Six Best Sources for Local Land Use/Land Cover GIS Data


Guest article by Kristen Carney and Aaron Herman of Cubit.  This article is a follow-up on “National Land Cover Data Set: When There’s No Local Land Use GIS data.”

Searching for land use/land cover data for your projects can make the proverbial needle in a haystack search seem like a walk in the park. At least with the needle in the haystack search, you know that the needle exists and you know where the haystack is. When searching for land use/land cover data, there may OR may not be local data, and you may OR may not know the agency that has the local data.

The best case scenario would be that your project/area of interest is in an area that has a local agency with excellent, accessible and current land use data and that they’ll let you have access to that data for free. I’d check the following agencies when hunting for land use data.

1 & 2. MPOs and COGs

I would start searching for land use data at the local Metropolitan Planning Organization or Council of Government (aka MPO & COGs). To see if there’s a MPO or COG in your area, check out this list of MPOs and COGs. When you visit their websites, search for “GIS”, “data”, “maps” or “land use.” A few tips when looking for MPO/COG data are as follows.


  • While most MPO/COG data is free, you may have to pay for some land use data as in the case with Metro, Portland’s MPO.
  • You may need to provide your contact information to the MPO/COG to access their data as is the case with the Central Texas Council of Governments.
  • You may also need to contact the MPO/COG for assistance in finding exactly what you are looking for, as is the case with the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. This MPO has links to server directories containing data, but the file names are not intuitive. There’s not a way to know exactly what is about to be downloaded.

3. Cities

Begin by going to your city’s website and searching for GIS data. If an initial search is fruitless, contact someone in the community development department, planning department or natural resources department to see if a land use dataset is available.

4 & 5. Counties and States

If an MPO, COG or city does not have land use data for your area of interest, try going to either the county or state website for information. The Des Moines Area MPO has a link that takes you to the Iowa Geological Survey’s GIS Library where you can search for and download data by county or by theme for the entire state of Iowa.

Another good starting point is simply doing a Google search for “state name+GIS”. Many states have a .gov or a site concerning GIS, maps and data. From these home pages, you will have to search for land use data. Not all states’ GIS portals are as easy to use as New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma or Texas portals. Some states like Georgia require a user profile to access free data. You may have to dig a fair amount to find land use data from a state’s GIS page. Or you may be required to follow links away from a state page to, for example, an educational institution’s GIS department or a non-state-government-operated clearinghouse.

6. Geospatial One Stop

Geospatial One Stop is a GIS portal to help you get access to geospatial data. But don’t let the name fool you–I wouldn’t call it a One Stop. A better name might be Geospatial Another Site to Check on your hunt for land use data.

The Back Up Plan: USGS’s 2001 National Land Cover Data Set

And if all else fails, check out the USGS’s 2001 National Land Cover Data Set–a land use data set that covers the entire United States.

About the authors:

Kristen Carney is one of the founders of Cubit, a firm that specializes in “cut-and-paste ready planning data”.  Aaron Herman is a fledgling GIS professional with a BS in Natural Resources Planning from Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA and an online post-baccalaureate certificate in GIS through Penn State University.

If you need more information about where to get land use land cover data, Aaron Herman researched and wrote an excellent whitepaper on the subject. This blog post is based on his research. If you want a pdf of his whitepaper, contact us here and we’ll send it to you.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you should check out Cubit–our web application that helps you get cut-and-paste ready planning data in seconds for your projects.


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