The Electoral Implications of Smart Growth

height_limitsby James A. Bacon

Marc Tracy conducts an interesting thought experiment in the New Republic: Would increasing the height restrictions on Washington, D.C.’s buildings turn Virginia back into a red state?

His logic runs like this: The District of Columbia is running out of developable land under current height restrictions, which is driving up real estate prices and pushing people out of the city. Those people, employed by Northern Virginia’s technology sector, tend to be “upwardly mobile, highly educated, racially diverse, blue-leaning people.”

Removing the height limit on D.C. buildings, in place since 1910, would allow tens of thousands more people to reside in Washington than would otherwise. From a cultural and political perspective, the people drawn to walkable, bikable, transit-oriented urbanism are overwhelmingly likely to vote Democratic. And that would mean fewer Democrats in Northern Virginia.

After playing with the idea, however, Tracy concludes that restricting development in D.C. probably won’t make much difference. The rise of “urban suburbs” in Northern Virginia will continue as the Silver Line runs the Metro through Tysons and the Dulles Corridor. He quotes Christopher Leinberger, a Brookings Institute fellow and advocate of “walkable urbanism,” as saying that lifting the D.C. height limit might sap Northern Virginia population growth on the margins, but “northern Virginia is going to become more blue and continue to grow. That’s demographically in the cards.”

Lest you think it a stretch to link human settlement patterns with voting patterns, permit me to share an email I received a few months ago from an aide to a Republican congressman, chastising me for supporting smart growth:

Smart growth means bringing more liberals into what were once middle class homeowner conservative areas like Vienna VA.  It means more traffic and congestion where there is already too much traffic and congestion.  It means turning Fairfax County into another Arlington and then even a DC.  Hope you enjoy the socialist future that smart growth guarantees.

Why conservatives hate smart growth. Now, let’s get back to a question I have raised earlier on this blog: Why do conservatives hate smart growth? One answer is that they perceive it as a political threat. Smart growth breeds liberals.

Perhaps I am excessively influenced by my own personal experience in Richmond but I am highly dubious. I am an unapologetic conservative… yet I love walkable urbanism. My wife is a liberal Democrat… but she loves the suburbs. (What can I say. We have a mixed marriage. Love is blind.)

Liberals began spilling into Northern Virginia long before Arlington County and Old Town Alexandria became known as centers for walkable, transit-oriented urbanism. Many liberals, for seeking affordable housing, settled in the cul-de-sac tracts of Fairfax County long before anyone thought of turning Tysons into an urban district with grid streets and Metro stations.

Rather than reject smart growth out of hand on the grounds that it attracts liberals, conservatives should articulate a set of principles governing transportation and land use issues that is aligned with conservative principles and values, which, as I have argued before, often (not always, but often) would lead to more compact, walkable development patterns. Building more prosperous, livable communities in a fiscally sustainable manner just might win some converts to conservatism. Who knows, some of them might even be liberals!

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37 responses to “The Electoral Implications of Smart Growth”

  1. Conservatives hate smart growth- because they are opposed to government central planning …. which they consider – totally disconnected from the real world of the private sector economy.

    they equate the phrase “Smart Growth” to the idea that a government employee with the title of “Planner” (or God forbid an office full of them), would actually know what “smart” means with respect private sector markets.

    Here’s what we do not see – we do not see people – demanding more Smart Growth because there is not enough of it to go around and people have to move to the suburbs instead.

    this is the curious thing of the Jim Bacons…. there just does not seem to be any way to get around the “central planning” aspect… Does the private sector “central plan” ????

    Can you imagine, for instance, private sector companies in Fredericksburg say: ” you know -we are creating sprawl down here.. and we need the county planners to get off their fat butts and help us switch over to Smart Growth”.

    ain’t never heard that ….

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Population density = liberalism.

    It has nothing to do with Smart Growth, Dumb Growth, or anything in between.

    Urban life cultivates collectivists, it spawns statists. Even in Utah the Salt Lake City Council is trending deep blue.

    Republicans better act now and erase Dillon’s Rule from Virginia’s laws. If Republicans want to have any places of refuge in the Virginia of tomorrow they’d better find a way to chart their own course in rural communities.

    Conservatives should hate urbanization regardless of how the urbanization occurs. Then, they should realize that they can’t do anything about urbanization. Which should lead them to local autonomy.

    But Virginia’s Republicans have never been accused of being forward looking. They will be dressing up in Patrick Henry outfits and waving the Gadsen flag as they lose majority in every area of Virginia government. Then, they will recoil in horror as the blue state enacts one liberal law after another.

    “Why didn’t we get local autonomy when we had the chance?” one will ask. “We were too busy arguing about Smart Growth” another will answer.

