Breaking New Ground: How George Washington’s Land Development Ideas Shaped Sustainability

Historical Perspective – By Tony Wernke
George Washington’s leadership and visionary perspectives make him second to none in the history of our industry.

Background – The idea of starting “a New American Revolution for Sustainability” was born in 2005 in Washington D.C. as industry experts attended a national conference where keynote speaker William McDonough used his bully pulpit to call for a “Cradle to Cradle” approach to land development. Following McDonough’s impassioned speech, a seedling from the oldest known tree in the world was gifted to the Washington National Cathedral by land development industry representatives who later toured George Washington’s National Masonic Memorial and his Mount Vernon estate.

As the industry’s leaders convene in our nation’s capital at the Land Development Breakthroughs – Best Practices Conference, we are reminded of the rich history and traditions that have made our country the world’s greatest nation in so many respects. And this grand, historical venue makes it particularly fitting to look at the inexorable connections between the history of our country, the history of our industry, and the individual who – over 230 years ago – possessed the land development experience, vision, and leadership that would ultimately make not only him the richest American of his time, but also a sustainability practitioner whose land development professional life provides important lessons from which to learn even today. 

Land development professionals have played a central role in helping to make our country the great nation it has become, and when you look at the history of our industry in America, one is hard pressed not to conclude that George Washington, the Father of our Country, also grew to become what can only be described today as the Father of our own land development industry, as well as a visionary prophet of sustainability.

This side of George Washington has not received much attention in the annals of our history books, but it was a central part of his life. His groundbreaking accumulation of land assets and visionary perspectives made him the most accomplished professional during the volatile beginning stages of our economy’s development. George Washington played a bigger role than any other to make it possible for industry professionals to achieve the great accomplishments we’ve made since the birth of our country.

George Washington’s land development experiences are numerous: surveyor, land speculator and developer, urban and regional planner, architectural designer, landscape designer, horticulturist, and ecosystem restorationist, just to name a few. His diversity of experience gave him an industry perspective that few others have ever had before or since.

Breaking In: Surveying

George Washington’s formal initiation into the land development industry started at the age of sixteen, when he accompanied George William Fairfax and James Genn, Surveyor of Prince William County, on a month-long trip across the Blue Ridge Mountains to survey land. Although the surveys were actually performed by the more experienced members of the party, the trip led him to pursue surveying as his profession.

He quickly established a reputation for fairness, honesty, and dependability, while earning a decent living. Soon Washington secured an appointment as county surveyor for the newly created frontier county of Culpeper, and worked in that area for over three years. Ultimately, Washington would survey over two hundred tracts of land in his career.

Land Acquisition and Development

Surveying whetted Washington’s appetite for personal land acquisition. His quality work and professional status put him in position to begin purchasing land for himself. In 1752 Washington purchased 1,459 acres along Bullskin Creek in Frederick County, Virginia. This act inaugurated the second and more profitable phase of his land development career, in which he assumed the role of land speculator and developer. Over the next 50 years, Washington would continue to seek out, purchase, patent, and develop numerous properties.

In addition to lands in the settled parts of Virginia, he also acquired claims to vast tracts in the unsettled West. Washington had a prophetic faith in the future of the West. Settlement in much of the West had been forbidden by the King’s proclamation of 1763, but Washington thought that this was merely a temporary measure and acquired “some of the most valuable land in the King’s part” envisioning the day when such restrictions would be lifted.

Washington’s large ideas for the development of these western lands made him one of the first Americans to foresee the importance of that region to the young Republic, predicting that “it would become populated more rapidly than any one could believe and faster than any similar region ever had been settled.” 

Here is the original DC plan as conceived by Washington and L'enfant iin 1792.

Regional and Urban Planning

Washington also understood the need to develop better methods of transportation to and communication with the West, and in 1783 made a trip up the Mohawk River to the famous Oneida or Great Carrying Place to view the possibilities of waterway development in that region. This turned out to be the future course of the Erie Canal. In 1784, Washington, with the help of Thomas Jefferson, developed a plan to transform the Potomac River into a commercial artery link from the old East to the New West. 

When George Washington selected the boundaries for Washington, D.C., it was an undeveloped area. He worked closely with Pierre L’enfant to design the layout of the city.

Architectural Design
Washington's Mount Vernon estate preserved to as close to its original form as possible. Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, photography by Robert C. Lauman

As Washington’s successful private and public career evolved, he continued to expand his land development experiences, undertaking the sizeable architectural and landscape design projects of his Mount Vernon estate mostly on his own. Washington purposely designed a house on Mount Vernon that was both remarkable and original. The new design had a number of unusual elements. The open quadrant arcades, the cupola, and the great piazza are all features that ignored the current dictates of architectural fashion. Each of these features served utilitarian functions, helping to cool the building, providing shelter from the elements, or taking advantage of cool breezes to naturally improve living conditions.

Landscape Design

Washiington's Mount Vernon estate landscape plan.

