The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Wild Abandonment


A short-term focus causes developers,  consumers and municipal governments to abandon places that could become high-quality, well-located places to live, work and seek services.


Human settlement patterns in the United States are growing more dysfunctional each day. The indicators are along every road. They are reflected in the bottom line of every public and private budget. The cumulative impact of dysfunctional settlement patterns is on the front burner at every media outlet. Traffic congestion (“Access and Mobility,” Bacons Rebellion, 30 June 2003), lack of affordable and accessible housing (“Housing Dilemma,” Bacons Rebellion, 14 July 2003), the rising cost and deteriorating quality of public and private services, the lack of accessible open space, erosion of the Countryside, deterioration of air and water quality, lack of safety and security, as well as the projected decline of property values are some of the indicators of this profound dysfunction.


These indicators are, however, just that – indicators. They are the result of dysfunctional human settlement patterns, not the causes of these conditions. The causes are more complex. As documented in The Shape of the Future, settlement patterns are the cumulative result of billions of daily decisions by citizens and their organizations. 


When one examines regionwide pattens and densities of land use and correlates them with the market value of land and improvements, a profound conundrum emerges:

Citizens, families, enterprises, institutions and agencies are taking actions that systematically thwart the creation and expansion of potential high-quality, high-market-value places to work, live, seek services and participate in leisure activities.

Shape of the Future Special Report


This is the first of three special reports on contemporary human settlement patterns. This report focuses on the failure of current urban development processes to create new high-value/high-quality areas within the Urbanside. The second report examines erosion of the Countryside. The third deals with the citizen perspectives and perceptions that drive these dysfunctions. The observations contained in these reports are supported by the fundamental principles and theories established in The Shape of the Future and document the importance of “The Third Way” laid out in Handbook: The Three-Step Process to Create Balanced Communities in Sustainable New Urban Regions. A series of PowerPoint presentations illustrate the Three-Step process. (See Risse, E M. The Shape of the Future (2000) and Handbook (2003). Warrenton, VA: SYNERGY/Resources.)


The Context


New Urban Regions are home to nearly 90 percent of the population in the United States. The amount of urbanized land in each of these regions is expanding – even in urban areas that are losing population. At the same time, there is far more land already urbanized than there is a foreseeable market for. 


Within each New Urban Region, there are small areas of high-value and high-quality urban development. Immediately recognizable examples include Georgetown, Beacon Hill and Russian Hill. These are not the only high-value locations in their regions, but they are nationally recognized as higher-value urban enclaves. 


Georgetown, Beacon Hill and Russian Hill are hardly perfect. They lack some of the key ingredients cited in this report: balance, mix and diversity. They do, however, document that urbane, intensively developed locations are much more highly valued than “sub”urban places.

High-value areas make up only two percent to five percent of large New Urban Regions’ contiguous urbanized land as defined by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. In this geography, there are much larger areas of lower-value urban land uses that serve similar functions. These lower-value areas make up 70 percent to 80 percent of the urbanized area.

The ‘high-value’ and ‘low-value’ refers to both the value of a square foot of building area and the value of an acre of land. “Value” is used in this report to reflect market value. “Quality” reflects a more subjective measure. In practice at the regional scale, the two measures are by-in-large interchangeable. At the dooryard-, cluster- and neighborhood-scales, there may be differences due to the “no comparables” problem that is the result of the low turnover of specially located properties.     


By identifying Georgetown-like places as high-value, it is not intended to suggest that this report focuses only on a few exclusive enclaves. The village-scale Georgetown area in the federal District of Columbia covers about 0.1 percent of the intensely urbanized area of the National Capital Subregion. If, as noted above, high-value areas cover from 2 percent to 5 percent of the urbanized area, that means there is 20 to 50 times as much area as Georgetown covers in these high-value areas in the National Capital Subregion. It also means there is 700 to 800 times as much land in lower-value places. The two percent to five percent of the area in high-value enclaves is primarily located in widely scattered dooryard and cluster-scale components. The focus here is on a fundamental flaw in the region-wide urbanization process, not on the positives or negatives of individual places. 


