Public policies for managing urban growth and protecting open space: Policy instruments and lessons learned in the United States

David N. Bengston, Jennifer O. Fletcher, Kristen C. Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

451 Scopus citations


The public sector in the United States has responded to growing concern about the social and environmental costs of sprawling development patterns by creating a wide range of policy instruments designed to manage urban growth and protect open space. These techniques have been implemented at the local, regional, state and, to a limited extent, national levels. This paper provides a systematic review of the extensive literature that describes these public policies and their implementation. The main public policy instruments for managing urban growth and protecting open space at various governmental levels are identified and briefly described, including public acquisition of land, regulatory approaches, and incentive-based approaches. Key lessons are gleaned from the literature on the implementation of growth management policies. Our assessment of lessons found: (1) a lack of empirical evaluations of growth management policies, (2) administrative efficiency and other details of policy implementation - rather than the general type of policy - are critical in determining their effectiveness, (3) the use of multiple policy instruments that reinforce and complement each other is needed to increase effectiveness and avoid unintended consequences, (4) vertical and horizontal coordination are critical for successful growth management but are often inadequate or lacking, and (5) meaningful stakeholder participation throughout the planning process and implementation is a cornerstone of effective growth management. Faced with a growing population and increasingly land consumptive development patterns, more effective policies and programs will be required to stem the tide of urban sprawl in the United States. We conclude with a discussion of potential federal roles in managing development and coordinating state, regional, and local growth management efforts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)271-286
Number of pages16
JournalLandscape and Urban Planning
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - Aug 15 2004

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the USDA Forest Service, North Central Research Station Landscape Change Integrated Program and the Department of Forest Resources, College of Natural Resources, University of Minnesota.


  • Growth management
  • Incentives
  • Open space
  • Policy instruments
  • Regulation


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