The Life of an Idea: The Origins and Impact of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
For a young John Lincoln, growing up in the countryside of Michigan and Ohio, a knack for fixing and inventing things was as readily apparent as his entrepreneurial spirit. He enrolled in Ohio State University but left in his third year, having read nearly all the engineering books in the library, and went to work in the emerging field of electricity at the end of the 19th century, in the same era as Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla.
In his twenties, working for a series of small companies based in Cleveland, Lincoln invented an electric brake for streetcars, securing the first of 55 patents. He also invented an electric motor. And one of the nation’s first electric cars. And ultimately, a system for joining metals through arc welding that would help power the extraordinary industrial mobilization at the start of the 20th century.
In 1895, with $200 of his own savings, he founded the Lincoln Electric Company, which would grow into a multibillion-dollar global enterprise that transformed the design and construction of buildings, bridges, ships, manufacturing machinery, and military armaments. Along with his younger brother, James, he established progressive employee policies including incentives, paid leave, health care, and a lifelong employment guarantee.
And so he turned his inventive mind to something else: establishing a tradition of education and research on land use and ownership, guided by principles of fairness. In 1946, he established the Lincoln Foundation, which later became the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
The audacious proposition underlying the Lincoln Institute—bringing together scholars and practitioners to investigate the unique importance of land in economies, government, and society at large—would live on through Lincoln’s son and granddaughter, who became stewards of his legacy and innovators in their own right. Along the way, their vision has been embraced and advanced by dozens of board members, including fellow members of the Lincoln family; five chief executives; a faculty and staff that grew from a handful of scholars to a workforce of nearly 100 today; and a constellation of planners, authors, educators, and other partners. The Lincoln Institute has evolved to take on issues its founder could not have foreseen, from the climate crisis to the rapid urbanization of China. So it was that an idea sparked at the end of the 19th century became remarkably applicable for the 21st.
The niche that the Lincoln Institute works in—the role of land in society—is not always readily understood, says former Arizona governor, U.S. Department of the Interior secretary, and longtime Lincoln Institute board member Bruce Babbitt. “America does not have much of a land planning tradition,” says Babbitt, for whom the Lincoln Institute’s Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy is named. The Lincoln Institute “is working on the frontiers of economics, science, conservation, and development . . . where innovation and risk-taking are essential to success.”
Practitioners have taken notice. The former chair of the planning and zoning commission in Hartford, Connecticut—a city that has wrestled with the loss of population and manufacturing jobs—says the Lincoln Institute has helped the city conjure a new future, one defined by assets like regional high-speed rail. The Lincoln Institute “framed the policy discussions that can transform the way we use land,” says Sara Bronin, who now leads the land use equity coalition Desegregate Connecticut. It has been invaluable to have the insight and support of an organization that helps kindle greater ambitions, says Bronin: “It just expands everybody’s thinking.”
WHEN JOHN C. LINCOLN arrived in Cleveland in 1888, the city was a hub of technological innovation, not unlike Silicon Valley a century later. Lincoln started a family and his company there and, after he turned the operations of Lincoln Electric over to James and returned to the workbench, produced everything from a meat-curing apparatus to a wire-bending method for springs. And he read, and reread, Progress and Poverty by Henry George.
He had heard George speak in 1889, at a lecture he’d been invited to by a fellow inventor, Tom Johnson, who would later become mayor of Cleveland. He left that lecture hall convinced of a fundamental injustice: that landowners realized windfalls not by doing anything special or producing goods, but simply by holding land that increased in value because of government actions—like putting in a railroad line. “The land value created by the community belongs to the community, just as surely as the wheat raised by the farmer belongs to the farmer,” Lincoln wrote decades later in one of several pamphlets he published, this one titled “Stop Legal Stealing.”
Lincoln rallied to George’s cause, which is embraced today by leading economists. He even accepted a nomination from the Commonwealth Land Party to run for vice president of the United States in 1924, a mostly symbolic step intended to bring attention to Georgist principles and one he later deemed “a crazy thing to do.”