The reason that the majority of citizens cannot live in the existing high-quality, high-value places is that there are so few such places. The market makes them unaffordable for all but the richest citizens. If the goal of the government and its citizens were to create high-quality places, a critical mass would exist, and the cost to live, work and seek services and recreation in these places would be dramatically lower. This would make them affordable to vastly more citizens. The specific issues of exclusion and gentrification are explored later in this report. 


The absolute dollar values vary from region to region. It is the relative values within a given region that are the focus of this discussion. Values may vary by an order of magnitude (10X) or more between the highest and lowest prices for similar land uses in a region. It is usual to find a 2X to 3X difference between the high-value, high-quality (2 percent to 5 percent) places and the run-of-the-mill (70 percent to 80 percent) places that serve the same functions for the vast majority of citizens. Precise dollar ranges can be determined on a regional basis but are omitted here for the sake of brevity.    


Throughout this discussion, it is important to understand the overarching imperative of creating Balance Communities in order to evolve sustainable New Urban Regions. The high-quality, high-value places discussed in this report either are or have the potential to become organic components of Balance Communities. These components may be of cluster, neighborhood or village scales. As organic components, they and the larger components of which they are a part will continue to evolve and grow.

The core issue is that the current urbanization process prevents the economic, social and physical evolution of these components to become parts of Balanced Communities.

The Central Theses


Within the context of these generalized market-value distributions, citizens and their organizations are making location-based decisions that result in their leaving one lower-value area and moving to a different lower-quality area. Individuals, families and organizations higher on the economic food chain are relocating to different lower-value areas where there are currently fewer urban land uses and where there are often large tracts of vacant land. Many of the places these citizens are leaving have the potential to become great, high-quality places.


In the face of the economic, social and physical popularity of quality, urbane places, citizens and their organizations across the United  States are leaving the locations that have the potential to evolve into places of high quality and value. This “abandonment” is progressing at an accelerating rate. 


These potential high-value places are not being abandoned in the sense that buildings are being left vacant. Rather, people are abandoning them in the sense that they are giving up on the old places. Complete abandonment does take place in large New Urban Regions, but that generally comes later in the process and is not the condition addressed in this report. 


In the most common situation, the present owners are moving “out” and to what they consider “up.” The buildings or dwellings they owned often are being sold to less well-off buyers. These former owners are frequently moving to more expensive, but still relatively low-value areas.


“Abandonment” is used to indicate that present owner is choosing to move instead of investing time and money in his current unit, as well as the time and effort necessary to improve the dooryard, cluster and neighborhood where that home or business is located. 


Frequently “value per square foot” (aka, more house for the money) is given as the reason for the move. It is clear, however, that in a market economy, cheaper means less desirable. Lower market value than that of a comparable home closer to the core means a less desirable location. The property is priced lower for a reason: It is located near fewer of the places that citizens need to access. Higher market value reflects higher quality.


In a sense, this is classic “move-up/trickle-down” strategy of individual advancement that real estate agents, Fannie Mae and populist politicians love. The problem is that cumulatively, this activity has a profoundly negative impact on the region and its citizens.

Not only are potentially high-value urban places being abandoned, but the Countryside is being eroded and despoiled by the urban land uses which are being irrationally scattered across the landscape.

The current process degrades both the Urbanside (10 percent of a region serving 75 percent of the population) and the Countryside (90 percent of the area serving 25 percent of a region’s population).


The American Dream


It is often said that the “sub”urban condition is what citizens want. However, this is not what market values indicate. The highest values by far are found in evolved urban places, not “sub”urban places.


As noted in The Shape of the Future, a root cause of dysfunctional human settlement patterns is that the process of urbanization becomes frozen in place at a “sub”urban stage. (See The Shape of the Future, Chapter 19 Box 1.) Factors contributing to this stagnation are municipal zoning, homeowner and civic and homeowner associations, NYMBYism and other forces. It turns out that the abandonment process causes and perpetuates this stagnation – in spite of the fact that allowing the urbanization process to continue would result in higher-value, higher-quality components of human settlement, allowing clusters, neighborhoods and villages to evolve into viable components of Balanced Communities.


Over the past 40 years, urbanists have been wailing that quality places and citizens’ quality of life are eroding. (See Blake, Peter. God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of Americas’ Landscape. New York: Henry Holt & Co.,1979, to Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.) Throughout this time, citizens have, in fact, voted with their dollars for high-quality, high-value places. Georgetown, for instance, started out as a working-class village, but no one had doubted in the past 50 years that it is a high-value area.


