Urbanism without government

Asking, “But who will build the roads?” is a cliched response to proposals for a more libertarian political system. However, it leads to the interesting historical question of “Who has built the roads in anarchic societies?” Colonial America provides a few examples that answer this question. Perhaps the best known example of anarchism in American history was in Rhode Island, or “Rogue’s Island,” founded by Baptists fleeing Massachusetts. The stateless Baptists founded the cities of Portsmouth and Warwick.

Unlike the Baptists, William Penn didn’t intend to create an anarchic colony, but Pennsylvania was, in fact, without a government from 1684 to 1691 as evidenced by Penn’s failure to successfully levy any taxes during that time. It’s difficult to know much about street building from this time period in part because of how much time has passed and in part because, as Murray Rothbard writes, “The lack of recordkeeping in stateless societies — since only government officials seem to have the time, energy, and resources to devote to such activities — produce a tendency toward a governmental bias in the working methods of historians.” However, we do know that Philadelphia’s neighborhoods near the Delaware River were growing during this time.

One of the country’s oldest continually occupied streets is Philadelphia’s Elfreth’s Alley. It was dedicated in 1702, shortly after this period of complete anarchy and served  as a route to connect local merchants’ property with the already thriving Second Street. As the society dedicated to the alley’s preservation writes:

Elfreth’s Alley — popularly known as “Our nation’s oldest residential street” – dates back to the first days of the eighteenth century. Twenty years after William Penn founded Pennsylvania and established Philadelphia as its capital, the town had grown into a thriving, prosperous mercantile center on the banks of the Delaware River.

Philadelphians had abandoned Penn’s plan for a “greene countrie towne” and instead created a cityscape similar to what they remembered in England. Wharves stretched out into the river, welcoming ships from around the world. Shops, taverns, and homes crowded the area along the river. Philadelphians made and sold items essential to life in the New World and to the trade that was a part of their daily lives.

Two of these colonial craftsmen, blacksmiths John Gilbert and Arthur Wells, owned the land where Elfreth’s Alley now sits. In 1702, each man gave up a portion of his land to create an alleyway along their property line that connected their smithies near the river with Second Street, one block away. By that date, Second was a major north-south road, connecting Philadelphia with towns north and west of the city and the frontier beyond.

Photo by C. Ridgeway

Photo by C. Ridgeway

Gilbert and Wells donated their land both to benefit their businesses and to improve the city’s transportation network in keeping with the Quaker tradition of voluntarism. Their actions demonstrate the power of cooperation for mutual gain, but it’s also notable that streets built with donated land are likely to be narrow, as Elfreth’s Alley is. As the article explains that William Penn envisioned Pennsylvania as a “countrie towne,” but without the ability to raise any taxes needed to enforce his vision, he couldn’t prevent Pennsylvania residents from developing the sort of dense and mixed-use development that supported their growing industries in Philadelphia.

Victorian England provides another example of rapid urban growth under very limited government. Decades after the construction of Elfreth’s Alley, urban development absent any city planning, government infrastructure, or building codes swept across London and other English cities. Neighborhoods including the West End and Nottingham were developed during this period of hands-off government policy, relying on the private sector for providing all infrastructure, from streets to streetlights to drainage.

In both cases of laissez- faire urban development, we see very narrow streets, as landowners are making the trade between providing easements for accessibility and developing land for profit. Unlike colonial Philadelphia’s period of total anarchy, London had a system of Private Acts, which required developers to seek permission from Parliament to implement any significant land use changes. After development was in place, some neighborhoods used covenants to enforce upkeep of common goods such as lighting and even to enforce design standards for builders. In his chapter in The Voluntary CityStephen Davies explains that landowners did not place covenants on all land and that the stringency of covenants varied widely. Because covenants tended to increase both the quality and price of housing, this variation allowed builders to serve both low- and middle-income residents, depending on where they built:

Developers were able to tailor the extent of their providing “public goods” via covenant to the nature and scope of local demand, as well as account for other factors such as land and building costs. This is in marked contrast to the rigidity and fixity of state attempts to supply these goods through public planning, zoning laws, and the like. The flexibility also extended to the enforcement of covenants. Landlords and developers would often not enforce the building clause in a lease when demand for land was slack, as long as the rent was paid.

While colonial Philadelphia and Victorian London saw road building under different legal institutions, both cases demonstrate that urban infrastructure can be provided without government. Perhaps the free market would never create the interstate highway system, but it’s proven itself capable of facilitating the creation of charming, functional streets that endure centuries.





  • genecallahan

    ‘Asking, “But who will build the roads?” is a cliched response to proposals for a more libertarian political system.’

    How often has it been put forward by serious critics of libertarianism? (And note: it is a different argument from “Roads will be undersupplied without government,” a more common critique among serious thinkers.)

