The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Take Me Home,

Congested, Non-Urban Road

Dysfunctional human settlement patterns and traffic congestion are spreading to West Virginia's panhandle. Traditional conservation tactics will not work.


The last two The Shape of the Future columns focused on citizen’s attempts to guide the evolution of settlement patterns and conserve open land. The primary problem and cause of the growing dysfunction is scattered urban land uses.


The solution to the scatteration of urban land uses is simple in concept: There must be a Fundamental Change so that there is a fair allocation of all location-variable costs.


While the strategy of fairly allocating location-variable costs would benefit every citizen and every organization in every region, some are sure that a fair allocation of these costs would be detrimental to their short-term interests. Those who oppose an equitable distribution of location-variable costs rely on the current uneven economic playing field to provide them with large short-term profits. Some would say these profits are unfair, unconscionable or even obscene because those who benefit do not pay for the cost of their actions.


S/PI has argued that the reason that citizens do not use their power in a democracy with a market economy to correct these problems is rooted in Geographic Illiteracy. (See End Note One.) Once again The Washington Post has come forward with a clear example of Geographic Illiteracy in action. The subject is not actions by residents of the Commonwealth but by our neighbors in West Virginia.


Tactics that Have Not and Will Not Work


The Metro section of Monday, 4 April’s The Washington Post features on Page 1 a color photo and a front hook story about how a number of well-intended citizens of the Panhandle of West Virginia are trying to “fight for rural (sic) life.” (See End Note Two.)


The first thing to clarify is that there is no “rural” in the Panhandle of West Virginia. It has not been “rural” there for over half a century. The Panhandle is part of the Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region. The panhandle became part of the Washington-Baltimore Consolidated Metropolitan Area three decades ago. There is commuter rail service to the core of the Subregion from within a few miles of the farm that is the focus of the story. (See End Note Three.)


The Post story notes three tactics that Panhandle citizens are considering to thwart the threats they see on the horizon. What they fear is, in fact, the likely future in the absence of Fundamental Change. This probable future condition–dysfunctionally scattered urban land uses that wipes out the Countryside-–is the result of a subsidized and distorted market for land and housing exacerbated by government actions.


The tactics under consideration to respond to this very real threat are:

  • Buy open land for “conservation” uses

  • Buy open land and resell it for “more appropriate” urban development

  • Enact traditional land use controls to shape future growth

All of these techniques have been proven to be totally ineffective on a regional, subregional and  community- wide scale. An attempt to apply these tools reveals a profound Geographic Illiteracy among citizens and their leaders. Before examining the tactics, it is important to understand that those wanting to thwart erosion of the Countryside (aka, Business As Usual) have the best of intentions. Further, those who are promote Business As Usual believe they are doing exactly what is in their best interest. This is the tragedy of Geographical Illiteracy.


Buy Land for "Conservation" Uses


Buying up enough land for “conservation” uses is not an economic or physical possibility. The same is true for the purchase of development rights and the purchase or donation of conservation easements.


A simple calculation will document this fact. There are 250,000 +/- acres in the Panhandle of West Virginia that are susceptible to scattered urban land use. The rest of the area is unsuitable for development (steep slopes, high water table, flood planes etc.), is in public ownership or has been developed already. Some of the developed land is in delightful urban places like Shepherdstown and Berkeley Springs; more of it is consumed by the somewhat less delightful places such as the environs of Charlestown, Ranson and Martinsburg.


Those who want to prevent the scatteration of urban land uses over this 250,000 +/- acres could buy outright, buy development rights or secure conservation easements on a 200 acre “farm” every month for 10 years and still only have ten percent of this area “protected.” That leaves 225,000 acres open to scattered urban land uses.


In addition, the result of this activity would raise the value of the “unprotected” land and hasten the spread of urban land uses.


Many of the “conservation” uses that have ended up in the Panhandle of West Virginia are urban activities of agencies and institutions that have conservation interests. A conference center, laboratory or research center may be on a large site but it is an intensive urban activity, not an extensive nonurban activity such as agriculture or forestry. (See End Note Four.)


The “buy land for conservation uses” tactic is supported by national, regional and subregional “conservation” organizations and professionals who should know better, but for Geographical Illiteracy.


Buy Land and Create More Appropriate Urban Development


The tactic of buying up land and then reselling it with plans and covenants that insure “more appropriate” urban development is even less likely to stem the tide of scattered urban land uses. The limited number of acres that could be affected this tactic is illustrated by the calculations in the “buy land for conservation use” example above.


But the problems with this tactic go much deeper. First, the site itself is converted to urban land use. In many cases the process has the effect of writing down the cost of and speeding up the scatteration of urban land uses. Furthermore, if the urban uses are well executed, there is nothing that draws additional urban uses to adjacent sites faster than attractive but scattered urban land uses.


The larger issue is that an urban house that looks like it may have been used for a civil war hospital whether on a lot of 2 acres, 10 acres or 100 acres, functions as just another scattered urban house.