  3. re: ” Population density = liberalism”

    If this is true – and it likely is, what are the specific reasons?

    “Urban life cultivates collectivists, it spawns statists.”

    but why?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      I spent five days a week in Manhattan for 2 years. I had my own apartment even though I usually commuted back to my home in NoVa for weekends. I was working on a project that included people from all over the US. The people on the project quickly divided into two camps – those who hated living in New York and those who loved living in New York. Nobody was undecided.

      A non-multi-millionaire has to have a certain mental outlook to like living in a place like Manhattan. You have to really like being around lots of people all the time. You have to be tolerant of noise – loud, incessant noise. You have to accept that there are a lot of rules that are required to make such a densely packed place work. You have to have a real trust of governmental institutions. You find yourself walking a lot – home at night, for example. You don’t have a car, you’re not allowed to carry a gun. You have to hope that the police will keep a lid on things.

      New York is full of many different kinds of interesting people. However, rugged individualists are not found in large numbers in New York City. The kind of people who like New York like society, they like people, they like the sense of community. They are willing to subvert their individualism for the community. They are willing to follow rules they don’t like or respect for the good of the community. They accept that a lot of rules are necessary to ensure good order and discipline.

      If Bob McDonnell or Terry McAuliffe pushed a law through the General Assembly making idling a vehicle illegal people would go crazy. Most would ignore the law. Many would raise hell with their elected representatives. Are you really going to sit in a car with the air conditioning off in August in Virginia while you wait for your wife to get out of the 7-11? Hell no. But in New York City they passed that law. Then, Mayor Bloomberg promptly ignored the law he helped pass. Did people threaten to throw their elected representatives out of office for passing such a stupid law that even the mayor ignores? Nope. The kind of people who like densely packed cities are rule followers. They trust government. If government says that idling for more than three minutes is wrong they will turn off the engine and sweat.

  4. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    DJ is quite right.

    Smart growth has nothing to do with liberals or conservatives. Smart Growth is agnostic to all partisan politics.

    Nor is smart growth a creature of centralized government planning. Quite the reverse, centralized government planning is toxic to smart growth. Centralized government planning will kill smart growth most times. At best centralized government planning will beat up and throttle smart growth down into a pale shadow of what good smart growth is. It either kills the golden goose or sickens it on a diet of thin mandated gruel.

    Thus most active liberals have been fierce opponents of real smart growth where I live in DC just as the local liberal activists in Arlington County were also the primary opponents to the development of smart growth in Arlington County back in the late 1960s through the 1980s. Most local liberals activists would have gladly killed smart growth in its cradle there.

    I also strongly suspect that misinformed conservatives can often oppose smart growth, by reason of lack of understanding of what it is and how it comes about, and all the benefits that it can bring. And the rest, along with most everyone else (whether they be liberal or conservative), are far too often knee jerk against most any kind of change to their neighborhoods. Resistance by the locals is primal. Homes are their special places. Where we live and love and feed our souls and our families, and have dearly paid for, for are the anchors and protectors of our lives and families. So knee jerk reaction is most always a fierce and first defense against any change.

    In our time hyper nonsensical partsian politics, beware of Trojan horses.

    1. Reed… jesus H keerist .guy

      ” Smart growth has nothing to do with liberals or conservatives. Smart Growth is agnostic to all partisan politics.”

      …. ” Thus most active liberals have been fierce opponents of real smart growth where I live in DC just as the local liberal activists in Arlington County were also the primary opponents to the development of smart growth ”

      which is it Reed?

      “Nor is smart growth a creature of centralized government planning. Quite the reverse, centralized government planning is toxic to smart growth. Centralized government planning will kill smart growth most times. At best centralized government planning will beat up and throttle smart growth down into a pale shadow of what good smart growth is. It either kills the golden goose or sickens it on a diet of thin mandated gruel.”

      you make this statement guy but the fact of the matter is – as DJ points out – that cities are regimented.. with rules … you don’t build what you want where you want… the govt decides pretty much everything from transportation infrastructure to rules for street carts and taxis.

      “in Arlington County back in the late 1960s through the 1980s. Most local liberals activists would have gladly killed smart growth in its cradle there.”

      did you read what the Conservatives said at the American Dream Conference Reed? Do you see those folks as liberals?

      you start off saying it’s not about liberals or conservatives then you launch into a criticism of liberals with respect to smart growth – which is totally wacky guy.

      Do you think Stewart Schwartz is a Conservative? Do you think his and his supporters advocacy for govt funding of METRO is a Conservative principle?

      good grief REED! how have I got what you said wrong?

      1. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        Larry says:Reed… jesus H keerist .guy

        ” Smart growth has nothing to do with liberals or conservatives. Smart Growth is agnostic to all partisan politics.”

