As the world urbanizes, acquiring land for urban development has become a critical challenge. In China, some estimate that there are as many as 500 land-related protests, riots and strikes per day , making land acquisition one of the greatest threats to the country’s political stability. Indian policy makers are struggling to devise regulations  to ease the acquisition of land for the vast amounts of infrastructure and housing the country needs, while avoiding the disruption and displacement that has gone alongside land acquisition in the past. In response to these challenges, there is a renewed interest among urban planners around the world in “land pooling and readjustment”, a mode of land acquisition for urban development. As it happens, this approach appears to have been first used by none other than George Washington, in order to assemble the land he needed to build the US capital city.
In 1791, after a prolonged dispute over where to locate the federal government of the recently independent United States, state representatives finally decided on the banks of the Potomac River. Having chosen a specific location for its “superb natural sites”, Washington was faced with the challenge of assembling the land, which consisted of 17 large, mostly rural tracts.
One of the landowners, a crotchety Scotsman named David Burnes, was particularly adamant about holding on to his land, which lay in an area that is now part of downtown DC. Months of negotiations between Washington’s agents and Burnes had no effect. Washington tried to appeal to Burnes’ patriotism, to which Burnes is said to have replied, “If it had not been for the Widow Custis [Washington’s previously widowed wife Martha] and her [African-Americans] you would never have been anything but a land surveyor, and a very poor surveyor at that.” Burnes would only agree to give up his property if the public buildings were built on his land.
Meanwhile, property owners in both Georgetown and Carrollsburg, a small settlement on the Anacostia in what is now South-West DC, sought to have the public buildings built in their respective towns. A resolution to the dispute seemed so unlikely that Thomas Jefferson sketched a plan for a much more modest capital city, around a quarter of the size Washington had envisioned. It was located at the site of a German settlement called Hamburgh, which had been founded in the 1760s in the area that is now Foggy Bottom. Jefferson’s sketch, which pre-dates L’Enfant’s much grander plan, is shown below:
Clearly, the city would have turned out to be very different to the one we know today if President Washington had been unable to devise a solution whereby all the landowners were satisfied. Perhaps Washington’s experience as a land surveyor helped him arrive at his ingenious solution. He traveled from Philadelphia to Georgetown, and gathered Burnes and the other landowners for dinner. At this dinner meeting he made an appeal to the landowners, pointing out that continuing to disagree did not “comport either with the public interest or that of their own,” as he recorded in his diary. He instead suggested a means by which the landowners and the district could “make a common cause of it”.
Washington’s proposal was this: rather than dealing in individual parcels, he asked the landowners to pool their land, which consisted of about 6,000 acres (24 sq. km.). The pooled land would be laid out into streets, public squares, and lots for development. Washington would only compensate the original owners for any land used for public buildings or squares, around 540 acres (2.2 sq. km.), at a fixed price of £25 per acre. There would be no compensation paid for land used for streets, which amounted to 3,606 acres (15 sq. km.). The land was divided into 20,272 lots, of which exactly half would be owned by the public, and the other half returned to the original owners.
The landowners agreed, and the next day, March 30th, 1791, they signed an agreement, including “the obstinate Mr. Burns”, as Washington called him. What made this worthwhile for the original landowners was that while they were losing more than half of their land, and not receiving high monetary compensation, the land they did get to keep would suddenly become extremely valuable. It would no longer be open rural land, but thousands of urban lots, set among streets, public squares and important buildings. The fraction of their land returned to them was worth more than all of their land had been before, as it was now prime urban real estate.
It was an extraordinary deal from the government’s point of view, too. The city’s founders had acquired all the land they needed for streets, as well as over 10,000 lots, for free. They sold the lots, and used the proceeds to buy the 540 acres they needed for public buildings. In other words, the plan had paid for itself, without any compulsory taking of land. In a letter to Washington, Jefferson pointed out that as they had acquired the streets for free, they could spend more on public spaces. As historian Rufus R. Wilson observed in 1901, “Shrewd financier as he was, it is doubtful if Washington ever made another so good a bargain as that with Burnes and his neighbors.” Perhaps it was with this triumph fresh in their minds that the commissioners of the city named it the ‘City of Washington’, a few months after the deal was struck in 1791.
This method for assembling land for urban infrastructure—working with rural landowners to pool the land to be developed, using some of it for streets and public spaces, selling some of it to cover costs, and returning the remaining land to the original owners for them to keep or sell at a profit—is now known as “land pooling and readjustment”. It has had a significant impact on urban development in the 20th century, in Germany, Korea, Taiwan, India, and elsewhere (though, interestingly, not in the United States). Land pooling and readjustment is responsible for 30% of all urban land in Japan, where it is called the “Mother of City Planning”. Up to 75% of land in some Japanese cities was developed this way. When implemented well, it is considered a more efficient, equitable, and financially viable form of urban expansion than those relying on traditional land acquisition.
It is unclear whether or not the idea of land pooling and readjustment in its modern form, despite its similarity to Washington’s solution, has actually descended from it. The modern practice traces its origins back to the Lex Adickes, a city planning law devised by Franz Adickes, the Mayor of Frankfurt, Germany, in 1893, and enacted in 1902. It is difficult to tell whether Adickes was aware of George Washington’s means of assembling land for the City of Washington, or whether he arrived at the idea independently. It is certainly conceivable that he may have read about it, which would give Washington a significant if unwitting role in the history of 20th century urban development, particularly in Asia. Regardless, Washington’s approach to the process of urbanization, as a vast government-led undertaking that could nevertheless utilize market forces, one which respected the claims of private landowners while still working towards the broader public interest, provides a lesson for urbanization in a post-ideological 21st century.