Land Use Lab at Urban

The Urban Institute’s Land Use Lab at Urban (LULU) delivers data and analysis on land-use regulations to help decisionmakers ground land-use laws, policies, and practices in research and evidence.

Understanding how cities and regions regulate land use is crucial to addressing many of our country’s most pressing challenges, including housing affordability, access to jobs, racial equity, and climate change. Restrictions on density or large-lot requirements in cities, for example, affect housing supply and price, while limiting where families with low incomes can afford to live and attend school. Overly restrictive local land-use regulations can narrow economic opportunities for workers. They can also encourage metropolitan areas to expand outward, increasing travel by car and greenhouse gas emissions.

Across the country, local, state, and federal policymakers increasingly support reforming local land-use regulations to boost housing supply, expand affordability, and increase racial equity. The Urban Institute’s Land Use Lab at Urban (LULU) delivers data and analysis on land-use regulations to help decisionmakers ground land-use laws, policies, and practices in research and evidence.

LULU’s work fills several key gaps. Researchers, advocates, and policymakers do not yet have adequate access to basic, comparable data on local land-use regulations to help them understand how such regulations affect housing development in communities. And though some local governments are experimenting with innovative reforms, we know little about how effective they are over the short and long term, how specific elements of the reforms affect communities, or how they may interact with other policies and programs. Moreover, real or perceived conflicts between public policy goals can impede adoption of smart and effective reforms. LULU researchers provide better land-use data, new analysis on regulatory impacts, and insight into best practices to adopt reforms.

The LULU approach

The LULU team is helping fill gaps in data and knowledge to support equitable and evidence-based land-use reforms through the following four sets of activities:

  • Unlocking foundational data
    Urban has long drawn attention to how data on land-use regulations are sparse and unstandardized, making research and evidence-informed policymaking difficult. The LULU team has developed and is applying techniques—such as surveys, machine learning, and careful manual comparisons—for assembling data on what regulations are used where and releasing the resulting datasets publicly. These data enable local policymakers and researchers to assess and compare land-use policies across numerous jurisdictions, identifying influential patterns or unique approaches that create desirable or harmful social outcomes.
  • Filling key knowledge gaps on housing supply and segregation
    A complex system of interdependent rules, regulations, and market forces shapes housing development in communities. It is often too simplistic to assume that changing a single policy, such as a zoning ordinance or an affordable housing rule, will boost housing supply, then increase racial equity or access to affordable housing. The LULU team’s research helps identify and connect the dots between these elements to draw out how combinations of policies and market forces influence housing supply within and across regions. Providing this research supports policymakers in taking a systems-oriented approach to land-use decisionmaking and housing production, allowing them to better address affordability concerns, displacement, and segregation.
  • Applying data and evidence
    Research does not always translate easily or directly into clear policy changes because local regulations are embedded in unique built environments and social and historical contexts. The LULU team collaborates with local leaders to tailor research to their community context—balancing concerns and trade-offs—and to inform policy change that results in more equitable outcomes.
  • Building a community of practice
    LULU researchers create a community of practice by bringing data and social scientists together to explore and illuminate the ways land-use policies can worsen or dismantle racial segregation and inequality. We host convenings and workshops designed to share information and best practices on advancing equitable and evidence-based land-use reforms at all levels of government.

Land Use Policies Can Connect, Not Divide Us