        …. ” Thus most active liberals have been fierce opponents of real smart growth where I live in DC just as the local liberal activists in Arlington County were also the primary opponents to the development of smart growth ”

        which is it Reed?”

        Larry, stop cutting and pasting to take what I said out of context. Secondly read carefully what I write for plain sense and nuance and context. Otherwise you will continue to think I say the reverse of what I say.

        Regarding DJ comments. I expressly affirmed his first comment not his second comment. I also however agree with his second comment as well. Neither of those comments contradict anything I said.

        Larry said. “Do you think Stewart Schwartz is a Conservative?

        I could care less about Steward Schwartz political orientation. I care about his policies, his actions, and his effectiveness. On all three counts, I have great respect for Steward Schwartz. He’s earned it. He’s been David versus Goliath fighting critical battles since the early 1990s, long before it was popular, well funded, or easy, and he tenaciously hung on against a great deal of punishment. Most would long ago have said “I quit”. Instead he’s grown very effective at it, and we’ll all very much in his debt and better off for his efforts (my opinion). This fact that we differ on some tactics such as parking and I what I deem undue Federal Government invention is not relevant what I have just said. People who care about the same things ofter disagree on tactics. Welcome to the real world.

        Larry says: “Do you think his (Steward Scwhartz) and his supporters advocacy for govt funding of METRO is a Conservative principle?”

        Nothing in urban and suburban planning should have anything to do whether one is liberal or conservative, including METRO. METRO should go everywhere that METRO can go if it brings great benefit for reasonable cost, and its the best solution under the circumstances. Witness the B/R corridor.

        Regarding top down centralized Planning of public urban areas. I define this as a small group of “experts” (government or otherwise) who tell everyone else, including all those who live in a place, what to do and what this can’t do in that place. This never works. It’s terrible policy. And it had nothing to do with the Rossyln – Ballston Corridor built after the 1960s Rosslyn Debacle, insofar as I experienced those events.

        Instead the R/B corridor that is now called smart growth was a local community effort. It was lead by several wise and effective members of the county board, a clutch of good local planners, a committed business community, vast input from the local residential community, and a few outside experts who were not smart growth experts. Instead everybody learned and suffered much from the 1960’s Rosslyn Debacle. So everybody struggled from the early 1970s to mid 1980s to make sure those earlier Rosslyn mistakes were corrected and not repeated, and were instead also used to build what turned out to be a revolutionary plan of downtown redevelopment that is now called smart growth.

        This took 20 years of planning, revision, community input and negotiation, and endless trail and error, you name it. This Revolution was created by the people of Arlington County, not by outsiders.

        1. reed fawell III Avatar
          reed fawell III

          PS –

          “Did you read what the Conservatives said at the American Dream Conference Reed? Do you see those folks as liberals?

          What I think of Conservatives attitudes toward smart growth is explained in detail at:

          1. Reed – the simple truth is that most Conservatives line up against Smart Growth and most liberals like it.

            Conservatives dislike METRO and for that matter ANY Transit that “does not pay for itself”.

            Would you have had the Rossyln – Ballston Corridor if it were not for central planning of transit infrastructure?

            urban areas vote BLUE -not Red.. the people who live in urban areas tend to be liberal.

            Stewart Schwartz is NOT a Conservative fighting for Smart Growth.

            Reed – this is NOT a cut/paste – this is verbatim:

            ” Regarding DJ comments. I expressly affirmed his first comment not his second comment. I also however agree with his second comment as well. Neither of those comments contradict anything I said.”

            Reed – you do not have urban areas without central planning guy.

            you may dislike some of them but infrastructure and the provisioning of public services like transit, takes central planning…

          2. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III
    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Interesting that even Bob McDonnell lost the vote count in Virginia’s large urban areas. He didn’t lose by as much as Cuccinelli or Kilgore but he lost.

      Jim, you conservatives are truly doomed. Where are you going to live when Virginia becomes Maryland, politically speaking?

      1. I have not yet begun to fight!

      2. interesting graphic! thanks!

  5. NewVirginia Avatar

    This is certainly true and something I’ve thought about a lot. See Richard Florida’s article here, which asserts that the crossover point from conservative to liberal is about 800 people per square mile (

    I personally think there are two distinct things going on here. First, social conservatives will always loathe the city as a driver of change. When Christianity came to the Roman Empire, it spread through the cities first, just as every ideology before it had. The word “pagan” is originally a Latin word that meant something akin to “redneck” – it referred to rural conservative farmers who clung to the traditional Roman gods as society embraced the new religion of Christianity.

    Richard Weaver took this a step farther in the conservative manifesto “Ideas Have Consequences,” where he excoriates the city as an economy that separates people from the natural principles of the world.