These units generate traffic to support the urban use and the occupants expect/demand urban services just like any other scattered urban residential use. Unless the unit is extremely expensive, the service costs outweigh the tax and other contributions from the urban use. As noted above, if the new development is expensive it becomes a magnet for more urban buyers who want to pretend they are country squires. Further as noted in “Land Conservation Quandary” (March 28, 2005), the larger the lot size, the faster the Countryside disappears.


Traditional Land Use Controls


For the reasons outlined in “Land Speculators 2, Citizens 0" (March 14, 2005), traditional land use controls are less and less likely to be effective. One need only go across the State Border into Loudoun County for a dramatic demonstration of this fact.


Geographic Illiteracy, the failure to understand the fundamental parameters controlling the settlement patterns, makes all three of the tactics discussed in The Post article part of the problem, not part of the solution.


Take Me Home, West Virginia


The Panhandle of West Virginia (Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan Counties–-and now with the building of Corridor H, Hampshire and Hardy Counties) are between within 55 to 110 miles of the centroid of the National Capital Subregion. The direct automobile commuting to the core of the National Capital Subregion has declined in the most remote Counties because of traffic congestion closer to the core. The long distance commuting has been replaced in part by rings of “living here, working there” commuters. Although the number of hours spent commuting are just as long, the distances are shorter due to congestion. Furthermore, the extension of commuter rail into the Panhandle of West Virginia via Maryland has had exactly the impact suggested in “The Commuting Problem,” (Jan. 17, 2005).


At the heart of the problem are citizens suffering from Geographical Illiteracy who seek an affordable house in an inaccessible location. (See “Affordable, But No Bargain,” Feb. 17, 2003, and “The Housing Dilemma,” July 14, 2003)


The malady of Geographical Illiteracy is reinforced and exacerbated by billions in advertising paid for by those who make greater short-term profit from development is scattered locations.


The Locus of the Problem


The problem in the West Virginia Panhandle originates many miles away--inside the Clear Edge around the core of the National Capital Subregion. Within 10 miles of the Beltway is where the vast majority of jobs are now, and where they will be for the foreseeable future. As we point out time and time again, what is needed are Balanced Communities with houses and services near those jobs.


In fact, the only “solution” is Balanced Communities inside the Clear Edge and Balanced but disaggregated Communities in the Countryside outside the Clear Edge.


There is plenty of land upon which to evolve Balanced Communities as documented in “Land Conservation Quandary,” March 28, 2005.


This is not a new idea. When we were asked to speak on the Future of Warrenton-Fauquier in June of 1991, we noted that most of the problems facing the community were rooted inside the Beltway where the jobs are located and where lack of affordable housing and quality communities was propelling expansion outward. That is still the problem in Warrenton-Fauquier but it has also become a problem in West Virginia, too. (This topic is explored in “Wild Abandonment,” September 8, 2003.)


We suggested in 1991 that citizens from the outer reaches of the National Capital Subregion needed to become involved to help create a rational strategy for the region as a whole. Too often they respond, as those in West Virginia might today: “What! We do not live in any urban subregion, we are out here in West Virginia.” Again, the impact of Geographical Illiteracy.


Regional Solutions


What is the current status of citizen and governance practitioner efforts to forge regional and subregion solutions? There is no regional or subregional plan for a sustainable future. The recent Reality Check exercise by public, private and not-for-profit groups demonstrates that if there were such a plan and it were followed, many of the problems related to a lack of a jobs/housing balance and to untransportable settlement patterns would disappear.


What is the National Capital Subregion doing about creating a rational strategic plan for the future?

  • There are three “regional commissions” (aka, PDCs) in just the Virginia portion of the National Capital Subregion. And then there is Maryland and West Virginia...

  • The Washington Council of Governments jurisdictions cover less than half the National Capital Subregion’s land area

  • In a subregion with commutes that are among the longest in the United States, the traffic data and congestion measures are collected for only small parts of the subregion. (See “Spinning Wheels, Spinning Data,” Sept. 20, 2004.)

In the meantime, uninformed citizens search for affordable housing and abandon what could become Balance Communities. The first step is to eradicate Geographical Illiteracy. We also need to stop fooling our neighbors.





1. The definition of  “Geographic Illiteracy” is contained in a Shape of the Future “Backgrounder” of that title at Bacon's Rebellion.


2. Williamson, Elizabeth. “Taking Up the Fight for Rural Life: Many in W.Va.’s Eastern Panhandle Hope Area’s Not the Next Loudoun; W.Va. Town Inspires Drive to Same Farmland”, The Washington Post, Page B-1 4 April 2005.


3. The color photo of used in The Post story documents the fact that this part of West Virginia is not “rural.” There is a traditional house that could be from 40 to 140 years old in the middle of the photo but it is clearly not an accessory use to a viable existing agricultural of forest enterprise. In the background an urban house is tucked in the trees and in the foreground there are six mailboxes with newspaper tubes indicating a density and a reading pattern that is not “rural.”


4. Many of these have been located in the Panhandle due to the pork barrel prowess of West Virginia Senior Senator Robert Byrd. Almost all of the government work done here is urban work, not extensive, nonurban work.


















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.