.

Box 2
Acceptability - an example

Following the drought of 1973/74 and the subsequent famine, the Government of Ethiopia became more aware of the serious degradation of soil in the highlands.

An ambitious soil conservation programme has concentrated on protecting steep slopes by bunding and afforestation. This has made a substantial impact on soil erosion but has not contributed much to increased agricultural production. Large-scale afforestation is also unpopular with local people because it reduces the area available for livestock grazing while forest protection implies denying access for fuelwood collection. A balance between the competing requirements of conservation and production is clearly needed if popular support for soil conservation work is to continue without inducements such as the Food-for-Work Programme.

A land-use plan to conserve steeper slopes by restoring good vegetative cover through closure, followed by controlled grazing, has been found to be more acceptable to the local people than large-scale afforestation applied in isolation.

Trade-offs between conflicting goals

Clearly, there are conflicts between these goals. More equity may mean less efficiency. In the short term, it may not be possible to meet the needs of the present without consuming resources, for example by burning oil or clearing areas of natural forest. Decision-makers have to consider the trade-off between different goals but, if the system as a whole is to survive, the use of natural assets must be compensated by the development of human or physical assets of equal or greater worth.

Good information is essential; that is, information about the needs of the people, about land resources and about the economic, social and environmental consequences of alternative decisions. The job of the land-use planner is to ensure that decisions are made on the basis of consensus or, failing that, informed disagreement.

In many cases, planning can reduce the costs in trade-off, for example by introducing appropriate new technology. It can also help to resolve conflict by involving the community in the planning process and by revealing the rationale and information on which decisions are based.

The focus of land-use planning

Planning is for people

People's needs drive the planning process. Local farmers, other land users and the wider community who depend on the land must accept the need for a change in land use, as they will have to live with its results.

Land-use planning must be positive. The planning team must find out about people's needs and also the local knowledge, skills, labour and capital that they can contribute. It must study the problems of existing land-use practices and seek alternatives while drawing the public's attention to the hazards of continuing with present practices and to the opportunities for change.

Regulations to prevent people doing what they now do for pressing reasons are bound to fail. Local acceptability is most readily achieved by local participation in planning. The support of local leaders is essential while the participation of agencies that have the resources to implement the plan is also important.

Land is not the same everywhere

Land is, self-evidently, the other focus of land-use planning. Capital, labour, management skills and technology can be moved to where they are needed. Land cannot be moved, and different areas present different opportunities and different management problems. Nor are land resources unchanging: this is obvious in the case of climate and vegetation, but examples such as the depletion of water resources or the loss of soil by erosion or salinity are reminders that resources can be degraded, in some cases irreversibly. Good information about land resources is thus essential to land-use planning.


A third element in planning is knowledge of land-use technologies: agronomy, silviculture, livestock husbandry and other means by which land is used. The technologies recommended must be those for which users have the capital, skills and other necessary resources; that is, appropriate technology. New technologies may have social and environmental implications that should be addressed by the planner.


A mistake in early attempts at land-use planning was to focus too narrowly on land resources without enough thought given to how they might be used. Good agricultural land is usually also suitable for other competing uses. Land-use decisions are not made just on the basis of land suitability but also according to the demand for products and the extent to which the use of a particular area is critical for a particular purpose. Planning has to integrate information about the suitability of the land, the demands for alternative products or uses and the opportunities for satisfying those demands on the available land, now and in the future.

Therefore, land-use planning is not sectoral. Even where a particular plan is focused on one sector, e.g. smallholder tea development or irrigation, an integrated approach has to be carried down the line from strategic planning at the national level to the details of individual projects and programmes at district and local levels.

Planning at different levels

Land-use planning can be applied at three broad levels: national, district and local. These are not necessarily sequential but correspond to the levels of government at which decisions about land use are taken.

Different kinds of decision are taken at each level, where the methods of planning and kinds of plan also differ. However, at each level there is need for a land-use strategy, policies that indicate planning priorities, projects that tackle these priorities and operational planning to get the work done.

The greater the interaction between the three levels of planning, the better. The flow of information should be in both directions (Fig. 1). At each successive level of planning, the degree of detail needed increases, and so too should the direct participation of the local people.