    This bias against complexity and the foreign may be linked to temperament. Temperament (whether genetic or learned) has been shown to have a significant effect on one’s political views ( An interesting side effect of this can be seen in Christian Rudder’s data-mining of the dating website OkCupid. He found that the question that best correlated with people’s political views was: “Do you prefer the people in your life to be simple or complex?” Users answering “complex” were 2:1 liberal and those answering “simple” were 2:1 more likely to be conservative.

    The city is a complex world, where we cannot easily impose simple moral orders and must deal with differing ideas about life in a messy environment.

    The second thing that is going on here has to do with economic conservatives – and this one is more unique to the United States for reasons that I won’t go into here.

    The Austrian/Free Market/Capitalist economic model depends on the apportionment of costs and benefits to individuals based on their actions via private property. If you work your field, you get food that you can then trade for better things. This economic model is still important in the city (and arguably allows modern cities to exist), because cities depend on a complex division of labor and rapid exchange of goods.

    The problem is that our ability to actually isolate property breaks down at high densities for multiple reasons. The most obvious is externalities. At low densities we have some externalities – pollution maybe – but at high densities nearly everything, from traffic to safety to beauty to noise becomes an externality that we cannot solve via the market. The conservative rights-based economic framework demands that all these issues be litigated constantly and settlements arrived at, which would cause the legal system to break down. The only alternative is to have someone divide (aka zone) so that some externalities can be grouped to minimize their effect on others. Cities have more regulations that ensure people are able to live together effectively. Suburbs attempt to access the wealth created by the density of the city while still separating people enough to allow them to do what they want on their land.

    Austrian economics also breaks down at high densities because of the scarcity of land. Left-wing economics tends to see wealth as a zero sum game, where some have and some have not. Conservatives tend to see infinite possibilities for growth. They are right for the most part – we are constantly creating wealth – but not about land. Land is a zero-sum game. As Mark Twain said, it’s the only thing we aren’t making any more of (obviously there are very small-scale exceptions). Americans have been able to conveniently ignore this fact, unlike Asians and Europeans, simply because we have so damned much of it – all it took was hard work and you could produce. But the automobile gave us a way to use all of it just as our population skyrocketed, thus bringing scarcity back into the equation.

    Additionally, the economic models used by Austrians break down because they lack a spatial component. Land is not like other non-spatial commodities. If you have a hat and I have a hat and you choose to put your hat on your head and I choose to put my hat on the floor, that’s great. You do what you want and I do what I want. But if you have a piece of land and I have a piece of land next to it, what you choose to do on your own property affects what I can do on my own property. Maybe I can build an office tower on it and make a million dollars. But you buy up all the neighboring parcels and restrict my access to it. Now it is worth zero dollars. Good planning allows cities to get network benefits from good spatial arrangements. For instance, a grid of streets must be imposed by the government – it is nearly impossible for a private actor (except at the very beginning) to make a profit from convincing every landowner to give him the necessary land. But a grid like Manhattan’s allows for more efficient land use and easier navigation (and thus higher value) than the streets that arise naturally in a truly unregulated city. Examples of this organic network can be seen in slum areas or medieval cities.

    There are also vastly more public benefits that can be had with some government action when density increases. Parks, public transit systems, and the list goes on. Cities are competing to provide the best quality of life and attract the best residents.

    So yes – conservatives will loathe smart growth and density. But they have to accept the reality of it in order to maintain consistency with their other values.

    Social conservatives must accept density in order to avoid population control – the only real alternative to an increasing number of people on the planet.

    Economic conservatives must deal with the realities of scarce land created by technological innovations like the car that allow us to use all the excess land we have. They also must reconcile it with the economic benefits of proximity and the demonstrated preference of many people for the quality of life provided by proactive cities that provide many public goods and effectively regulate externalities without overly burdening their citizens.

    1. New Virginia, Excellent comment. There is some excellent thinking here that I have not been exposed to. I’m particularly impressed by your idea that Austrian School economic analysis breaks down in high-density urban environments. I’m not convinced that it’s so, but it might be — it’s something I’ll have to think about. But overall, your argument makes sense that the closer people live and work together (especially in heterogeneous societies), the more rules and regulations are necessary. And those rules and regs do chafe against conservatives.

    2. I compliment New Virginia also.

      but I think he’s on the right track with the Austrian School because they have neverending complaints about things like Taxi rules or food cart rules…. or why they have to pay for things like transit… or have to pay horrendous taxes to pay for services they don’t want that they believe helps “parasites”.

      Austrian School hates unions.. and public schools and rules to keep the river from being polluted, etc.