Reality is so obscure, however, that the front page of The Washington Post can suggest that the demand for a more urbane environment is something new:

“...many suburbanites...are yearning for a more urbanized look that would make cars and big-box stores less needed.”

(Craig, Tim. “Columbia’s Next Step Spits Town: Some Want More Housing; Others Seek Office, Retail,” The Washington Post. Page A-1, 9 August 2003.)


The abandonment of potentially high-value urban environments is not just an issue of losing historic resources, although some structures and patterns do have historic importance. The problem is broader than the decay of core urban areas and even the “sub”urban decline in the 30, 50 and 70 year old ‘first ring’ of “sub”urban development. Abandonment and despoliation affects all human settlement patterns: It impacts buildings, spaces and landscapes from dooryard to region in scale.


When citizens are polled, they say they prefer to spend time in high-quality urban places (including quality urban enclaves in the Countryside) and quality non-urban (as opposed to “sub”urban) places. Polls are backed by market behavior. Citizens are, in fact, willing to pay a premium to enjoy these places.


Urban recreation venues range from central Paris to theme parks and beach resorts. Non-urban venues range from pristine Countryside to wilderness. It is often noted that with the exception of visiting the homes of family and friends, no one chooses to vacation in the “sub”urbs. When they do, the host family hauls, guides or sends the visitors to the high-value areas of the region to spend quality time.


Popular literature is replete with condemnations of “sub”urban areas. This assessment is borne out by the values per square foot and per acre as compared to higher-quality places. What the current abandonment process perpetuates is the creation of more and more lower-quality areas and few, if any, new high-quality places.

The current development process is creating “sub”country (lower-density “sub”urban land uses in the Countryside) by scattering urban land uses across the landscape.  In addition, it is depriving potential high-quality areas of the market demand for the spaces, goods and services that are required for the upgrading of development (infill, backfill, refill) that is necessary to achieve high-value status.

This report, the first of three in this series, focuses on the anatomy of the abandonment phenomena. Part three of the Special Report will address why people are making these unenlightened decisions.


Characteristics of High-Quality Places


The characteristics of areas that have the potential to become high-quality places where citizens would like to spend time can be identified. Several are listed below. Most important, however, is that these areas lie within the Clear Edge, either around the core of the New Urban Region (the Urbanside) or around the urban enclaves in the Countryside and Urban Support Regions. They are most often situated near the jobs, services and amenities that agglomerate in regional and community cores.

The agglomeration of jobs, housing, services, recreation and amenity is why these places are the cores of communities and New Urban Regions. To update that old adage: It’s all about “location (regional), location (community), location (village), location (neighborhood).”

Within this context, here are some clues to potential high-value areas:

 Significant topography and natural features such as a grove of mature trees, a stream valley or lake.

  Spacially focused history, including a significant structure or two.

 Goods and services, especially food, eating and drinking establishments, etc., that can be reached on foot.


 A coherent, safe street system that can evolve to have a ubiquitous pedestrian access grid for an area that is not bifurcated by a busy road or highway.


  A place that is aesthetically pleasing, where citizens tend to congregate.


  Proximity to existing high-quality areas, but only if those areas can be expanded in a way that creates larger, balanced components of urban fabric.


  A shared-vehicle system (aka, transit) station; access to public utilities and services.


  “Character,” as in “architecture worth saving.”


  Areas within components of Balanced Communities possessing the infrastructure necessary to create a quality life for citizens.


  Areas within potential components of Balanced Communities possessing the infrastructure necessary to create a quality life for citizens.

As one moves down this list, if a place possesses these characteristics, it may have been “discovered” already; the chances are good that its properties sell for higher prices. Unfortunately, an upward blip in value often inspires some residents to cash out and look for cheaper (bigger house for the money) places.


The characteristics of quality places have been attractive for hundreds of years. The best approach to creating quality places is most often building on what others have started–hamlets and crossroads that have been engulfed by expanding urban areas.

The bottom line: Create a critical mass of quality development that contributes to the evolution of a Balanced Community with a relative balance of jobs, housing, services, recreation and amenity.

Ways to visualize the character of places that can become high-value ones are detailed below.