Box 3
Land-use regulations - a comment

The following observations, made by an FAO field staff member, could apply to almost any developing country:

• "There are a lot of regulations here - for example, forest conservation, fisheries - that are flouted with the connivance of the officials who are supposed to enforce them. Regulations have to be publicly accepted if they are to work. There aren't enough policemen to go around imposing unwanted regulations in rural areas."

• "Land-use planning is as much a matter of public education as of land-use zoning and regulation."

Figure 1: Two-way links between planning at different levels

National level

At the national level, planning is concerned with national goals and the allocation of resources. In many cases, national land-use planning does not involve the actual allocation of land for different uses, but the establishment of priorities for district-level projects. A national land-use plan may cover:

• land-use policy: balancing the competing demands for land among different sectors of the economy food production, export crops, tourism, wildlife conservation, housing and public amenities, roads, industry;

• national development plans and budget: project identification and the allocation of resources for development;

• coordination of sectoral agencies involved in land use;

• legislation on such subjects as land tenure, forest clearance and water rights.

National goals are complex while policy decisions, legislation and fiscal measures affect many people and wide areas. Decision-makers cannot possibly be specialists in all facets of land use, so the planners' responsibility is to present the relevant information in terms that the decision-makers can both comprehend and act on.

District level

District level refers not necessarily to administrative districts but also to land areas that fall between national and local levels. Development projects are often at this level, where planning first comes to grips with the diversity of the land and its suitability to meet project goals. When planning is initiated nationally, national priorities have to be translated into local plans. Conflicts between national and local interests will have to be resolved. The kinds of issues tackled at this stage include:

• the siting of developments such as new settlements, forest plantations and irrigation schemes;

• the need for improved infrastructure such as water supply, roads and marketing facilities;

• the development of management guidelines for improved kinds of land use on each type of land.

Local level

The local planning unit may be the village, a group of villages or a small water catchment. At this level, it is easiest to fit the plan to the people, making use of local people's knowledge and contributions. Where planning is initiated at the district level, the programme of work to implement changes in land use or management has to be carried out locally. Alternatively, this may be the first level of planning, with its priorities drawn up by the local people. Local-level planning is about getting things done on particular areas of land - what shall be done where and when, and who will be responsible.

Box 4
Starting at the local level: bottom-up planning

"Bottom-up" planning is initiated at the local level and involves active participation by the local community. The experience and local knowledge of the land users and local technical staff are mobilized to identify development priorities and to draw up and implement plans.

The advantages are:

• local targets, local management and local benefits. People will be more enthusiastic about a plan seen as their own, and they will be more willing to participate in its implementation and monitoring;

• more popular awareness of land-use problems and opportunities;

• plans can pay close attention to local constraints, whether these are related to natural resources or socio-economic problems;

• better information is fed upwards for higher levels of planning

The disadvantages are that:

• local interests are not always the same as regional

• or national interests;

• difficulties occur in integrating local plans within a wider framework;

• limited technical knowledge at the local level means technical agencies need to make a big investment in time and labour in widely scattered places;

• local efforts may collapse because of a lack of higher-level support or even obstruction.

Examples are:

• the layout of drainage, irrigation and soil conservation works;

• the design of infrastructure - road alignment and the siting of crop marketing, fertilizer distribution, milk collection or veterinary facilities;

• the siting of specific crops on suitable land.

Requests at the local level, e.g. for suitable areas to introduce tobacco or coffee, must be met with firm recommendations. For instance, "this land is suitable, this is not; these management practices are needed; it will cost so much and the expected returns are so much".

Planning at these different levels needs information at different scales and levels of generalization. Much of this information may be found on maps. The most suitable map scale for national planning is one by which the whole country fits on to one map sheet, which may call for a scale from 1:5 million to 1:1 million or larger. District planning requires details to be mapped at about 1:50000, although some information may be summarized at smaller scales, down to 1:250000.

For local planning, maps of between 1:20000 and 1:5000 are best. Reproductions of air photographs can be used as base maps at the local level, since field workers and experience show that local people can recognize where they are on the photos.