      Austrian School folks DECRY collectivist thinking and central planning – both of which pretty much define urban places….

      what we can achieve here – is a better understanding for all of us with respect to what kinds of political thought is aligned with urbanized living.

      Call me a heavy skeptic that Conservatives – let’s be clear – Conservatives of the kinds we see today – that have large dollops of ideology including libertarianism see cities as hotbeds of Conservatism/libertarianism.

    3. DJRippert Avatar

      NewVirginia – Well done.

      Is it really that Austrian economics break down with density or they break down as assets move from tangible to intangible?

      And, by break down – that means that they stop working the way they used to work. The way that the modern American financial system was engineered to work.

      Let’s say that the percentage of total wealth attributable to intangible assets has risen quite a bit over the last 100 years.

      Let’s say that it takes more inter-personal communication to make money from intangible assets than tangible assets.

      Let’s say that intangible assets have proven generally more lucrative to own over the last 50 – 100 years then physical assets.

      If true, more and more people would be naturally led to come to the cities in order to pursue wealth in the invention, manufacture and distribution of intangible assets. They come to cities because employers need ready access to relatively large numbers of people who can work directly and constantly with each other.

      So, population density is part of the equation. But percentage of wealth from intangible assets might be another part.

      My farm is a farm because nature (or God, depending on your perspective) created a place on Earth where crops can grow. The government did not make my farm.

      My software company is a software company because a government granted me some patents that protected the creative genius represented in the intangible asset I call software.

      Do the people in high density cities become liberal because they need the government to maintain order in the city.

      Or ….

      Do the people who have migrated to intangible asset creation zones (which, by employer need, must be high density) become liberal because a large part of their assets (property) are the result of government?

      Accounting and law firms, banks, REITs, private equity concerns, intellectual property based technology firms, etc are a large percentage of the asset and income base for a city.

      The dividing line in density (and political outlook) is based on the complexity of the assets which constitute the area’s wealth and employment base.

      Density = complex / intangible property bias = government created / facilitated = liberal

      1. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        This is wonderful comment DJ, one that seriously advances the rationale for the obviously valid statistics New Virginia brings to our attention.

        At the risk of oversimplification, one might say that to a degree these statistics are perhaps driven by the old standby principal that most folks by and large end up personally “following their money.”

        This might explain Thomas Jefferson’s going back to the land simply because that is where his wealth and his long time original home was. Perhaps too it can also explain Madison who came from a very different political place intellectually (he being the brains behind the Federalists constitutional structure) to in the end, when push came to shove, to end up supporting the policies of radical neighbor Jefferson, the great supporter of the French Revolution, the antithesis of Federalism.

        Indeed this following of the personal money might also even have brought Patrick Henry and Randolph of Roanoke into train behind Jefferson when it satisfied their self-interests as push came to shove.

    4. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      I agree. This is a terrific comment, one that offers much to chew on, especially looking for other rationales, possibilities, exceptions, and paradoxes, such as quickly shifting demographics and technologies.

      To show that I know little about the subject, I’ll throw out this. Big city’s, while they are often more rule bound, also have in the past typically been far more creative in matters that range from commerce to art, driving the advance of civilization. Yet many exceptions come quickly to mind.

      Quite likely the following examples are not apt, given that they come from a different age and time, yet I am reminded that:

      Washington and Hamilton were strong Federalists (highly conservative). Yet both were strong proponents of big government, highly monetized commerce, Federal Banks, and big infrastructure development, including cities and interstate canals, all very radical and innovative for the times.

      Meanwhile the great liberal of the age, Thomas Jefferson, hated and feared these innovations and staked his future and the nation’s on the countryside and its virtuous farmers, while at the same time his creativity on his isolated mountaintop ran rampant across everything else imaginable.

      And, a bit further out into the southern countryside the hugely conservative John Randolf of Roanoke and Patrick Henry were squarely in the camp of the liberal highly creative country boy Jefferson on many of the same issues.

      Meanwhile Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson’s creative equal of that age, absolutely loved cities, their commerce, and women (particularly foreign).

      Go figure.

      1. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        Perhaps, DJ’s rationale given above goes a good way towards helping to untangle this paradox. See his Nov. 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm comment above.

    5. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      NewVirginia says: “They are right for the most part – we are constantly creating wealth – but not about land. Land is a zero-sum game. As Mark Twain said, it’s the only thing we aren’t making any more of (obviously there are very small-scale exceptions).”

      While this general point is well taken both in fact and from a psychological point of view, it is subject perhaps to a huge caveat. Land might be finite by space, but its value can be vastly expanded not only up and down (as you suggest) but also by how uses within that space (parcel) are combined for synergy, and also by how those internal uses within a single parcel work to function and/or dysfunction with external nearby uses. You refer in small part to the latter dysfunction between two parcels and rightly so. But we have only beyond to scratch the surface of how we might most effectively arrange mixed uses within collections of parcels to put the value and virtual spaces within such lands that comprise such communities on steroids.