The Importance of History and Genes


The human settlement patterns at the village, neighborhood, cluster and dooryard scales most highly valued by citizens have remained remarkably similar over the past 6,000 years. The residential and commercial real estate market and the most popular leisure travel destinations document that traditional urban environments are the most highly-valued components of human settlement. These places, usually of at least village scale, are those most highly valued by 21st-century citizens as places to live, work and seek services and recreation.


Many of the locales most popular in the United States today were laid out by the end of the 19th century. In addition, many of these places are characterized by structures and spaces at scales and in patterns which were common 200 years ago and some 2,000 years ago.

These settlement pattern preferences, and thus the high market values of these components, are due to the laws of physics, as well as genetic proclivities that are hardwired into human beings. These preferences are translated into economic reality by the collective action of the market. This reality of economic geography will remain the norm until there are fundamental mutations in Homo sapiens or there are changes in the natural laws that control organic systems including human settlement patterns.

Market values document that most of the “conventional wisdom” about what citizens want (aka, the American Dream) is dead wrong. Development patterns spurred by the conventional wisdom make a few people richer, faster. Citizens would not choose these places if they had an alternative, as proven by the disparity in market values between higher-quality versus lower-quality components.

Citizens settle for lower-value places because they cannot afford better.  High-quality, high-value places are unavailable and unaffordable not because they are an exorbitant luxury, but because these places do not make money for the critical agents-of-change as as quickly as do lower-value places built on cheap land. Land is often cheap because it is not well located. (See “Affordable, But No Bargain,” Bacons Rebellion, 17 Feb 2003.)

A window on this reality is provided by the popularity of new urbanist “town centers” which are designed to look like “main street.” Since they are built from scratch, the per-square-foot value is too high to accommodate the diversity of goods and services that would naturally evolve. The stage-set street facades are often filled with chain stores designed to look like mom and pop retailers.     


What is judged to be a high-value, high-quality area by citizens is a constant. The cost of places is a variable that depends on the actions of government, citizens acting in their enlightened self-interest and what the market will bear.


How to Visualize High-Quality, High-Value Places


There are many ways to visualize what high-quality places look like. Several are suggested below. One simple method is to go to a juried craft fair and look at the paintings and photographs for sale. The high-value places are those painters and photographers like to portray. 


The craft fair images depict quiet, tree-lined streets with venerable buildings that are well maintained. The buildings are usually small in scale with interesting textures and designs. The images often portray people enjoying themselves. If there are no people depicted, the buildings and spaces look like places they and their customers would enjoy. The craft fair approach is a way to find places artists and other creative people like to live, work and spend time. (For an indication of the importance of this fact see, Florida, Richard. Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, 2002.)  


Craft-fair images are the ones that the marketplace has proven individuals like to display on their walls. These places do not, however, look like where most people actually live. Unfortunately, most people live in the 70 percent to 80 percent of the region that is lower in quality and value. 


Many of the places where citizens live could look like the craft fair images. Such an outcome is possible in locations that have the potential to become high-value areas. The evolution towards a more desirable appearance would require, however, imagination and a fine-grained mix of new, complementary land uses created through a process of redesign and redevelopment. In other words, these places must be allowed to undergo the traditional urbanization process that has provided the most desirable human environments over the past 2,000 years. Abandonment of possible quality places ensures that they never evolve to meet their potential.


Another way to visualize quality places is to survey the locations that movie and t.v. producers and advertising agencies (except those who have been hired to market new houses) choose to depict ordinary people having a good time. One can also check out regional lifestyle magazines ‘best neighborhoods’ features and the many “100 best places to live” and “best small towns” books and guides.

New home ads are not a way to find quality places. These ads focus on the unit and not the context. These ads entice citizens to buy attractive units in hard-to-reach locations. No matter how lovely an individual house or housing project is, if it is in a location that is difficult and time consuming to reach, has inferior public and private services and is not a component of a potential Balanced Community, it cannot be considered a quality place.

A further source of images of quality places is guidebook illustrations concerning European travel, especially small urban places in Tuscany, Provence, Alsace, Bavaria, the Cotswolds and similar locales. Also consider the illustrations of neighborhoods that are recommended for visits in Toronto, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris, London or Vienna.