He would spend little of the wealth he accrued from his inventions on creature comforts. Instead, he became the single largest benefactor of the Henry George School of Social Science, which was founded in 1932 in New York City and still operates today. In 1946, he established the Lincoln Foundation, which was to be “dedicated to education in its broadest sense,” with a mission to “seek, through the dissemination of proven truth, to change the standards of economic education and of public opinion, and thus contribute to a more just and productive life for free men and women.”
Having moved to Phoenix in 1931, primarily to improve the health of his wife, Helen, Lincoln engaged in new activities in the Southwest including mining and the fledgling tourism business. He cofounded the Camelback Inn in nearby Paradise Valley and became a major benefactor in health care and other civic initiatives; to this day, a street and a medical center in the area bear his name.
In the 1950s, things slowed down for the slender man a Cleveland newspaper had once dubbed “tougher than a mule,” after he had sprung into action to sever a downed trolley wire. John Lincoln reached the end of his life in Arizona in 1959. He left the legacy of the Lincoln Foundation to his progeny, who would guide it to the next levels of philanthropy, education, and research.
DAVID COLVILL LINCOLN, born in 1925, was the youngest of John and Helen’s three children. Like his father, David revealed an acumen in business, engineering, and philanthropy as a young man. When he took the reins of the Lincoln Foundation after his father’s death, he expanded the universe of grant recipients to include a school of public finance at the Claremont Men’s College in California, the University of Virginia, New York University, the University of Chicago, and the Urban Land Institute.
The Lincoln Foundation had no staff then, and a 1963 annual report acknowledged that the first years “were measurably experimental.” But David Lincoln collaborated with various advisers including Raymond Moley, a member of FDR’s Brain Trust who had advised John Lincoln and made key introductions to scholars active in land economics. One such introduction was to the economist Archibald Woodruff, then the president of the University of Hartford. Woodruff became a board member of the foundation and offered a home to a new organization: the John C. Lincoln Institute, created in 1966.
Woodruff made further introductions, including to leaders at the Vatican and the United Nations, that led to discussions of land tenure and land reform internationally, and specifically in Asia. In 1968 the footprint of the Lincoln Foundation officially expanded with the establishment of the Land Reform Training Institute in Taiwan, now called the International Center for Land Policy Studies and Training and still a partner of the Lincoln Institute.
Still, David Lincoln had bigger dreams. The John C. Lincoln Institute in Hartford was a good start, but he and his board members envisioned a new entity that would be both far-reaching and freestanding. He wrote to at least a dozen university presidents proposing a collaboration on land use and land taxation issues. Derek Bok, then the president of Harvard University, was the only leader who wrote back, offering his assistance with the creation of a program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy was established in 1974 as a center for education on land use and land-related tax issues, funded by the Lincoln Foundation. Arlo Woolery, an expert on public utility regulation and valuation, served as its first executive director. The Lincoln Institute set up shop at a house on Trowbridge Street in Cambridge, inviting professors from Harvard and MIT to help evaluate the research initiatives that could support practitioners and policy makers through the 1970s and beyond.
It was a welcome invitation at a time of great concern for the fate of struggling and conflict-riven cities, recalls William A. Doebele, the first curator of Harvard’s Loeb Fellowship, which had been founded just a few years earlier, in 1970, to enlist mid-career professionals to help solve urban problems.
The idea of the Lincoln Institute “was to study the property tax in all of its forms—a hugely important source of income for municipal governments,” says Doebele. “There were all kinds of studies about the income tax and other forms of taxation. But nobody was looking at property taxation.”
David Lincoln, Doebele recalls, “was not someone who much liked being in the spotlight.” He was unostentatious and frugal, toting around the same leather briefcase and driving the same car long past the time when most others would replace such things. But his understated demeanor belied a determination to push forward into new frontiers.
