This paper describes a class of spatial planning problems in which different land uses have to be allocated across a geographical region, subject to a variety of constraints and conflicting management objectives. A goal programming/reference point approach to the problem is formulated, which leads however to a difficult nonlinear combinatorial optimization problem. A special purpose genetic algorithm is developed for the solution of this problem, and is extensively tested numerically. The model and algorithm is then applied to a specific land use planning problem in The Netherlands. The ultimate goal is to integrate the algorithm into a complete land use planning decision support system. © 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.