His landscape designs at the estate reflected a “naturalistic” approach, which was a radical departure from the formalized gardens of the time. One of the tenets of his philosophy was to take advantage of the natural beauty of the site. Accordingly, Washington surrounded his property with dense tree plantings, and planted and replanted the walkways in grove configurations rather than formal allees, and underplanted the shade trees with dense shrubberies of small ornamental trees and shrubs.

Washington was also an accomplished horticulturalist. He was particularly active in propagating his own fruit trees. For example, in 1763, he recorded that he had grafted and propagated 40 cherry and 12 plum trees, and 55 grape vines. A little later he grafted quinces on pear and apple stocks; also he grafted pears and transplanted 35 young crab scions. These scions he obtained by planting the pumice of wild crab apples from which cider had been made. They were supposed to make heartier stocks than those grown from ordinary seeds.

Washington developed a plan, which was ultimately carried out and documented in 1787, to have his mansion house surrounded by every possible specimen of tree or shrub native to the area. The plan was ingenious for its time and included the revolutionary idea to restore part of the landscape to “wilderness.”

He continued such work long after it could benefit him personally and right up until his death. Much of what he undertook as a planter of trees failed for one reason or another, most of all because he attended to the business of his country at the expense of his own, but much that he attempted succeeded and enough still remains to enable us to realize that by his efforts he made his estate both naturalistic and attractive.

Washington’s extensive notes show us he was corresponding with leading agriculturists, botanists, agronomists, and horticulturists around the world, and George Washington ultimately developed himself into one of the most knowledgeable persons regarding trees in this country at the time.

Sustainable Development

In a time of land and natural resource abundance that must have seemed completely inexhaustible, Washington’s land development and farming experiences led him to become the first American conservationist and environmental restorationist.

Washington described his observation about the character of our world in words that are remarkably prophetic:

A piece of land is cut down, and left under constant cultivation … until it will yield scarcely anything; a second piece is cleared, and treated in the same manner; then a third and so on, until probably there is but little more to clear. When this happens, the owner finds himself reduced to the choice of one of three things—either to recover the land which he has ruined, to accomplish which, he has perhaps neither the skill, the industry, nor the means; or to retire beyond the mountains; or to substitute quantity for quality in order to raise something. The latter has been generally adopted, and, with the assistance of horses, he scratches over much ground, and seeds it, to very little purpose.

Washington realized that man owes a duty to the future just as he owes a debt to the past. He deplored the already developing policy of exploitation by which our soil and forests have been despoiled. He saw the problems such practices can produce.

His care for the lands of Mount Vernon was evidence of the God-given trait imbedded in the best of men to transmit unimpaired to future generations what has been handed down to them.

Long before sustainable development was thought about, Washington espoused its principles of ecology, economy, and equity. He embraced the profit-making opportunities that the new economy offered, and understood how economic activity aids the greater good. He believed in the god-given rights and freedoms of all, and perhaps the most impressive and visionary aspect of Washington’s greatness was his ability to not only see how his actions would impact the world around him, but even more importantly, to allow this understanding to shape his daily actions.

George Washington would no doubt approve of recent efforts to restore the native forest surrounding Mount Vernon, including the efforts of the Champion Tree Project to clone the original trees planted by George Washington himself, in order to preserve his legacy.

The Components of Greatness: Character and Leadership

Washington’s vision and leadership resulted in the independence of our country, the drafting and adoption of the Constitution, and the creation and establishment of not only the presidency, but also our government institutions and values. These traditions, as well as his greatness in land development, were a direct reflection of his highly effective personality and moral character. Washington’s efforts in both private and public service were made with future generations firmly in mind.

The George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, perhaps the highest profile Masonic temple in the country, celebrates Washington's Masonic heritage and the role he played in our history. Copyright The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association All Rights Reserved, Photography by Arthur W. Pierson, Pierson Photography

Washington’s character was shaped by his association with Freemasonry, which began when he was initiated in 1752 at the age of 20. Freemasonry, with its mystical overtones and origins dating back to the Middle Ages, develops an intellectual focus by fostering a continuous exchange of ideas, values and beliefs among members. Freemasonry played an important role in the society of 18th century America, and indeed in the life of George Washington. Freemasons profess and demonstrate belief in virtue, progress, equality, tolerance, universalism, civic duty, natural religion and morality. These values and principles were propagated through their iconography and design.

Freemasons believe that symbols provide powerful connections between values and actions. As Washington’s stature in early America consistently grew, so did the relationship between Freemasonry and his significant historical accomplishments – perhaps best exemplified by leadership during the Revolutionary War, adoption of the Constitution, and laying of the cornerstone of the United States Capitol.

Washington’s will, executed in 1800, listed 52,194 acres located in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Kentucky, and the Ohio Valley that he accumulated during his life. In addition to these properties, Washington also held title to lots in the Virginia cities of Winchester, Bath (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia), and Alexandria, and in the newly formed city of Washington. He died possessed of property estimated to be worth three-quarters of a million dollars and was the richest man in America during his time.

Cloning George Washington's original trees at Mount Vernon. Photo courtesy Terry Mock.