  • soleri

    The answer to who will build the roads is implicit in the time period selected. But one of the reasons why many people can’t take libertarianism seriously is its utter abstraction from contemporary life and economic arrangements. In colonial America, there were primitive roads carved in the emptiness of a largely unpopulated continent. It was easy to do things for that reason. But the more people and commerce, the harder that gets. There are many more stakeholders today. This notion that people then were superior to us in their resilience misses this distinction. It was easy to be a yeoman farmer when land was free for the taking and neighbors few and far between.

    I always ask libertarians to point our the ideal society since this planet is fairly large. There must be some place where anarcho-capitalism works well. But the airiness of ideological conviction can’t fill the gaps where actually nations and people go. Good luck with the tangibles. Culture and human society are not abstractions, unlike libertarian political theory.

  • Charles_Siegel

    There are lots of examples of urbanism without government, but all of them occurred in the days before cars.

    You can get “charming, functional streets that endure centuries” without government, but those streets are not wide enough to accommodate the levels of automobile traffic that we have today.

    If people decided that they would be better off in old-fashioned cities with their narrow, charming streets, the first step would be to pass very forceful laws limiting the use of cars.

    Today, we need this sort of forceful government action to get those old-fashioned streets. Urbanism without government would give us something more like Houston.

  • http://marketurbanism.com MarketUrbanism

    While you’d have to use force to get old-fashioned streets everywhere, you’d get a lot closer just by getting government out of the business of providing no-cost streets and highways. I don’t think any place would look like Houston without a socialized transportation system.

  • Leon Letson

    Although it is nice to assume that the non-government approach to infrastructure building would result in such highly walkable urban places, it should be noted the examples included in this article occurred before the advent of automobiles. Today, jurisdictions struggle to get developers to consider anything but vehicles when laying out roads and planning connectivity for their projects.

  • G.L. Mackleroy

    There are too many gaping holes in this piece to even cover. Certainly the selection of these two case studies is questionable, and a typical scholarly structure in writing of this type would allow- even demand- a third case study, likely in the contemporary era, to illustrate what I think (although it’s not that explicitly stated) is the author’s claim- which presumably has to do with establishing a legacy of such work, and its continued relevance today (which, as others have pointed out, is nil). And phrases like “under very limited government” are vacant- is the author referring to the mere ability to tax? To draft and enforce zoning ordinances (a word not mentioned once)?

    This is an excerpt from an undergrad midterm paper, right? Please tell me it is.

  • http://marketurbanism.com MarketUrbanism

    zoning wasn’t even a concept back in 1702

    It’s clear the author’s point is to demonstrate examples that streets, even pleasant, pedestrian-friendly streets that urbanists love can and have been provided without government intervention.

  • http://www.baconsrebellion.com James Bacon

    I’m surprised to see such skepticism in response to this post. Washington is describing how private parties acting together created the kind of the intimate, pedestrian-scale streets that Smart Growthers purport to love. How many such streets have government-financed road building schemes ever created?
    Thought experiment: If governments had never gotten into the business of creating streets and roads, what would our urban areas look like today? Would they be more or less walkable? More or less auto-centric in design?

  • hamilt0n

    My experience is that developers in urban areas won’t provide much infrastructure for cars unless they’re forced to via parking minimums, setbacks, etc.

  • hamilt0n

    I find it strange that someone would call the physical roads described in the post “abstractions.”

    They exist and you can visit them, which seems pretty tangible to me, at least.

  • Caspasian

    Except that they are not “roads” but rather “streets”. If you don’t understand the difference between the two I suggest you visit Chuck Marohn’s website Strong Towns. Private streets continue to be built to this day – whether in shopping centers or residential subdivisions – so I’m not exactly sure what this point of this post is. Yes, standards for streets were minimal or non-existent back then, but this is the pre-automobile, pre-industrial era were talking about. The horrors of the congested, industrial city were still more than a century away and the total population for all of the colonies in 1700 was only 250,000.

  • dk12

    Bad example – pre WWII, Houston was a pretty walkable place with a “vibrant” downtown and street cars until the FHWA money came along. Without government-financed highways, Houston would have never ended up with giant parking craters.

  • Chuck Wolfe

    As I point out in Urbanism Without Effort, there are a fair amount of examples of some of this today on a smaller scale, e.g. “alley movie night”, so it may be an overgeneralization to say all of the examples were pre-car

  • Vince Graham

    This post reminded me of what another anarchist once said on the subject:

    “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life. And only a few find it.” ~Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:13-14)

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  • David Lopez

    You missed the point of the article entirely. Basically, it can be done without government intervention. The difference would be in the scale. There are examples today of community maintained roads in the UK as well as the United States. Toll Roads are one example of roads built and maintained by a corporation but it isn’t farfetched to say that these same toll roads could be maintained by community dollars.

  • David Lopez

    Why are you here if you’re just going to argue? There are other forums where excessive and erroneous arguments are to be had.

  • al

    “maintained by community dollars”

    Local govt by another name.
    OTOH, There were privately tolled roads, bridges and tunnels here and in UK during a span of time between 1780-1930. Hell, urban and intercity rail and canals was largely private.