      Perhaps this is a great frontier of our future. Perhaps new technologies also cut two ways and all sorts of ways some of which are described in:

      1. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        There is another related caveat to the claim that “land is a zero sum game.” Land is indestructible yet highly malleable, chameleon like.

        A wilderness can become a ranch, a dairy farm, and orchard, 3,000 separately owned condo units, a city, a university, a shopping mall, a office park, an industrial park, and/or a national park, or most anything else. It can be mined for minerals, and/or water rights, and/or air rights, and/or fish, and/or road and train right of ways, and/or stocks and bonds and annuities, and just about anything else people can imagine. And it can be all of these things simultaneously or sequentially. And these things can done in an endless series of combinations.

        Owners of land can slice and dice, expand and contract their land into spaces of endless complexity. Their land’s face and its uses are as flexible as its owners imagination and character, ranging from the Sistine Chapel to a Gulags across vast spaces or a single cell.

        And all this paint across that very same wilderness is in constant flux. As it can be deployed and converted into all different kinds and structures of wealth sliced and diced into tranches of endless varieties, ranging from a family homestead, to dynasties, to tribes, and to religions, ranging from a mystic’s cave to the Vatican, and every sect in between.

        Perhaps George Washington was the greatest master and manipulator of land, shape shifting it into its endless varieties. This art was his grand obsession. He dreamed his land into constant compulsion. He was our greatest land speculator, an absentee owner of hundreds of thousands of untouched wilderness. He traded and built cities and he did it using three and four sided bank shots to pull off his genius. He traded in New York for a 10 year lease of Philadelphia then traded that for undeveloped land on both sides of the Potomac down in Maryland and Virginia. Then he sliced and dices that river land into lots and plots of all sorts, and he carved those results into stocks, and bonds, and annuities that he used to build a world capital that his nation was too poor to envision much less assemble and build. So he and his Georgetown buddies that he enlisted built a swampland into a world capital city on talent and savvy alone.

        And to power that city, to pull it up out of that swamp, to build it up into what otherwise might not stand, he and his Georgetown budies built an engineering wonder of the world, a canal headed west for hundred of miles of wilderness to the Ohio territories. This canal was to fuel his capital city, and to build his nation out of millions of western acres, including his own personal land empire collected over his lifetime.

        This is what George Washington did wherever he went, whether he was afoot, on horseback, or carriage, or at war, or at peace, or framing out a US Constitution. All this time this grand conservative obsessed about land and how he could shape it into all of the things he could imagine. And use this land to change his world.

        Thomas Jefferson a hundred or so miles south was busy too. He converted his land ranging from a mountaintop to rich bottom lands into a prodigious laboratory of science and technology, a colonial Silicon Valley built on genius, family, and slave labor as well.

        1. reed fawell III Avatar
          reed fawell III

          Perhaps to sum up land is not only indestructible, but also endlessly changeable, fungible, and divisible, by use, ownership, and function.

          And thinking about that I am talking myself into the idea that is it the absolute reverse of a zero sum game except in narrow circumstances.

          1. land is all the things you say – but all land is not equally productive and does not achieve it’s highest and best use.

            I live in a suburban world of endless dead/abandoned shopping centers – even as developers are bringing plans for new ones…

            there are significant areas of Nova that are similarly stagnant….

            there are thousands, millions of farms in name only….

            I drive by unused structures every day.. old homes in fact while we fret about “affordable” homes which are an entirely different critter than these older, modest homes…

            but I’m most impressed by the plethora of old, half-dead shopping centers whose only tenants are things like consignment shops and hair salons, etc… the half dead ones are within a mile of I-95 .. the “new” ones are 3, 4 5 miles out….

            One of the BOS at the last rezone for a shopper center asked about the older half-empty ones and the response was – “that’s not related to what we are proposing so we really cannot address that question.

          2. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            Larry says; “land is all the things you say – but all land is not equally productive and does not achieve it’s highest and best use …”

            My reply – Yes, and this is true of all assets of whatever kind or sort.

            Thus stocks, bonds, indeed all monetized instruments, as well as land, and intangible assets much be invested in and managed properly if they are to spin off maximum benefits tailored for those who hold them.

  6. I’m, as is my nature, tracking what DJ said – and “reality-checking” it as I read to see if it has apparent, contradictory things in it…

    I didn’t quite catch if it is a valid role of govt to unilaterally grant someone intellectual property “rights”… and sure don’t recall the Patent Office being
    “named” in the Constitution and that is the typical retort from the “strict Constructionists” types that we hear from these days when they reject the role of govt in something.

