Human land-use patterns are the result of a set of complex individual decisions within a system of finite resources. Settlement patterns are influenced by the price of land, available transportation infrastructure, public policy initiatives, and social and ecological processes that are not necessarily quantifiable. Land-use planning originated as a means to protect human health and welfare from the chaotic mix of development types that characterized urban areas. Local land-use regulations typically mandate the separation of land uses by type (e.g., industrial, residential, commercial). While many positives have resulted from land-use planning, some of the policy constructs (e.g., large minimum lot sizes) have unintended outcomes (e.g., sprawling suburban development patterns) with long-term ecological consequences. Since the late 1940s, the United States has experienced a shift in residential location from urban centers to the suburban and exurban fringe. In the process, large areas of previously undeveloped lands are being converted to urban uses with consequences that are not yet fully understood.
The decentralization of urban land use is driven both by individual desire to escape the disamenities of urban life (e.g., pollution, crime, congestion) and by a tendency to want to consume more land and housing as incomes rise. This pattern of development is reinforced by decreasing commuting costs which result from technological innovation and through subsidized transportation infrastructure (e.g., automobiles and highways, respectively). Additionally, the fragmentation of metropolitan areas into a large number of small jurisdictions tends to result in disparities in service provision and amenities (e.g., school quality), which further affects settlement patterns.
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