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Urban Growth Boundary

Urban growth boundaries are used to contain land development by delineating areas where government policy encourages high density, mixed used development from areas where policy encourages rural and agricultural uses.  Urban growth boundaries can promote prosperous urban areas and protect farmland and open space.


An urban growth boundary (UGB) is a way to “contain, influence, or direct growth to specific geographical locations” through “public acquisitions, land-use regulations, and infrastructure investments.”  (Pendall et. al, 2002)  A UGB is a boundary that delineates an urban growth area, an area zoned for high density, mixed use development, from rural and natural areas, areas outside of the boundary zoned for rural and agricultural uses.  The rural and agriculture zones can be designed to protect natural, historic, architectural and scenic resources.  UGBs are also referred to as urban limit, blue or green lines. (Pendall et. al, 2002)  The areas designated for urban growth are provided with public infrastructure and services and may be done so via a particular timed sequence to lower development costs and encourage orderly urban expansion.  (Pendall et. al, 2002)  Services and infrastructure should be viewed broadly, and can include water, sewers, roads, schools, parks, and emergency services. 

UGBs are designed to accommodate growth for a specific period of time, often 20-30 years.  An urban reserve area can be used to designate an area in which the urban growth area may be expanded at a future time. 

UGBs are part of a group of tools known as urban containment.  Urban containment tools include public ownership of land, urban service areas, (a line beyond which a local government decides to not extend its public infrastructure), and greenbelts, (areas of continuous land (a “belt” of land), comprised of parks, green space, farmland and other open spaces surrounding a town or city), and urban service areas.  (Pendall et. al, 2002)

Figure one shows the general design of a UGB. 

Benefits of UGBs

There are many benefits of a carefully implemented UGB.  These include:

  • Adequate infrastructure within the UGB is ensured and the cost of developing and maintaining it is minimized because it is concentrated within the UGB.
  • Funds are directed towards the revitalization of urban areas.
  • Certainty is added to the development process by clearly delineating where services will be provided. 
  • The development of affordable housing near urban services may be encouraged.
  • Development that can be served by public transportation is encouraged.
  • Relief of development pressure on agricultural and other rural lands is provided.
  • Long-term community growth planning is encouraged.

Local Urban Growth Boundaries

UGBs can be created at the local or regional level.  At the local level, a community will draw a single UGB to contain growth within its jurisdiction.  This can also be a tool for increasing development densities through infill.  However, the benefits will be localized, and the local UGB will likely push development towards rural areas of neighboring municipalities that lack strong land use controls.  Similarly, if multiple communities within an area establish individual UGBs without a regional plan, development will be pushed to more remote and possibly less costly locations, where residents still have sufficient access to an urban area.  (Realtors, 2008)

Regional Urban Growth Boundaries

A regional scale UGB counteracts some of these issues by creating a carefully planned, large-scale network of urban growth areas and rural and natural areas.  Regional UGBs should be created at the county level or higher, so that opportunities to spread development into sprawling locations at ever greater distances from urban centers are diminished, and the total amount of land that needs to be set aside for urban development to meet current and future needs is decreased.  A map of a regional UGB, established in Lancaster County PA can be found in ConservationTools library.  A discussion of the Lancaster County UGB is included in the case study at the end of this tool. 

The creation of a regional UGB requires the coordination of state, county, and local officials.  Examples of typical implementers are organizations appointed by the state governors (the Twin Cities area of Minnesota) and a state government agency (New Jersey’s Pinelands Commission).  (Realtors, 2008)  Portland, Oregon is often used as a case study for regional UGBs.  A good resource for studying regional UGBs is the Brookings Institute Report “Holding the Line: Urban Containment in the United States.” 

Effect on Housing Prices

Whether or not a UGB will increase housing prices within the urban growth area depends on how it is implemented.  The smaller an urban growth area and the longer it is in effect, the greater the demand for an ever decreasing amount of buildable land will be and the more likely prices for housing, as well as commercial and industrial sites will increase.  But the effect of a UGB on housing prices is not a matter of a simple supply and demand model.  Housing value and prices can increase because development within a UGB is often better planned, with access to public transportation and other public amenities.  Within an urban growth area, increased development densities, provision of public infrastructure and a streamlined approval process can offset increasing prices.  (Pendall et. al, 2002)  UGBs that require a mix of housing densities and housing types can increase housing affordability for a wide range of income levels. 