One can be more academic and look at the urban design texts from the 60s and 70s. (See Rudofsky, Bernard. Streets for People: A Primer for Americans. Garden City: Doubleday & Company,1969, and Alexander, Christopher. The Timeless Way of Building. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.) More recent how-to-guides include (Sucher, David. City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village. Seattle: City Comforts Press, 1995, and Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day. New York: Paragon House, 1991.) 


There are also books about Planned New Communities and, more recently, about New Urbanist’s “traditional neighborhoods.” Many of these books contain drawings of places that have not been built. Those that have been constructed often do not turn out as well as the renderings. On the other hand, some are very successful. Lake Anne Plaza in Reston, Va., some residential clusters and “live-work” areas in Kentlands, Md., many parts of The Woodlands, Tex., and the “stage sets for a happy life” known as Celebration, Fla., and Seaside, Fla., are places worth examining.


It is also easy to document characteristics that quality places do not possess:

  They are not dominated by asphalt, wide roadways and parking lots for automobiles.

  They are not set in the middle of what was a pasture, cornfield or desert last year.

  Buildings do not have unadorned concrete, vinyl or glass surfaces.  

The High-Rise Issue and Higher Intensity


The areas termed high-value/high-quality in this discussion are not the high-rise/skyline/ skyscraper areas found in regional cores and in “Edge Cities” of large New Urban Regions.  Prominent, high-rise areas are an even smaller percentage of the region’s urbanized area than are high-value, high-quality areas. 


The fear of NIMBYs is that any change will result in an unacceptable increase in the intensity of development and the presence of many “high-rise” buildings. “We do not want to be Manhattan.”  From a market perspective, there is almost no possibility of new high-rise buildings emerging where there are not already mid-rise or high-rise buildings.


First, these building types require a high-volume, shared-vehicle-system station or a large capacity expressway and large parking lots. We have passed the time when high rises will “pop up” as they did during the heyday of the Interstate Highway expansion that spawned “Edge Cities.” 


High-rise areas are valuable per square foot and by acre because these buildings are very costly to build. There is an important distinction between high-rise areas and high-value areas as used in this report. High-value areas are most often composed of buildings that have useable floors (excluding steeples and towers) of no more than four to six stories. They also frequently have buildings that are shorter than the tallest mature trees found in the openspaces within the enclave.


However, areas with high-rise buildings can be high quality. In Canada and the European Union, urban builders have found ways to include one or two high-rise buildings among other buildings in a high-value area. Lake Anne Plaza in Reston, Va., and The Woodlands, Tex, are rare examples in the United States. In the United States, we have not often found a way from a financial perspective to include one or two high rises without surrounding them with parking lots or with other high-rise buildings.


In general, quality places are not dominated by high-rise buildings. At the same time, the high-value, high-quality areas in almost every case are higher in intensity of land uses than low-value areas.  This higher intensity is a critical ingredient of the places being higher quality–more opportunities for human economic, social and physical interaction. 


Achieving higher intensity does not lower quality. It can be demonstrated that there is a vast difference between densities of one person per 20 acres and one person per four acres. (These are typical density ranges at the top end of the scale outside the Clear Edge.)  However, a similar 5X change in intensity, from 10 persons per acre to 50 persons per acre, can be made with little change in character and a vast improvement in amenity of an area so long as there is an intelligent, sensitive design. Most areas with 10 persons per acre which have the potential to become high-value enclaves have significant vacant and underutilized land.


Two Wild Cards: Gentrification and Knockdowns


The rapid evolution of high-value areas is not an unvarnished good deal. High-value areas that emerge too quickly are subject to citizen gentrification, which drives out lower income residents and businesses that support employment and services but cannot afford high rents. The expulsion of the original inhabitants raises issues of equity, fairness and discrimination – and undermines the demographic diversity necessary for Balanced Communities.

The ‘solution’ to rapid gentrification is to create more high-quality areas to meet market demand and thus reduce the price differential.  The problem of rapid citizen gentrification is exacerbated by the abandonment of places that have the potential to become high-value areas.

There is also a counterproductive rebuilding process in ‘knockdown’ zones. Knockdown zones are areas with small, single-family, detached houses on larger lots often in close proximity to more prestigious single-family detached housing. The large lots make it profitable to knock down ‘30s bungalows or small ‘50s ranches, split levels and colonials and replace them with McMansions. This ‘structure gentrification,’ like citizen gentrification, also is exacerbated by the abandonment of potential high-value locations.