Just a year after its founding, the Lincoln Institute held a colloquium on Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal (CAMA), an emerging methodology to bring property valuation—still done with pencil and paper in many places then—into the digital era. The Lincoln Institute would go on to play a key role in making the tool widely accessible.
The fledgling institute was a welcoming place for up-and-coming scholars like Daphne Kenyon, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, and Joan Youngman, who joined after doing groundbreaking work in taxation and law at Harvard. “It was not only open to new ideas, it also actively promoted and investigated new areas of research,” says Kenyon, now resident fellow in tax policy at the Lincoln Institute. “I have certainly found it to be an intellectually stimulating place to work.”
In addition to land and property taxation, land use was a major focus, as the Lincoln Institute explored the environmental and fiscal ramifications of suburban sprawl. This work “did help move the needle,” says Richard Perkins, a founder of the real estate company LandVest and a former board member of the Lincoln Institute. Environmentally sensitive development was catching on with developers, but municipalities needed to know how to change the rules to encourage it. “That [influence] was huge,” Perkins says. “It affects the entire world and how we live.”
The study of sprawl continued under the next executive director, Ronald L. Smith, who arrived in 1986 after a stint as dean of the School of Business Administration at Georgetown University. In 1988, the Lincoln Institute hosted a major forum on growth management in Phoenix. This ultimately led to research on smart growth, New Urbanism, regional planning, “zombie” subdivisions, and the release of the first major evaluation of smart growth policies in the United States.
The cutting-edge movement for sustainable development drew strength from the Lincoln Institute’s research and assessment, says Armando Carbonell, who led a regional land use planning system for Cape Cod, Massachusetts, before joining the Lincoln Institute to manage its urban programs. “We took a rigorous, evidence-based approach to look at what policies worked or didn’t work,” he says.
In the 1980s, financing land conservation became another critical part of the Lincoln Institute’s growing portfolio. Boston attorney and Lincoln Institute Fellow Kingsbury Browne convened some 40 representatives of land trusts to engage in open-ended discussions, with the goal of establishing best practices for conservation easements and land purchases. That gathering gained both momentum and national influence, much as the start-up work in CAMA had. The group became the Land Trust Alliance, whose more than 1,000 member organizations have protected 56 million acres and counting.
Convening practitioners, holding workshops, and fostering networks would become a hallmark of the Lincoln Institute. Journalists writing about cities and urban growth in the United States and Latin America, state tax judges, city planners, property rights scholars, international ministers, and mayors of postindustrial legacy cities have all come together regularly over the years, exchanging ideas and forming networks that advance policies and practices on the ground.
Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, has participated in workshops with fellow chief executives of struggling postindustrial cities. “It’s a nice relationship between listening and telling,” Whaley says, noting that the events she has participated in are designed “not to tell practitioners what to do, but to take into account what challenges each community is facing.”
Many other political leaders came to appreciate the bridge between research and training, and between policy and practice. “This was one of the first institutions of its kind that stepped back and looked at what we were doing in terms of the environment, land conservation, planning,” says former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. “Thoughtful analysis of what we were doing to our natural and urban environment—for guys like me, it was one place you could get sensible information about what was actually going on, during a time of massive disinvestment in cities. Now, we have lots of folks who are into this. But not then. It has been a real contribution.”
KATHRYN JO LINCOLN was born in 1954 on Long Island, New York, where David was working as an engineer for Sperry Rand. Katie Lincoln, as she is nearly universally known, was the second of four children born to David and his wife, Joan. A professionally trained actor and arts administrator who also earned an MBA, she became chair of the board of the Lincoln Institute in 1996. That same year a new president was named: H. James Brown, chair of the City and Regional Planning department at Harvard and director of the MIT–Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies.
John Lincoln’s granddaughter, who also sits on the board of the company he founded, Lincoln Electric, set about to sharpen the mission of the Lincoln Institute. She built on priorities identified earlier in the 1990s, which included the taxation and regulation of land; the functioning of land markets; transportation and land use; and community and individual rights and responsibilities in land. Those themes would soon be aligned with an expanded geography; as the new millennium approached, the Lincoln Institute’s research and expertise were increasingly in demand overseas.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, newly independent Eastern European nations undertook land reform and property taxation as they made the transition to a free-market economy. A team from the Lincoln Institute tax department began traveling to Lithuania and other locations each year to teach the basics of the property tax.
