From Symphony Woods to the Commonwealth of Belle Isle

For the most part I’ve stayed out of the debate over the “Inner Arbor” plan proposed for consideration by the Columbia Association Board of Directors. For the record, I think the idea of having an everyday “there there” in Symphony Woods (i.e., not just Merriweather Post Pavilion) is a good idea; I especially like the idea of building a new Central Branch library as part of an overall Symphony Woods cultural complex. Bottom line: I like the proposal, have signed the petition to support it, and encourage others to do so as well.

However I take partial exception to Wordbones’s declaration that this proposal is an example of the dictum “make no little plans”. At its heart the Inner Arbor plan basically involves constructing an office building, a couple of theaters, a parking garage, and some additional indoor and outdoor amenities. It’s big in comparison to what was previously proposed for Symphony Woods, namely a fountain and a small cafe, but it’s fairly small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

For an example of truly gonzo development ideas we have to leave present-day Columbia and go elsewhere, in particular to Detroit, the symbol of American urban decay and now the proposed location of the Commonwealth of Belle Isle. Belle Isle is an island in the Detroit River currently used as an urban park; at 982 acres it is about 25 times the size of Symphony Woods and almost three times the size of the area covered by the Downtown Columbia plan. Like most of Detroit it’s fallen on hard times, and the city is trying to figure out what to do with it. A local real estate developer, Rodney Lockwood, has offered the city $1 billion to buy the island and develop it. And not just any old development either—Lockwood proposes to turn Belle Isle into a separate 35,000-person “commonwealth” within the United States, with its own independent (and relatively minimal) government, an almost total exemption from Federal taxes, separate citizenship requirements, and eventually its own currency, the Rand.1

As the name of the currency might have told you, the Commonwealth of Belle Isle is another in a string of proposed schemes to establish a libertarian society free of government meddling and dedicated to the principles of liberty and free enterprise—the successor to (among others) space colonies, seasteading, and the Free State Project. It also has connections with the Charter Cities movement promoted by economist Paul Romer, which in turn was inspired by the real-life examples of city-states like Hong Kong and Singapore.2 And of course—though Lockwood goes to some lengths to deny it—the Commonwealth of Belle Isle could also function as an on-shore tax haven, the chilly equivalent of those sunny Caribbean islands where wealthy people park their assets and U.S. corporations establish shell entities to limit their overall corporate tax burden.

An ambitious plan requires an ambitious approach to promote it. The Columbia Association has provided us with a typical slide presentation, while Lockwood has written a 158-page book set 30 years in the future, as a former resident of Detroit returns to marvel at the transformation of Belle Isle and the consequent revitalization of the regional economy. Admittedly it’s not high on drama or conflict; in one fairly typical conversation the two main characters discuss the fine points of Belle Isle’s real estate tax structure (a variant of 19th-century reformer Henry George’s “single tax”). I doubt that Belle Isle the book will achieve the best-seller status of the works of Lockwood’s hero Ayn Rand.3

Lockwood’s book reminds me not so much of Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead but rather Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a 19th-century tract-disguised-as-fiction in which the protagonist goes to sleep in Boston in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000 to find it transformed into a socialist paradise.4 Bellamy’s book was surprisingly popular; according to Wikipedia, “It was the third-largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. … In the United States alone, over 162 ‘Bellamy Clubs’ sprang up to discuss and propagate the book’s ideas.”

All forgotten now, of course, but not written in vain: The ideas of Bellamy and others eventually were toned down, adapted, and transmuted into the welfare-state capitalism of the New Deal and the Great Society, the milieu from which an idealistic real estate developer named James Rouse emerged bearing the dream of a place that would be “not a perfect city or a utopia, but rather an effort to simply develop a better city”. I suspect the libertarian Belle Isle of 2043, like Bellamy’s socialist Boston of 2000, is a fantasy that is doomed to stay within the pages of a book. But although I’ve been a bit snarky about the concept (though not nearly as snarky as some) I’m loath to dismiss or denigrate the spirit behind it.

I think we could use more experiments in urban living and governance, even somewhat oddball ones. Columbia was a noble experiment, though I think ultimately a failed one: In an America in love with suburbia it inevitably assumed a fairly typical suburban character, and (as I’ve written elsewhere) its relative prosperity and socioeconomic equality is arguably less due to its founding ideals and more a function of its role as a bedroom community for an ever-growing Federal government presence in Maryland.

In a sense the Commonwealth of Belle Isle is a 21st century version of Columbia, projected through the lens of a free market ideology. If any part of the Belle Isle vision comes to fruition it’s possible it will simply become a gated community for the 1% and their domestic servants (or “home managers” as the book has it), a supersized and urbanized version of Gibson Island. But who knows? And if Belle Isle does turn out to be more than that perhaps it will hold lessons for the rest of us. At some point in the future Columbia, Howard County, and Maryland may find that Uncle Sam doesn’t come round with presents as often as he used to. In preparation for that day we need more and better ideas on how to promote private sector economic growth, and we shouldn’t be picky on where we look for them. If an idea is a good one then who cares where we steal it from?


1. According to the Commonwealth of Belle Isle FAQ, individuals seeking to move to Belle Isle “will have to post a citizenship fee, which will probably be in the $300,000 range, plus have a working command of English.” In comparison the total wealth of the median US household is around $60,000, with liquid assets much lower. Although it’s not mentioned in the FAQ, Lockwood has separately proposed reserving 20% of the citizenship slots for non-wealthy but deserving applicants.

2. I should note that Professor Romer’s main foray into real-world charter cities, a proposed venture in Honduras, didn’t go too well; see for example this blog post at Reason.com. However hope springs eternal.

3. It may however be of interest to at least some Columbians: Just as the Columbia Association has been characterized as an over-grown homeowners association, the fictional government of the Commonwealth of Belle Isle resembles nothing so much as a CA on steroids, with its own police force, judiciary, tax system, and currency, but still concerned about the fine details of urban planning, down to the building materials used. This can get a bit absurd sometimes: In the course of giving his friend a tour of Belle Isle one character remarks, “Concrete doesn’t meet our aesthetic test. So we don’t allow any use of it. … In the Soviet era the Russians built the ugliest buildings in the world using primarily concrete. So we figure communism and concrete are linked. Not here! In our free-market world, we go the other direction.”

4. I realize that some may think the real-life Boston of the year 2000 was a bastion of socialism (though no paradise). All I can say to those folks is that they should read the works of Bellamy and others of that time to see the sort of system actual American socialists wanted to establish.