Knockdowns create higher-value residential monocultures, but they seldom assist in creating high-value, high-quality areas. 

True high-value areas are the antithesis of knockdowns. Knockdown activity flourishes near ‘exclusive’ monocultures of low-density residential land uses. High-value places have a higher intensity of activity and a mix of land uses that is not found in residential monocultures of any price range. Although exclusive and higher priced gauged on a square-foot or acre basis, single-family, detached monocultures are not high quality unless they are a functional component of a Balanced Community.


Knockdown structure gentrification must be distinguished from “subdivision recycling” that can, with proper planning, lead to the creation of high-value settlement patterns.


Data on High-Value Areas


High-value, high-quality places have a number of characteristics in common. There are factors of style, texture and “atmosphere” noted above. In addition, there is a higher intensity and mix of uses at dooryard, cluster, neighborhood and village scales. The density frequently ranges between 30 and 80 persons per acre respectively at the cluster and neighborhood scales. Many lower-value areas with the same uses range in density from five to 15 persons per acre.


The profiles of high-value places are not readily apparent on a municipal jurisdiction basis or from regional census data. This is because most municipal jurisdictions which have high-value areas also have low-value areas. The city of Alexandria and Arlington County in Virginia are good examples. Jurisdictions tend to present data on a municipal-wide basis, which balances out the high and the low. Aggregate data masks the existence of the low and the location of the high. Only by looking at census block and block groupings that can be re-aggregated into organic components of human settlement do these facts emerge. Larger-scale agglomerations mask the data on organic components that are high-value.


Census data can provide a rough approximation of the phenomena in smaller municipalities. Research by staff at Virginia Tech and various Planning District Commissions have calculated the ratios between “Median Household Income” and “Median House Value” in Virginia’s 134 counties and cities to determine “Affordability Ratios.” 


The same data can be used to determine “Quality of Housing Ratios.” In Virginia, the cities of Williamsburg, Lexington and Harrisonburg are three of the five municipalities with the highest ratios (most expensive housing). The high home values reflect the fact these these jurisdictions are among the most attractive places to live in the Commonwealth. As noted above, even these relatively small municipal jurisdictions have low-value areas as well.  Other places with top ten ratios include Fredericksburg, Radford and Charlottesville.


There are no similar data on towns or non-municipal urban enclaves (urbanized areas, urban clusters or census designated places), but, in general, the more attractive a cluster-scale, neighborhood-scale or village-scale enclave is, the higher the housing cost. This means housing is less affordable and out of reach in the high-value/high-quality places for all but those near the top of the economic food chain. (See “The Housing Dilemma,” Bacons Rebellion, 14 July 2003.)

Again, the market solution is to create more desirable places. The impact of current real estate development and consumer buying brings about the opposite result.

Georgetown, Beacon Hill and Russian Hill have far higher values per dwelling unit or per square foot than comparable land uses being built at the fringes of the Washington-Baltimore, Boston or San Francisco Bay New Urban Regions. The same higher value is true for the “old town” areas in almost every region in the country. The current abandonment of potentially quality places tends to mean that only the rich can afford to live in the quality places, while everyone else must go through a gate or get in a car, tour bus, train or airplane to visit them.


The rich benefit in another way: When housing prices fall, they tend to preserve their value in the quality places. When housing prices fall, the first place they lose value, after the overpriced McMansions, is in the lower-value areas. (See Woodall, Pam. “House of Cards,” The Economist, 29 May 2003.) Scattered subdivisions in outlining areas are especially hard hit. Those who made a profit from the initial sale are long gone.

A rising tide raises all big boats, but a lot of the small ones are swamped.

Do Your Own Test


Now that the thesis of potential quality place abandonment has been spelled out, citizens can test the assertions near where they live. It may be easiest to recognize by first looking at quality urban environments near the Clear Edge around the region’s urban core and in the Countryside within 75 miles of the core of a large New Urban Region. Take Loudoun and Fauquier Counties in Virginia, for example. 