Half a world away, fast-growing Latin America was struggling with urbanization and slums. After holding international conferences that included discussions of urban challenges in Mexico, which had been an area of special interest for David Lincoln, and testing the waters with a program on land use and development in Cuba, the Lincoln Institute launched the Program on Latin America and the Caribbean in 1993. Its focus included informal settlement, better-functioning land markets, and technology-enhanced cadastres.
The region, in particular Colombia and Brazil, was also experimenting with land value capture—returning increases in land value that resulted from government actions and public investments to the community, just as Henry George had described. Those experiments further fueled the Lincoln Institute’s interest in that topic, ultimately leading to the report Implementing Value Capture in Latin America: Policies and Tools for Urban Development.
By the turn of the 21st century, another part of the world was also rapidly urbanizing. The Lincoln Institute had been engaged with land policy work in Asia at least since the start of the training center in Taiwan in 1968, and now it began developing research programs in China, looking at topics including land use, housing markets, and land taxation. The board of the Lincoln Institute reached an agreement with top officials in China, through the influential Ministry of Land and Resources, to create a formal relationship. The Program on the People’s Republic of China, established in 2003, was dedicated to studying environmental issues, rapid urbanization, and municipal finance. Four years later, the Peking University–Lincoln Institute Center for Urban Development and Land Policy launched in Beijing. Early projects ranged from training Chinese senior government officials and young scholars to producing and sponsoring hundreds of data-driven policy reports, says Joyce Man, the center’s first director. Man notes that China has much to teach the United States and the rest of the world about sustainability, land-based financing of public infrastructure, and urban redevelopment. “The exchanges can go two ways,” she says.
Katie Lincoln and Gregory K. Ingram, Brown’s successor as president and a former World Bank executive, began traveling extensively to nurture relationships in China and other corners of the world. In the early aughts of the new century, the Lincoln Institute became a major partner in the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, known as UN-Habitat, and contributed to international summits from Nairobi to Kuala Lumpur.
The Lincoln Institute was now fully operating on the international stage, taking its place alongside much larger philanthropic foundations and nongovernmental organizations, and would soon expand even further.
IN 2006, the Lincoln Foundation and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy merged to form a private operating foundation. Katie Lincoln became its chief investment officer, overseeing the Lincoln Institute endowment. She diversified the portfolio and added mission-related investments, including the wetlands restoration company Ecosystem Investment Partners and an infrastructure fund for Africa. “I view this as a perpetual book that will live past my children, and my children’s children,” Lincoln says. “My responsibility is to make sure it is structured in such a way that we have an eye on long-term growth, but have enough income to support the work we’re doing.”
The new era also saw a renewed focus on outreach, with the establishment of a formal communications and publications program that produces books, reports, working papers, policy briefs, and Land Lines magazine. “It was important that we do the work, we do the research, but we present it in a way that made it accessible,” says Lincoln, who worried about overly technical books sitting unread on the shelf. “I’m not the economist in the room, but someone like me has to understand what we do in order for us to be successful.”
Today, Lincoln Institute publications are available in print and online; a distribution partnership with Columbia University Press ensures that they reach a broad audience. Multimedia projects have also been a priority: with Northern Light Productions, the Lincoln Institute launched a documentary film series, Making Sense of Place, examining urban issues in Phoenix, Cleveland, and Portland, Oregon. The one-hour films have been broadcast on public television and were recently updated and given new life as a website. The five-part Shifting Ground series, looking at land use conflicts and compromises across the nation, aired on public radio, and two podcast series—Land Matters, recorded in English, and Estación Ciudad, in Spanish—address key themes.