Several problems can arise from the potential of increasing housing costs and land prices within a UGB.  Increased prices can be especially difficult for low-income residents who rely on city amenities such as public transportation but may no longer be able to afford to live near them or who cannot afford the prices of housing outside of the urban cores.  (Realtors, 2008)  Political opposition to the creation of the UGB can be created if it is perceived that those already living within the UGB will be given an unfair market advantage to those living outside of its boundaries.

The effect of a UGB on land prices outside of the urban growth area can also be variable.  Land outside of the urban growth area may decrease in price, as rural land uses are no longer competing in development markets, making agriculture, forestry, and other rural industries more economically viable than if the UGB was not in place. (Pendall et. al, 2002)  However, this land may increase in value, especially if the land use regulations associated with the UGB have not been appropriately set.  For example, in the absence of appropriate land use regulations in the rural and natural areas, the creation of a UGB can incentivize the building of single family homes on large lots in the areas close to the boundary line.  These lots increase in value because they provide access to both urban amenities and open space, yet are generally not large enough to support farming or forestry activities. 

Implementing a Regional Urban Growth Boundary

The following basic steps can be used to create a regional UGB:

1.  Identify development related problems and issues the regional UGB should address.  These problems could include:

  • Agriculture and other rural resources being threatened by development,
  • Inefficient and overburdening use of public services such as water and sewer,
  • Development that “leapfrogs” over significant amounts of undeveloped land,
  • The need to reinvest in older urban areas,
  • The need to reach consensus on how a community should grow,
  • Development that leaves public services underused in some areas, and over used in others.  

2.  Establish a process for public participation: Public participation throughout the entire process increases the likelihood for the approval for the regional UGB and will help ensure that it addresses the community’s vision, goals and issues.  Creating an advisory committee to guide the development and implementation of the UGB is a good way to involve key stakeholders.  Stakeholders, including government officials, from all affected local governments must be included.  Include those most likely to be affected by a UGB, including those likely to support and those likely to oppose it.

3.  Gather and analyze the data needed to determine the location of the individual urban growth areas and the amount of acreage to be included within them.  The review should include:

  • Land use and development policies dealing with annexation, proposed housing types and densities, redevelopment, infill and intergovernmental coordination,
  • Local regulations that will influence the location of the boundary and the development within it,
  • Areas that should be protected from development,
  • Existing urban areas around which a UGB can be developed,
  • What services, (such as water, sewage, schools, police, and fire protection), are currently provided and their capacities, locations, costs, conditions, and planned expansions,
  • Current and predicted demographic data,
  • Land use data, including existing and approved developments (residential, commercial, and industrial),
  • Natural features, including those that would limit prevent development.

4.  Project expected population growth and land use needs.  This should be for a set period of time, usually between 20-30 years.  In calculating this, consider:

  • Projected population,
  • Projected commercial and industrial growth,
  • Target densities inside and outside the networks of UGBs,
  • Density limits established under existing laws and the ability to change these laws,
  • Ability of existing and planned infrastructure to handle target densities.

5.  Draw the UGBs: Each UGB should encompass an existing urban area, and together, the UGBs should encompass enough acreage to accommodate the projected need for developable land.  Many factors should be incorporated into this, including:

  • Where public infrastructure can be provided,
  • The quantity of vacant land needed,
  • The ability for growth to occur via infill,
  • The location of natural, scenic, agricultural, rural historic and architectural resources that should be protected,
  • The amount of developable land needed to ensure affordable housing in urban areas will not be eliminated and growth is not shifted to neighboring areas,
  • UGB sizes that are small enough that they prevent leapfrog type development within the UGBs or regulations to enforce well ordered development,  
  • Whether an urban reserve area will be necessary,
  • Whether all of the developable land inside the boundary will be made available immediately, or there will be a phased development schedule,
  • The likelihood that the location of an individual UGB would not contain growth, but push it into neighboring jurisdictions.  This might be likely near the edge of the networks of UGBs, especially near an area with relaxed growth regulations.