George Washington was the one man who did more and gave more for the creation of this great nation than any other. His greatness lay in his willingness to take responsibility for daily actions while keeping his eyes firmly fixed on his ultimate goals. He was our first Commander in Chief, our first President, the foremost Freemason and the Father of Land Development. America has become “the land of opportunity” due largely to the efforts and sacrifices of George Washington.

It is hard to imagine a better beacon for our industry. His example is humbling and inspiring for all of us. It is fitting that we inaugurate the Land Development Breakthroughs – Best Practices Conference in the capital city of the nation that he built.

Furthermore, it is appropriate that the land development industry now re-examine the roots of America’s beginning, in light of today’s unprecedented challenges, in order to plan and build the sustainable future that George Washington wanted for current and future generations.


Republished from the December, 2005 issue of Land Development Today magazine.

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5 responses

  1. UPDATE:

    SLDI & The Lost Symbol
    October 2009

    Just two weeks after launch, Dan Brown’s new book, “The Lost Symbol,” became the fastest selling adult novel of all time in both hardback and eBook versions, eclipsing the initial global success of Brown’s earlier book, The Da Vinci Code, which ultimately sold over 80 million copies. This sequel (and the movie, which is already scheduled for release) is guaranteed to cause a tremendous and lasting groundswell of public interest in the book’s subject matter – which intertwines the history of Washington D.C., the secrets and symbols of Freemasonry, and the hidden meaning of George Washington’s life – each of which have deeply rooted connections to land development.

    Even as the book’s clever and fast-paced plot concludes, what may not be apparent to many readers is the connection between the SLDI mission and the meaning of “The Lost Symbol” – The Apotheosis of George Washington – painting on the ceiling of the Capitol Rotunda.

    According to Brown’s story,

    “This ceiling’s spectacular collection of images was indeed a message… The founding fathers had envisioned America as a blank canvas, a fertile field on which the seeds of the mysteries could be sown. Today, Washington – a soaring icon – the father of our country, ascending to heaven – is hung silently above our lawmakers, leaders, and presidents…a bold reminder, a map to the future, a promise of a time when all people, like George Washington, would evolve to complete spiritual maturity.”

    “The Lost Symbol” connects the meaning of George Washington’s life to the achievement of our human potential as creators on earth…

  2. January 23, 2013
    Restoring the Commons

    The hard work of rebuilding a post-imperial America, as I suggested in last week’s post, is going to require the recovery or reinvention of many of the things this nation chucked into the dumpster with whoops of glee as it took off running in pursuit of its imperial ambitions. The basic skills of democratic process are among the things on that list; so, as I suggested last month, are the even more basic skills of learning and thinking that
    undergird the practice of democracy.

    All that remains crucial. Still, it so happens that a remarkably large number of the other things that will need to be put back in place are all variations of a common theme. What’s more, it’s a straightforward theme—or, more precisely, would be straightforward if so many people these days weren’t busy trying to pretend that the concept at its center either doesn’t exist or doesn’t present the specific challenges that have made it so problematic in recent years. The concept in question? The mode of collective participation in the use of resources, extending from the most material to the most abstract, that goes most often these days by the name of “the commons.”

    ….There are plenty of ideas about politics and society in circulation on the fringes of today’s American dialogue, to be sure. I’d like to suggest, though, that there’s a point to reviving an older, pre-imperial vision of what government can do, and ought to do, in the America of the future.

  3. “It is appropriate that the land development industry now re-examine the roots of America’s beginning, in light of today’s unprecedented challenges, in order to plan and build the sustainable future that George Washington wanted for current and future generations.”

    These roots intertwine the history of Washington D.C., the secrets and symbols of Freemasonry, and the hidden meaning of George Washington’s life – each of which have deeply rooted connections to land development.

    SLDI & The Lost Symbol

    Secret Blueprint of America
    Premiere Date: January 11, 2014

    What might Washington D.C. have in common with ancient sites like Stonehenge? It is thought by some to be constructed using an ancient unit of measurement called the megalithic yard. Thought to be used by some of the greatest civilizations of all time, this
    antiquated unite of measure could be the key to understanding the hidden meaning behind D.C.’s streets and structures. Scott Wolter investigates whether its use in the design plans of our nation’s capitol created a sanctuary for people practicing goddess worship; people, like George Washington himself….

    The New American System
    JIM MANZI – Spring 2014 –

    … There is much talk in Washington now about the need for a new era of American innovation to help us break out of an economic rut. But there is far less understanding of the ways in which these cycles of innovation and stagnation have worked, and so of what might be required to revive our economic prospects. By seeing how we’ve managed, time and again, to remake America into an engine of innovation and prosperity, we can better understand the nature of the challenge we now face, the character of the opportunities we may have for addressing it, and the kinds of responses that are most likely to work.

    … If we want to avoid stagnation, we must keep pioneering new methods of innovation that play to our strengths… But if the American miracle is to power our growth for another generation, we need to understand it, and unleash it.

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