Legal aspects

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The input of legal aspects into the urban development and planning process is both a matter of politics, technicalities, and stakeholders. Through its profound implication for urban development, principles of law define the systems of urban government, establish the system of urban planning and regulation of land development, and delimit the powers of the urban planners as well as managers in order to regulate the use and exclude abuse of urban environment.[1]


Legal aspects in the context of this page include both restrictions enforced by law and by regulation. These restrictions cover a wide variety of aspects, as shown in the table below. However, there is little legal consideration currently given to security aspects, apart from natural disaster and regional emergency management plans, which relate more to the hierarchy of authority in such instances, etc.

The legal aspects vary between countries and the overview given on this page can therefore only be generic. Some aspects may not apply to your location or be embedded in different structures. Also, law and regulations can be subject to change.

Summary table of legal aspects in urban planning

The following table summarises legal principles that constrains or guides the process of urban planning:

Legal aspect Application National level Regional level Local level
City development plan / functional zoning The City Development Plan sets out a vision and overall strategy for the future development of a city, providing a framework through which new development proposals can be regulated and assessed. Such plans generally must be consistent with any national or regional strategic plans and any local plans must be consistent with the objectives of the City Development Plan. Planning must take into account spaces for roads, parking, and mass transport possibilities. Zoning (the regulation of building activity according to use and location) can facilitate this, such as locating high-rise, high-density establishments such as office and commercial buildings near transport centres. Urban density is also often regulated by the city planning authority through development management standards included in the Development Plan. X X X
Development management standards Development Management Standards are included in City Development Plans. Such standards provide criteria and guidance for developers on how a planning authority will assess planning applications. Such criteria typically include a land use zoning matrix (indicating the intended use of all lands within the boundaries of a plan area), site development standards (such as density, building / structure heights, building lines, infrastructural service standards, vegetation and landscape etc) and design principles (such as connectivity and permeability, sustainability, safety and legibility). X
Allocation of recreational objects and resorts [2] Planning has always sought to incorporate nature and open space in urban areas and to ensure that the surrounding landscape is protected as far as possible. The motivations for this include health, recreation, amenity and aesthetics.

Legal protection of green belts or ‘boundary buffer areas’ between towns, cities and the surrounding countryside has been established in many areas across Europe. Such green belts are often considered an important tool for urban planning to limit the potential for sprawl and to provide local communities with access to recreational and green areas.

Requirements for recreational and open space within new developments are typically addressed through development control/management standards. In new developments (including houses, apartments, duplexes etc) it is generally required that all residents have access to private / semi private open space.

Public open space is open space which makes a contribution to the public domain and is accessible to the public for the purposes of active and passive recreation, including relaxation and children’s play.

Traffic impact requirement / road construction Developers are often required to submit a Transport Assessment to a Planning Authority along with their planning application. Such assessments can include information on potential traffic generation from the site, the area of impact of the proposal, the local rate of traffic growth, potential modal split etc. Traffic Assessments are generally requested for large developments which are likely to generate higher volumes of traffic or lead to a prolonged period of road disruption. X
Safety [3] Issues of public safety are increasingly considered in planning processes. These issues concern various aspects, such as building safety, emergency management and safety to external threats.

Building safety is included in building codes and building regulations (see below).

With respect to emergency management, urban planning departments within city authorities have a legal obligation to facilitate first responders to react to emergencies. Urban planning must also ensure that new development proposals incorporate hazard risk mitigation measures. For example, City Development Plans are often required to establish the flood risk requirements for their functional areas. Planning authorities must assess development proposals in accordance with these established guidelines and any guidelines in place at a National level.

With respect to external threat, for example mechanisms for flood risk identification, assessment and management are often included into the planning process through the preparation of best practice guidelines. City Development Plans and other spatial plans such as Local Area Plans must be consistent with these guidelines. In addition, earthquakes hazards, for example, may be mitigated by limiting building heights, or not constructing high structures in areas where there are known earthquake fault lines.

