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.