Box 5
Land-use, sectoral and integrated rural development plans

Land-use plans

• Allocate land to different kinds of land use;
• specify management standards and inputs;
• coordinate the work of sectoral agencies related to land use.

Sectoral plans

• These are projects and programmes of sectoral agencies, for example the forestry department and the irrigation department.

Integrated rural development plans

• Coordinate all aspects of rural development, including health, education, transport and land use.

Land use in relation to sectoral and development planning

Land-use planning is non-sectoral by definition but, unless a special planning authority is set up, a plan must be implemented by sectoral agencies - in agriculture, forestry, irrigation, etc. Implementation will call for help from the different extension services.

There can be no clear boundary between land-use planning and other aspects of rural development. For example, a desirable change in land use may be the introduction of a cash crop. Successful management may require the use of fertilizer. This cannot be done unless there are local centres for fertilizer distribution, effective advice on its use and a system of credit for its purchase.

Local services will be of no use without an adequate national distribution system and the sufficient manufacture or allocation of foreign currency for imports. Building a fertilizer factory and organizing national distribution are certainly not part of land-use planning but they may be essential for the success of planned land use. On the other hand, the siting of local distribution centres in relation to population and suitable land could well be part of the work of a land-use planner.

Therefore, there is a spectrum of activities ranging from those that focus on the interpretation of the physical qualities of the land, for which the land-use planner will be largely responsible, to those that need a combined input with other technical specialists. Furthermore, where matters of national policy - adequate prices for crops, for example - are prerequisites for successful land use, the planner's job is to say so clearly.

Figure 2: People in planning

People in planning

Land-use planning involves getting many different people to work together towards common goals. Three groups of people are directly involved (Fig. 2):

Land users. These are the people living in the planning area whose livelihood depends wholly or partly on the land. They include not only farmers, herders, foresters and others who use the land directly but also those who depend on these people's products, e.g. operators in crop or meat processing, sawmills and furniture factories. The involvement of all land users in planning is essential. Ultimately, they have to put the plan into effect and must therefore believe in its potential benefits as well as in the fairness of the planning process.

The experience and determination of local people in dealing with their environment are often the most neglected, as well as the most important, resource. People will grasp development opportunities that they themselves have helped to plan more readily than any that are imposed on them. Without the support of local leaders, a plan is not likely to succeed.

Achieving effective public participation in planning is a challenge. Planners have to invest the time and resources needed to secure participation through local discussions, by broadcasting and newspaper articles, through technical workshops and extension services. Imagination, a sincere interest in people and the land as well as a willingness to experiment mark the more successful efforts.

Decision-makers. Decision-makers are those responsible for putting plans into effect. At national and district levels, they will usually be government ministers; at the local level, they will be members of the council or other authorities.

The planning team provides information and expert advice. The decision-makers guide the planning team on key issues and goals while also deciding whether to implement plans and, if so, which of the options presented should be chosen. Although the leader of the planning team is in charge of day-to-day planning activities, the decision-maker should be involved at regular intervals.

Decision-makers also have a key role in encouraging public participation through their willingness to expose their decisions and the way they are reached to public scrutiny.

The planning team. An essential feature of land-use planning is the treatment of land and land use as a whole. This involves crossing boundaries between disciplines (natural resource, engineering, agricultural and social sciences), so teamwork is essential. Ideally, a team needs a wide range of special expertise; for example a soil surveyor, a land evaluation specialist, an agronomist, a forester, a range and livestock specialist, an engineer, an economist and a sociologist.

Such a range may only be available at the national level. At the local level, a more typical planning team may consist of a land-use planner and one or two assistants. Each must tackle a wide range of jobs and will consequently need specialist advice. Government agency staff and universities may be useful sources of assistance.


These guidelines are written in general terms, applicable to any environment or region. Many problems of land use are specific to particular areas, not only because of their differing physical environments but also because of local social conditions such as those of land tenure.

To acquire the feel of land-use planning, it is useful to read these guidelines in conjunction with examples of planning in practice. Thirteen such examples are assembled in the report, Land-use planning applications. Proceedings of the FAO Expert Consultation 1990 (FAO, 1991b). Other accounts of land-use planning, including national handbooks and sources of examples, are listed in Chapter 4.

Contents - Previous - Next