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Stop Sprawl

A Catalog of Key Techniques

States can set the framework for addressing suburban sprawl, but most of the day-to-day decisions that shape the physical arrangement of our communities occur at the local and regional levels. This write-up provides a brief inventory of some of the key techniques available to you as you work to address development issues in your community.

If a city or town implements strong development regulations in isolation, it may simply deflect growth to neighboring jurisdictions. At the same time, if limits to growth are only established on a regional scale, development may still sprawl within these boundaries. As a result, an effective program to curb sprawl must operate at both the local and regional levels simultaneously.

Public and private techniques exist to help you in this endeavor. Private tools are generally most effective in protecting valuable resources such as natural areas and farmland. Public techniques can be mobilized for a wider range of tasks, including the establishment of community-wide systems for guiding development away from sensitive lands to places that can better support it.

What follows is a list of some of the most useful development management tools. Note that some of these techniques are only available to your community if your state passes special enabling legislation authorizing their use.


Conservation Easement: A legal agreement between a landowner and a public or private conservation organization that protects natural or historic resources by restricting the development of a property.

Land Trust: A private, non-profit organization that protects natural and/or cultural resources by buying land, accepting conservation easements, and educating the public.


Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance: A measure that makes approval of new development contingent on the availability of the roads, sewers, and other infrastructure needed to service it.

Agricultural Zoning: A technique that only allows development on lots of a minimum size and restricts land uses such as large subdivisions that are incompatible with farming.

Cluster Development: The practice of concentrating development on one section of a property to facilitate the protection of another section of the parcel as open space or farmland.

Mixed Use Ordinance: An ordinance that encourages or requires the combining of different land uses -- typically residential and commercial -- in a single development. This is generally done to reduce the distance between uses and thereby reduce the amount of auto travel needed to get from place to place.

Neotraditional Development: Development that draws on neighborhood and village designs from the early part of the 20th century to create more interactive and livable communities. Defining features include a grid system of streets, pedestrian-friendly design, a mix of uses, and traditional architectural styles.

Transit-Oriented Development Guidelines: Standards that seek to strengthen ridership on public transit by encouraging or requiring more compact mixed-use development around transit stops.


Purchase of Development Rights (PDR): A program that protects important resources such as farmland and open space by purchasing the development rights from willing sellers. Under this arrangement, the buyer acquires only the development rights to the land, while the seller retains all other rights, such as the right to privacy and the right to lease or sell the land.

Tax Base Sharing: A program that seeks to reduce the difference in the relative financial health of local governments in a region and thereby reduce competition for new development. Typically, the communities pool a portion of the growth in the commercial, industrial, and residential property tax base and then redistribute it based on an agreed-upon formula.

Transfer of Development Rights (TDR): A technique that seeks to shift development from important natural areas and resource lands to other areas that can better support it. This is done by removing the development rights from the land where protection is desired (the so-called sending zone) and allowing property owners to sell them on the open market to developers who are then permitted to build at higher densities in another location (the so-called receiving zone).

Urban Growth Boundary: A legally enforced dividing line that separates urban land uses such as compact residential and commercial development from rural ones such as farming and large lot residential development. When an urban growth boundary is established, the land inside is generally upzoned to a higher density and the land outside is generally down-zoned to a lower density. In addition, urban services are generally not extended outside the line.

Urban Service District: The area within which urban services such as water and sewer service are extended and outside of which they are not.

Further Reading on Community Planning Techniques:

Common Groundwork: A Practical Guide to Protecting Rural and Urban Land,
Institute for Environmental Education (1993). To obtain a copy, contact
Chadbourne & Chadbourne Associates at 216/543-7303.

Creating Successful Communities: A Guidebook to Growth Management Strategies,
Michael A. Mantell et al. (1990). To obtain a copy, contact Island Press at

Growth Management Principles and Practices, Arthur C. Nelson and James B. Duncan
(1995). To obtain a copy, contact the American Planning Association at

Land Use: Stewardship and the Planning Process, Vol. 10 in the Building
Sustainable Communities Series, The Global Cities Project (1993). To obtain a
copy, contact the Global Cities Project at 415/775-0791.

Saving America's Countryside: A Guide to Rural Conservation, Samuel Stokes et al. (1989). To obtain a copy, contact your local bookstore.

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