Building codes / building regulations [4] Urban planners rely on the statutory role of the city development plan which will typically include a section on development management standards. This will be aligned with the relevant building code/building regulations for the design and construction of new buildings, extensions and material alterations to and certain changes of use of existing buildings. Building Regulations provide for, in relation to buildings, the health, safety and welfare of people, conservation of fuel and energy, and access for people with disabilities. The building code/regulations will typically set out minimum standards under the following types of areas:
  • Structure
  • Fire safety
  • Site preparation an resistance to moisture
  • Materials and workmanship
  • Sound
  • Ventilation
  • Hygiene
  • Drainage & waste water disposal
  • Heat producing appliances
  • Stairways, ladders , ramps and guards
  • Conservation of fuel and energy
  • Access for people with disabilities

The primary responsibility for compliance rests with designers, builders and building owners. Building control authorities have powers to inspect design documents and buildings, as well as powers of enforcement and prosecution where breaches of regulations occur. There are heavy penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for breaches of regulations. In addition, when it comes to selling your property, you may have difficulties if you cannot satisfy the purchaser's solicitor that the requirements of regulations have been met. Urban planners also assess a proposed development against a suite of good practice guidance and policy documents, which have a statutory backing, including for example Urban Design Manuals (part 1 and part 2) and Design Manuals for Urban Roads and Streets.

Appearance[5] Concerns systems and regulations on building heights, styles, sizes, and similar factors which may be established to prevent aesthetic clutter. For example, these may be applied in older towns where there may be potential for new building styles to clash aesthetically with older buildings. In addition to buildings, these systems and regulations may also apply to other elements of the public realm such as signposts, street lights, and building signs which could cause aesthetic clutter. X
Cultural heritage preservation Special protection clauses (rules of conservation of cultural heritage, monuments, and goods of contemporary culture) on historic monuments and historical areas may restrict changes to the built environment.

Structures considered to be of special interest from an architectural, cultural, historical, archaeological, artistic or scientific point of view are often designated as a ‘Protected Structure’ or a ‘Listed Building’. Often any works which may affect the character of a protected structure or element of a protected structure can require planning permission.

Conservation areas can also be designated. Development within conservation areas should be designed so as to not constitute a visually obtrusive or dominant form of development

Natural heritage preservation Restricts allowed use of space in concordance with the requirements of local natural resources.

In the preparation of a City Development Plan there is often a mandatory obligation on a Planning Authority to include objectives for the conservation and protection of natural heritage including the protection of European sites such as Natura 2000 sites (Special Protection Areas or SPA sites and Special Areas of Conservation or SAC areas).

Privacy [6] Restricts the gathering, storage and use of personal information to a minimal required level. Can be relevant in designing security measures using screening and some forms of surveillance. X X X
Public participation[7] Because of the different cultural approaches in the common decision-making process, citizen participation represents a very important process in the preparation of an urban plan. The UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (commonly referred to as the Aarhus Convention) is significant in this regard. It sets out a set of basic rules to promote the involvement of citizens in environmental matters and improve enforcement of environmental law. The Convention is legally binding on States that have become Parties to it. As the European Union is a Party, the Convention also applies to the EU institutions. X

Security-related aspects

  • The challenge in addressing security aspects is that that it is often difficult to assess, and integrate urban law with other relevant codes and approaches, such as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). ECHR and its case law sets the framework, extent and limitation of a number of human rights relevant to security such as right to liberty and security, right to respect for life and family life, freedom of expression, etc. Those rights and their preservation may be aspects to consider in planning urban infrastructure and implementing security-related concepts such as “designing out”.
  • The legal framework provides compulsory acts (both primary and secondary legislation) for safety in urban planning, but it lacks (compulsory) guidelines for security. Those guidelines would, among other things, have to identify limitations for taking security measures, for example due to preceding norms of individual liberty. While in the security debate the establishment and development of legal frameworks around data protection has been a hot topic of discussion and efforts, the legal framing of surveillance aspects might be of greater concern in urban planning and planning of built structures. The legal distinction of facilitating surveillance structures to enhance and ensure public security without violation of individual liberty and the human rights will evoke further controversies and is expected to gain more attention also in planning issues.
  • Another challenge is that the input of legal aspects into the urban development and planning process is not uniform:
"Principles of law" establish the context for urban planning and regulation of land development. Basic legal and political frameworks determine conditions under which urban management should be organised, urban reforms can proceed, and urban development processes are guided.[8] These principles could and should be expanded by the social right to security as well as the functioning and maintenance of the vital societal functions as fundamental principles.
  • Planning laws limit an owner’s rights in private property in order to secure benefits for the community as a whole. These benefits include: safety and personal health; convenience, amenities, and agreeable environments for the public; acceptable standards of private and public living as well as work places; and reasonable burdens of public expenditures that have to be incurred when land is developed.

Footnotes and references