RIP: Ed Risse

by James A. Bacon

Readers of Bacon’s Rebellion in the early days may remember Ed Risse, a long-time contributor to the blog (and its predecessor publication, a biweekly newsletter). Ed, who was 84, passed away a week ago from injuries sustained from a fall.

Ed, whose idiosyncratic byline was E M Risse (with no periods), was a ponderous writer, prone to long essays loaded with specialized vocabulary of his own devising, but a brilliant thinker — the deepest and most original thinker of my acquaintance. Readers who could plow through his work were well rewarded. His passion was human settlement patterns — land use and its relationship to transportation, municipal services, taxes, livability and sustainability. His core thesis was that sprawling, low-density, autocentric development (what others called suburban sprawl, a term he thought too imprecise to ever use himself) had turned Northern Virginia and other Virginia metros into an uninhabitable mess.

The antidote to “sprawl” was balanced, mixed, and compact growth. Ed famously said that if Fairfax County had been developed at the same density as Reston, which is widely regarded as a very livable community, the entire population would fit into a third of the county, leaving the rest for countryside. His vision was similar to that which we now call Smart Growth, although Ed, always the purist, had his disagreements with Smart Growthers, too.

Ed was born in Montana, as I recall, and spent his early career in upstate New York. Eventually, he found himself working for Northern Virginia uber-developer Til Hazel, and was the lead designer for the massive Fair Oaks development project near the confluence of Interstate 66 and U.S. 50, which is now well established and one of the more functional areas of the county. He became a consultant, moved to Warrenton, and devoted much of his time to writing. A few years ago, he moved to the Woodlands in Texas to be closer to family. I kidded him that after years of railing against dysfunctional, autocentric development, he had moved to the capital of dysfunctional, autocentric development — the Houston metropolitan area. His response: well, for low-density autocentric development, it was pretty done well.

I cannot find Ed’s obituary online. I did not know of his death until contacted by his step-son. Apparently, Ed’s association with Bacon’s Rebellion was important enough to him that his family wanted to let me know of his passing.

Ed and I had our differences in his later years — he regarded global warming as an existential threat, and he was on the other side of the emerging culture wars at the time — but I can say this. I learned more from Ed about the way the world works than anyone else. Ed had a profound influence on my thinking — and that of many others — about what it takes to build more prosperous, livable and sustainable communities in Virginia. It’s a theme to which I hope to return after the total insanity of the culture wars die down.

Ed’s master work was “The Shape of the Future,” which he published on CD-ROM and still can be found on (Only one is left in stock.) He also published a collection of essays, many repackaged from Bacon’s Rebellion, in “Trilo-G: Foundations, Bridges, Action: How to Make the World a Better Place One Alpha Community at a Time.” It’s a shame he never converted his work to print or digital-publishing format to make them more accessible. “The Shape of the Future was a masterpiece.” It will withstand the test of time.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


7 responses to “RIP: Ed Risse”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    So sorry to hear this. I much enjoyed reading Ed’s tomes which were very much oriented (in my mind) to central planning for settlement patterns and development which in a “free market” Libertarian blog was an interesting blend and especially so when JAB seemed supportive of at least some of it.

    Ed was a thoughtful and significant guy.

  2. tmtfairfax Avatar

    Very sad to hear about Ed’s passing. Whether or not one agreed with him on a topic, he offered a consistent position with which he firmly believed. I don’t think the public will ever agree with his position on density or with those who strongly disagree, but he did set up some good discussions. Rest in Peace, Sir.

  3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I began my association with BR too late to benefit from Mr. Risse’s thinking. I do find it ironic that someone who railed against autocentric development worked for Til Hazel, who was responsible for much of the development of Fairfax County.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      When FDR wanted to reform Wall Street during the Great Depression he called on Joe Kennedy, one of the most aggressive market manipulators of his day.

      One of Ed’s great strengths was that he knew how the game was played.

  4. Terry Nyhous Avatar
    Terry Nyhous

    I tangled with Ed many times after he moved to Warrenton because we disagreed over how and where our county should grow. But I always learned from him and found that he was a great source of knowledge. Most of all, he was a gentleman and a man I truly admired.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    Very sad. Ed understood systems of human settlement. Not just housing. Not just transportation. Not just schools. Not just taxes. He understood all of these but he also understood the interplay among those items. He came closer than anybody I ever met to having a unified field theory of human settlement patterns.

    Ed was part dreamer, part realist.

    He could dream in articulate detail about alpha cities, new urban areas and the clear edge but also be very prescriptive about the high cost of transforming today’s built world into his vision of the future.

    Some of Ed’s work is available on archived Baconsrebellion posts. If you want to read Ed’s thoughts, this is a good place to start ….

    A typical lede from one of Ed’s columns on BR written more than 20 years ago …

    It is now widely agreed that “affordable housing” is a primary rhetorical obstacle to more intelligent human settlement patterns. Nationwide, major initiatives to improve the pattern and density of land use have been derailed by claims that the proposed action to make human settlement pattern more functional will “wipe out affordable housing.”

  6. Like DH-S I did not have the benefit of Mr. Risse’s wisdom or provocations. But the nod to urban planning that still occasionally surfaces along with the libertarian bent here is the main reason, I believe, for the popularity of this blog. At a basic level nearly everyone, even the most politically reactionary, understands that unplanned, unguided, visionless sprawl simply creates more of itself. We know we can do better. We need those parks and public spaces and vistas; we need a clean environment; we need public education and public health; we need transportation and a social safety net; we need government — and government accountability — to accomplish these things. But how? At what cost? With what long-term consequence? Rather than start from an ideological filter that allows only one-sided discussion, this forces the conversation towards the practicalities and priorities of “how”: finding a balance amidst competing goals. If Ed Risse brought that way of thinking, of practical problem solving to achieve a better future, to this forum he left his mark here in a way that will long outlive him, and we should all salute him for that.

Leave a Reply