Abridged version of chapter published in Comparative Land Use Law and Global Sustainable Development (Cambridge University Press 2006)

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This article describes how the American land use system has evolved to address recent environmental and economic development problems. It begins by tracing the history of the legal system used in the United States to control private sector land development and demonstrates how it achieved the flexibility needed to respond to modern challenges. The American land use system has paid a price for this flexibility: it is not a coherent whole, but rather a fragmented mosaic of legal influences. Impressive examples of cohesion are cited that suggest a strategic approach to reforming the system so that it can become an effective instrument for achieving sustainable development.

Despite its flaws, this legal system demonstrates how federal, state, and local governments can use an impressive array of legal techniques and practices to solve environmental and economic development problems. As such, it provides a useful model for evaluating other countries’ land use regimes. To encourage such comparisons, the article ends with a checklist of the characteristics of the American system and of the tools and techniques it employs.

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