Start with a small test case that you can research easily. Here is an example: On a value per square foot of building or an acre of lot, the small, quaint townhouses in the neighborhood-scale hamlet of Waterford, VA, sell for far more than new McMansions that are being built all over the county in which Waterford exists. That county is Loudoun County, the second fastest growing county in the United States. 


Waterford is the remnant of a 19th century mill town that has few jobs, few services and an unsatisfactory water supply, but charming buildings and spaces. Part of Waterford’s charm (and market value) is its historic setting. Just think what the quaint townhouses in Waterford would be worth if they were part of an organic component of settlement with a greater balance of land uses. A significant degree balance could be achieved within the historic context without changing the character of Waterford. 


These same quality of structures and spaces could also be part of an Alpha Village with a relative balance of jobs, housing, services and recreation to go with the amenity. This is the case in the Loudoun County seat, Leesburg. In the 19th century core village of Greater Leesburg, land and buildings are far more valuable than comparable residential or commercial structures now being developed at the fringes of Greater Leesburg.


The facts are similar for the village-scale enclaves of Warrenton in Fauquier County and Middleburg that is on the border between the two counties. The existing buildings including recent construction that is comparable with the structures created over the past 200 years are much more highly valued than the new buildings of comparable size and function five miles away from the core of Leesburg, Middleburg or Warrenton. This is true even when the new scattered urban land use has a gated entrance and includes a golf course. At the same time, within Leesburg, Middleburg or Warrenton, there are many vacant lots and underutilized structures that could be built upon or rebuilt which would result in a much higher quality and value for the area.  


Other small urban places in these two counties that have lower market values -- places that are considered less desirable because they do not contain a critical mass of significant structural and spacial resources that indicate quality human settlement patterns -- still have higher values than new construction intended for similar uses that are scattered across the Countryside. In spite of this fact, thousands of scattered and locationally impoverished structures will be built this year.


As with Leesburg and Warrenton, the comparable structures that are five miles from the core of Williamsburg, Lexington, Harrisonburg, Fredericksburg, Radford and Charlottesville noted above have much lower values that those in close proximity to the core.   


These patterns are also found in community-scale urban enclaves within the Commonwealth’s Urban Support Regions and in some parts of the urbanized cores of the Richmond and Hampton Roads New Urban Regions. This occurs despite the fact that, for instance, in the case of Richmond, the central locations are thought of by those who live in subdivisions in surrounding Chesterfield and Henrico Counties as places plagued by crime, vandalism and bad schools.  


The market value of dwellings in many of the neighborhoods near the core of Richmond are two or three times the value per square foot as those in the “safe and clean” “sub”urbs.


Root Causes


Abandonment thwarts the creation of more great places in the Urbanside and is eroding the Countryside is this. The causes are these:

  The United States is the only nation-state in the First World where the settlement pattern is determined primarily by competitive economic forces. If it will not make a profit, it is not built.

 The reality of compound interest and leveraged financing demands that projects pay now, not later. If a project will not turn a quick profit for the developer and builder, it is not built.

 The residents of high-value areas have significant political clout and resist changes at the edges of their territory that would expand high-value areas.

 The approval process in higher-value areas closer to the core is much more stringent than in remote areas.

  • These realities intersect to dictate that new market development projects are built and churned…

  • As fast as possible…

  • On the cheapest land...

  • To serve whatever market is currently perceived to be hot.

Scattered sites in outlying jurisdictions frequently have fast processing times with little oversight, which also speeds up projects and cuts costs. (This is termed “the tyranny of easy development decisions” by University of Virginia professor William Lucy.) These jurisdictions frequently allow the developer and the builder to avoid much of the true total cost of the development. The price a home buyer pays, however, rarely reflects these savings. The new home is always sold for the highest price the market will bear. The jurisdiction in which the land is located, as well as other taxpayers in the region, subsidize the cost of the unit and the services its occupants require.

Development projects are not built to create viable, functional and, in the long run, much more valuable places. They are built to make money now, not have value later.

High-quality places in which to live, work and seek services and recreation require time to evolve and reach their potential because they are complex and multi-functional. It costs more to create quality places, and the payout comes too slowly to be attractive to the vast majority of developers. This is a core lesson from the Planned New Communities conceived in the 1960s.