    But I also gently question the “social” – in person aspect of modern commerce and I cite 3 people – Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and John McAfee (and I can name others) – who are not exactly paragons of social nice-nice and yet each had the “right stuff” to grow intellect into riches but from what I know – they were not “social” … unless pain in the buttocks meets that definition.

    If anything, I think someone like Bill Gates proves that social awkward but exceptionally bright folks are, at least, part of the tapestry. Can you imagine Gates “hanging out” with the guys? 😉

    so I think DJ’s thesis might be a tad simplistic …

    I also wonder about the face-to-face aspect as we transition to a knowledge-based economy why the physical is still deemed central to the purpose of cities.

    I can be anywhere in the world – and “meet” with someone elsewhere in the world… and in fact, if you look at a lot of the “apps” these days available on Itunes and Android – they’re written all over the world and not necessarily in major cities.

    Some bosses still need to be able to enter a physical room with physical employees in it to feel reassured that those employees are actually working for him but more and more bosses are looking at the work products of their workers and judging the quality and quantity of the work-product – no matter where it got created – “physically”.

    I know folks who write software – 100 miles from Washington and they do dutifully show up in person when an appearance is required but what keeps them employed is the quality of quantity of their work….

    of course that means the boss has to know enough to be able to actually judge the quality and quantity of work – and that has made the job of “boss” a little harder these days.

    But Cities are fundamentally centrally managed places with many collective enterprises – from hospitals to universities to museums to any institution or service, that is not cost effective unless located where there are lots of people to make use of it.

    your property rights in a city are …what’s the word – basic… simple -restricted, skinny. Even when you walk – your path is not what you want – it’s negotiated with others – continuously.

    people who have strong ideas of what property rights are – I believe – would not find the city very compatible with their property right sensitivities.

  7. NewVirginia Avatar

    I like DJ’s idea and am trying to wrap my head around it. I think there is less of a harsh dichotomy than larry is suggesting, though, when he says that “Cities are fundamentally centrally managed places with many collective enterprises.” I think the difference isn’t a qualitative one as much as a difference of degree.

    Traditional agricultural and early industrial economies are also, to a certain degree, products of government. But not (crucially) products of government in an economic planning/collectivist sense. Government establishes the system and enforces it by drawing property boundaries, prosecuting crimes, providing some basic public goods like national defense, and policing a few externalities like air pollution. Individuals then interact in the market to create the wealth. There are some market failures when government doesn’t act, but their impact is mild and easily justified as the price of living in a free society.

    The city operates in much the same way. Its wealth is still coming from individuals interacting in a market. And just like in an agricultural economy, that market requires a framework to function correctly. The difference is one of scale. There are many more things the government needs to do to create that framework because of the frequency of conflicts – as larry says, even your walking path is being constantly negotiated with others. There are more complex things to regulate, many many more externalities to police, and more public goods that can create value. Market failures have much more devastating consequences.

    The U.S. government is in a sense set up for low densities because it has always been a low density place. It has grown haphazardly because it must to accommodate the increasing complexity of the world, but it has not always grown efficiently because it has to operate within a structure that it does not really fit in. This puts rural conservatives up in arms over its malignant growth and frustrates urban liberals with its incompetence.

    There is some good that’s come from this, though. I think we are seeing activist cities pick up the mantle from the Federal government. They work with more local knowledge and must stay efficient in order to compete with one another in a highly geographical society. While I’m obviously skeptical of libertarian economics at certain levels, I agree that the best thing you can do when power has to be concentrated is make it compete with other centers of power to provide the best mix of control and freedom.

    Thanks for the kudos – this has been a fun philosophical rabbit trail.

    1. NewVirginia Avatar

      *edit: a highly geographically mobile society

      And I can think of a few counterpoints to this comment even as I reread it, but I’ll stand by it for now.

      1. are: ” highly geographically mobile society”

        roger that.

    2. I’m a realist, pragmatic. I think if you are going to go forward, make changes, etc, that you have to face the current realities and in fact, if you do not you are destined to fail.

      this is a problem with a lot of do-gooders but now it’s becoming a problem with Conservatives also.

      The Founding Fathers INTENDED for the country to be Centrally Managed.

      they advocated the creation and operation of a Central Govt that was going to have certain exclusive rights to govern – to defend the country, to build infrastructure, to tax things to fund the government.