In another effort to make research more freely available, the Lincoln Institute assembled data on topics from municipal budgets to urban growth, creating tools that can be used by scholars, policy makers, journalists, citizen activists, and others. One database, Significant Features of the Property Tax, essentially replaced an annual report by the federal government that had been discontinued. Other databases, including Fiscally Standardized Cities and the Atlas of Urban Expansion, facilitated research on density, global urbanization, and municipal finance. With these and other projects, the goal has been to take advantage of advances in technology to bring more attention to the wealth of information that the Lincoln Institute has built up over the years and to help guide evidence-based decision making.
Reinvention was again at hand as George W. “Mac” McCarthy, director of the Metropolitan Opportunity program at the Ford Foundation, was named the Lincoln Institute’s fifth chief executive in 2014. McCarthy launched a strategic planning process that identified six “pathways to impact,” organizational goals that address global social, environmental, and economic challenges through the lens of land policy.
Under McCarthy, the Lincoln Institute became active in Africa, working with partners there to strengthen the planning capacity of local governments, develop and deliver curricula on the property tax, and foster the exchange of knowledge and ideas with other regions. Three new centers also came into being. The Center for Community Investment helps communities mobilize capital to achieve their economic, social, and environmental priorities. The Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy promotes and strengthens the critical links between land and water management, with an initial focus on the Colorado River Basin. The Center for Geospatial Solutions provides data, expertise, and services to expand access to technologies that can inform land use decisions around the world.
FROM THE BEGINNING, the idea of the Lincoln Foundation, and in turn the Lincoln Institute, was to use research and education to help address the toughest challenges of the day. The gap between rich and poor that was an affront to John Lincoln persists, and translates into current issues including affordable housing, fiscal stability, and social justice.
“The relevance is probably always going to be there, as long as there are people in cities and communities working to improve the quality of life, reduce poverty, and build wealth,” says Andrea Taylor, a long-serving Lincoln Institute board member who is now the chief diversity officer at Boston University. Taylor adds that the Lincoln Institute is “constantly thinking about how it can continue to reinvent itself in response to what is happening in our societies, both domestically and across the world.”
As the world confronts the challenge of climate change, with severe drought and rising seas potentially reshaping land and land use in myriad ways, and as it contends with the social and economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, the notion of putting land on center stage seems especially prescient. These crises are prompting new thinking about density and land use, housing, transportation—and, ultimately, how to better express the fundamental principle that inspired the founding of the Lincoln Institute: fairness.
Taylor describes the current moment as an opportunity to rethink equity and access to resources, including land, and to create resilience by finding new ways to build community. “Nothing is static in land and land use—there are always new opportunities for solving problems,” Taylor says. “The specific issues may change, but the underlying premise is based on people and place and space. I would think 75 years from now there will still be a big role for the Lincoln Institute to play, because these issues aren’t going away.”
Anthony Flint is a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute and a contributing editor of Land Lines.
Photograph: Tomato fields, north central Ohio. Credit: Alex MacLean.
Dawson, Virginia P. 1999. Lincoln Electric: A History. Cleveland, OH: History Enterprises Inc.
Koller, Frank. 2010. Spark: How Old-Fashioned Values Drive a Twenty-First Century Corporation: Lessons from Lincoln Electric’s Unique Guaranteed Employment Program. New York, NY: Public Affairs.
Lincoln Foundation. 1961–1973. Annual Reports. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy archives.
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. 1994. “Twentieth Anniversary Convocation.” Transcript of proceedings. September 24. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy archives.
———. 2002. “In Memoriam: Arlo Woolery.” Land Lines. April. https://www.lincolninst.edu/publications/articles/memoriamarlo-woolery.
———. 2018. “In Memoriam: David C. Lincoln, 1925–2018.” At Lincoln House blog. March 19. https://www.lincolninst.edu/news/lincoln-house-blog/memoriamdavid-c-lincoln-1925-2018.
Moley, Raymond. 1962. The American Century of John C. Lincoln. New York, NY: Duell, Sloan and Pearce.