The ultimate irony is that most of the new residential construction is not responding to the home buyers in the current market but is being built for a market –- the nuclear family with children living at home -– which makes up less than 25 percent of the population today and less than 50 percent even in 1955.  


The consumer desires that reflect conventional wisdom are driven by myths and misconceptions with respect to human settlement patterns are addressed by Section III of the Handbook: The Three-Step Process to Create Balanced Communities in Sustainable New Urban Regions. They also reflect broader societal misconceptions outlined in the third report in this series. 


Too Much Land Devoted to and Held for Urban Uses


The problems resulting from fast-profit projects are exacerbated by the fact that there is far more land planned and zoned for future urban land uses than there is a foreseeable market in every region of the United States. The topic is explored at length in The Shape of the Future.


Consider, again, Georgetown, Beacon Hill and Russian Hill. At the densities of these desirable, high-value places, there is enough vacant and underutilized land between their location and the fringe in their regions where significant new development is taking place to build 100 new units for each new family that is projected to move to the region during the 21st century. Space for work and service facilities for this "phantom horde" is also abundant. Apply Regional Metrics and do the math. The numbers are overwhelming.   


This illuminates a core reason for the expansion of land area in regions. Only by chopping up land into one-, three-, five- and 10-acre chunks can anywhere near the amount of land that is speculatively held for urban development be consumed for urban uses. And, of course, the larger the houses on these lots, the higher the price and the greater the profit per unit for builders. The quality of life provided by this settlement pattern is impoverished. That is why the market value of high quality places is so much greater. It is that “location, location, location, location” issue again.

On a regional basis, less urbanized land is required in order to raise the value and quality of settlement patterns. The current practice is using vastly more land by scattering urban uses across the landscape.  It is raising the cost of public and private services, which depresses the value of new, scattered  development. High subsidies are required when this development occurs. All taxpayers, including those who have no link to this development, are required to help pay these subsidies. 

Because well-located land is priced higher, development projects drift to cheaper sites. New projects are built on the cheapest land available that can capture a perceived market. As long as one can drive to it, land is deemed acceptable for urban land uses.


Land speculators act as if net-present-value calculations do not exist. In addition, the tax system does not encourage speculators to sell vacant and underutilized land with public improvements that is functionally located. Governments tax improvements but fail to tax land based on the potential developed value that existing public improvements make possible. The winner-take-all, consumption-driven economy also encourages political favoritism to the property-value/private-rights (aka, property-rights) interests. These interests champion low-density “sub”urban development even though the market documents that it is neither a desirable nor a sustainable settlement pattern. The property-rights lobby specifically champions lower-value, auto-dependent settlement patterns. (See "A Workable Plan to Harm Minorities and the Poor," by Randal O’Toole, 14 July 2003.)

Developers build not that which is most valuable but that which turns the greatest short-term profit. Only the rich can enjoy quality places to live, work and seek services and recreation. In a democracy, this trend cannot be sustained.

Where to From Here?


There are solutions to the conundrum of current real estate practice if citizens come to understand the problems and its root causes and then take action to solve them:

Tax land based on its realistic potential use reflecting the true, total cost of public services that support the urban uses of land.


Tax vacant urban land with existing public improvements (infrastructure) based on the potential value of the land when developed.


Charge the full cost of development to those who benefit from the conversion of non-urban land to urban uses.


Discontinue policies and programs that provide development subsidies for urban land uses in the Countryside which are currently borne by all taxpayers.


Create comprehensive regional plans that balance land use with transportation.


Make creating great high-quality places a primary goal.


Develop detailed plans that identify potential Balanced Communities and articulate strategies for their implementation.


Define a Clear Edge between the Urbanside and the Countryside.  


Charge the full cost of all urban land uses in the Countryside.


Reverse the process of land subdivision and facilitate parcel consolidation in the Countryside.


Create new forms of joint and common property ownership to reflect community responsibilities, rather than just individual rights.


Create a governance system that reflects the organic structure of human settlement that is required to create sustainable patterns and density of land use.

These steps will require fundamental changes. Without them, business-as-usual will continue to destroy the chance to create more of the best urban places. The cumulative, everyday actions by citizens will continue to erode the Countryside, and citizens will continue to move to places that make a few the richest, fastest.


-- September 8, 2003







































Ed Risse, and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


See profile.