6.16.  Prepare an appropriate public information program: Provide public information on why the regional UGB is needed and how it will benefit the community.  This is also a good time to provide information on the methods that will be used to determine if individual properties lie within or outside of the urban growth area.

7.  Enact necessary interjurisdictional agreements: These must be signed by all governments whose land falls within an urban or rural/natural growth area as well as those who provide services in these areas.  They should clearly state how each government will interact in the development, implementation and revision of the UGB as well as how information will be shared. 

8.  Amend each participating government’s comprehensive plan, zoning, ordinances, or other regulations to reflect the regional urban growth boundary.  

Case Study: Urban Growth Boundaries in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania


In Pennsylvania, sprawling development threatens Lancaster County’s rural characteristics, including the Plain Sect culture.  The Growth Management Element of Lancaster County’s Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 1993 and updated in 1997 and 2006, established a county network of urban growth boundaries to address the sprawling development.  Under the 1997 revision, Urban and Village Growth Areas were created to concentrate development in specific, suitable locations.  Urban Growth Areas have cities or boroughs at their center, include developed portions of townships, and can support land use needs for 25 years without constraining the development market.  Village Growth Areas are areas designated as appropriate for future development and include an existing traditional village core, adjacent developed portions of a township, and additional land to absorb a portion of a township’s future land use needs over a 25-year period while maintaining village scale, character, and a defined edge.  Each have urban services provided or planed for within their boundaries and include both residential and mixed-use zoning at a density of at least 1 unit/acre.  Residential areas are to be developed at 5.5 units/acre.  Outside of Urban and Village Growth Areas, agriculture and rural economic land uses and natural areas were designated for protection from development.  Under this plan, 13 urban and 31 village growth areas were established, encompassing 41 of Lancaster’s 60 municipalities. 


Although there was great success in cooperative work between municipalities, the implementation of the growth management plan had mixed success.  According to the Lancaster County Growth Tracking Report, between 1994 and 2002, a total of 11,100 acres of land and 17,869 new housing units were developed during this time period.  Seventy-six percent of the development occurred within Urban and Village Growth Areas at an average residential density 4.6 units/acre (5.0 units/acre in Urban Growth Areas and .5 units/acre in Village Growth Areas.  The 24% of the growth that occurred in rural areas was at an average of .8 units/acre.  Most of the larger developments occurred within growth area boundaries, although some occurred outside of them, as did multiple small developments.  The small developments often occurred next to, or very close to existing development, showing (possibly unintentional) coordination with existing development. 

Several areas the Growth Management Element in need of improvement were identified by the Lancaster County Planning Commission.  These include a need for a comprehensive strategy to address quality of life and sustainability in rural areas, including addressing the viability of the agricultural industry.  Quality of life issues within developments need to be addressed, including having a greater focus on urban revitalization, encouraging alternatives to single-family, low density subdivisions, and providing parks and other open space amenities close to residential areas.  Municipalities must be able to effectively and consistently implement growth management tools and programs.

A New Growth Management Strategy

The Lancaster Planning Commission is striving to improve the efficacy of its land use policies through a new Growth Management Strategy, established under the 2006 updates to the Growth Management Element.  This strategy continues to use Urban and Village Growth Areas.  Designated Rural Areas are the new component of the plan.  Designated Rural Areas are areas that support agriculture and other economic uses of the land, (such as tourism and outdoor recreation) and “are to be maintained in a predominantly rural condition supportive of agriculture and other traditional uses of the land for the foreseeable future.”  Village Growth Areas are incorporated into Designated Rural Areas.