      Let me give one fairly simple example of why cities centralize infrastructure and services:

      it starts off this way:

      History of the [Baltimore] Sewer System

      Baltimore was one of the last major cities on the east coast to construct a proper sewer system. The City’s inability to install sanitary sewers until 1915 tarnished the appeal of what was otherwise a successful city. Several commissions throughout the nineteenth century formulated plans for a sewer system for Baltimore, but were unsuccessful because of economic conditions and fighting between political parties.”

      the sewer system in Baltimore nor any other city was the result of decentralized actions by individuals.

      it was an explicit centralized function.

      Transportation infrastructure is the same way.

      without either of these – you have a place like Mogadishu ,Somalia…..

      this is the reality. I’m all for the private sector and the free market but one has to at least recognize the realities also… in my view.

      Because we do centralize – we provide the framework for a robust economy.

      We have in the USA, as a direct result of the govt provisioning infrastructure – the most potent commerce infrastructure in the world which powers the most powerful economy in the world.

      Our network of roads, rails, waterways and pipelines were all made possible by govt…. and – centrally planned – whether it was the transcontinental rail, or the Mississippi Navigation or the Interstate Highway system.

    3. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      NewVirginia, thanks – this November 18, 2013 at 10:34 pm of yours is also solid and highly useful. At the moment I’m traveling. But will try soon to fill out your comment with concrete examples that largely validate your major points but also differ in relatively small degree.

  8. NewVirginia Avatar

    I think an important question is how the varying needs for government action can be accommodated within the same state. There is actually some minor provision for this in Virginia’s constitution – counties and cities are defined distinctly and their powers differ. The problem is that the annexation freeze and other factors have made the county/city distinction useless. Suburbanization also allows wealthier commuters to enjoy the public goods and economic vitality of the city without contributing to maintain them.

    Maybe we need a reorganization of local municipalities – with the city/county distinction properly restored, annexation permitted again, and larger regional revenue sharing in metropolitan areas that share commuters (like the system that has helped Charlottesville and Albemarle to thrive).

    1. the boundaries are artifacts from the time of the King and yes they are a big part of the problem even as the state has created Planning Districts and the Feds MPOs to foster regionalism rather than adversarial posture.

      this is especially true when infrastructure and services come primarily from jurisdictional property and sales taxes… if you let the other country build that regional mall – they can bankrupt your county… so it’s a contest – and that’s what was going on with the annexation.

      they have not solved the issue by freezing annexation….

  9. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    “Suburbanization also allows wealthier commuters to enjoy the public goods and economic vitality of the city without contributing to maintain them.”

    In some cases this is true. In others, it is not. And it others there is no money to share. Solutions here are complex and fraught with risk, including the obvious chance for political abuse. Oftentimes we need to be careful not to follow pure logic that leads to bad policy with its intended and unintended consequences. Instead of mandates its best to try to go to root of problems by offering choice and wealth creating (not subtracting) solutions. That’s the great benefit of smart growth built the right way.

    On an somewhat unrelated topic, I think we also need be careful not to take statistics to reaffirm, and try to sell, our own stereotypes and prejudices. New Virginia refrained from that all too easy and natural temptation, and thus delivered a powerful comment.

    However, in my opinion, the sources referred to in that powerful comment were, to varying degrees, not as successful. Thus, standing alone, they in my view suffer as a consequence. NewVirginia on the other hand did them a favor. And did me a flavor as well.

  10. re: ” That’s the great benefit of smart growth built the right way.”

    I’d be interested in seeing a short bullet list of what the “right” way ( and is not).

    so much of this discussion seems to deal with vague concepts about the process and who the players are – and their roles.

    I don’t think Smart Growth is possible with the Govt making a decision to provision the infrastructure needed to support it.

    the density for 8du uses one size water/sewer pipes and the density for 64du is 8 times as large and those pipes have to be put into the ground long before you build or if you re-develop – you have to go back and dig up the smaller ones and replace them with biggers ones – and all the downstream junctures have to be able to accommodate the much larger volume – and there is a finite limit of how much overall you can handle without adding huge new infrastructure near the primary treatment plants.

    this is not something the private sector does – and without it – density is a concept – not a reality.

    so govt is a player no matter what.. and govt decides WHERE they will provide the infrastructure to support higher densities AND -SOMEONE
    has to pay for this… not existing taxpayers…

    how does that work?

    Down my way – the county sells General Obligation bonds – and the developers pay hefty hookup fees that the county then uses to pay back the bonds.

    that means that what the developer builds – has to have a market – or else the sales will be weak and not generate enough in hook-up fees to pay back the county bonds.

    Over and over in these discussions – there is an assumption that you build dense anywhere you want if the city would only allow it.

    I would posit – that the restrictions are at least in part based on the limitations of the infrastructure – which in many cases was put it never
    expecting downstream mega densities.

    I do not see how you do Smart Growth without the city “centrally planning” for it…. without that water/sewer infrastructure there is no Smart Growth.

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