The Growth Management Strategy creates an Urban Growth Strategy and a Rural Strategy.  The following summary comes from “Balance, The Growth Management Element” (Lancaster County Planning Department)

1.  Increase the proportion, density, and intensity of development in Urban Growth Areas by achieving the following countywide targets for development by the year 2030:

  • Residential Dwellings: Accommodate 85% of the total increase in dwelling units in Urban Growth Areas.
  • Residential Density: Achieve an average density of 7.5 dwelling units/net acre on Buildable Lands within Urban Growth Areas.
  • Employment: Accommodate 66% of the total increase in employment acreage in Urban Growth Areas 

2.  Place a new emphasis on compatible reinvestment, infill, and redevelopment in Lancaster City, the boroughs, and urbanized areas of townships.

  • Reinvestment: Accommodate 12% of new residential growth (dwelling units) and 55% of new employment (jobs) in Reinvestment Areas (Lancaster City, the boroughs, and developed lands within townships’ UGAs).

3.  Improve the character and form of new development in Urban Growth Areas in order to enhance the quality of life for current and new residents.

  • Mixed-Use Centers: Focus new development in Mixed-Use Centers (Housing-, Retail- and Commercial-Mixed Use Centers)
  • Provide compact, pedestrian-friendly environments; open space, natural, and historic resources integrated into land use and development patterns; and opportunities for walking, biking, and transit use

4.  Increase housing choice and affordability to improve the well being of all citizens

  • Provide a greater diversity in housing type, tenure, and price within Urban Growth Areas, consistent with the Goals, Objectives, and Strategies of the 2005 Housing Element Update of the Lancaster County Comprehensive Plan

5.  Increase employment opportunities

  • Ensure the availability of sufficient lands in suitable locations (e.g., Mixed-Use Centers) within Urban Growth Areas to accommodate future employment needs
  • Prepare an Economic Development Element of the Lancaster County Comprehensive Plan

The Rural Growth Strategy establishes the following key objectives:

1.  Establish Designated Rural Areas within which rural resources, rural character, and a rural way-of-life are to be sustained and development that is incompatible with these uses is to be precluded.  Four types of Rural Area designations are proposed: Agricultural Areas, Agricultural with Natural Areas, Natural Areas and Rural Centers:

  • Designated Agricultural Areas contain the greatest intensity of agricultural resources and uses, and should be managed to preserve productive farmland, promote a healthy agricultural industry, and maintain scenic and historic rural landscapes.
  • Designated Agricultural with Natural Areas contain agricultural resources and uses mixed with a significant proportion of environmentally sensitive resources, and should be managed to preserve productive farmland and sensitive natural features.
  • Designated Natural Areas are areas with high scenic, recreational, and natural resource value, and should be managed to protect natural resources.
  • Rural Centers are the fourth type of Designated Rural Area.  Rural Centers are areas of existing development to which development not directly related to the rural economy is to be guided.

2.  Reduce non-rural development outside of Urban Growth Areas and direct it to areas of existing development (Rural Centers) so as to maintain the integrity of Designated Rural Areas and the character of traditional, small-scale settlements. Rural Centers include:

  • Village Growth Areas (50 or more dwelling units) as presently designated by municipalities and three new types of centers to be designated on a case-by case basis through municipal and multi-municipal planning processes.
  • Crossroads Communities (existing communities of 20-50 dwelling units)
  • Rural Business Areas (existing developed areas with undeveloped lots)
  • Rural Neighborhoods (areas of existing residential development)

3.  Maintain the viability of the rural economy, including agriculture and other economic activities that depend on rural resources.  Building on the work of the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners’ Blue Ribbon Commission on Agriculture, implement a comprehensive strategy to sustain a viable agricultural industry and preserve farmland.  Address the needs of the rural economy in an Economic Development Element of the Lancaster County Comprehensive Plan. 

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Lancaster County Planning Commission
Frey is a planner at the Lancaster County Planning Commission, which is the leading developer of urban growth boundaries in Pennsylvania.

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This tool was written by Elana Richman of the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association and edited by Mary Frey of the Lancaster County Planning Commission.

The following materials were used in the creation of this tool:


Nothing contained in this or any other document available at is intended to be relied upon as legal advice. The authors disclaim any attorney-client relationship with anyone to whom this document is furnished.

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