Columbia is a well-known example of the New Town Movement in the United States. Though it shares similarities with other planned communities like Reston (Virginia) and The Woodlands ( Texas), Columbia’s innovative approach to planning puts it in a league of its own. A six-month period of interdisciplinary meetings brought together experts in education, recreation, sociology, transportation and religion, as well as architects and engineers, to weigh in on ways to better its would-be residents’ quality of life. Columbia was also ahead of its time for the purposeful goal to be an integrated community at a time before the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it illegal to discriminate in housing based on race, color, national origin or religion..
The Exhibit Center that opened downtown in 1967 depicted the story of Columbia in an exhibit titled “The Next America.” It served as the announcement of a vision for a better city: a blend of the best of city and country living that could provide answers to problems found in major cities and suburbs.
Fifty years later, Columbia is a thriving unincorporated community of nearly 100,000 people that by many measures is one of the most successful models of New Town development — the No. 1 small city to live in, according to Money Magazine in 2016. Developed by Howard Research and Development (HRD), a subsidiary of The Rouse Company led by founder James Rouse, Columbia grew out of Rouse’s belief that private developers could plan an environment that nurtured the growth of people.
Rouse had been interested in cities and suburban sprawl — including how people live and thrive — through much of his career, which included work with the Eisenhower Commission on Housing, The American Council to Improve Our Neighborhoods (ACTION) and the Greater Baltimore Committee, as well as his businesses of mortgage financing and suburban shopping center development.
“We must hold fast to the realization that our cities are for people, and unless they work well for people they are not working well at all,” Rouse said in a 1959 speech to the Newark Conference on the ACTION Program for the American City. (Check out the full transcript here).
In 1962, the planning for a small-mixed community in Baltimore called Cross Keys, which was being developed by Rouse, was in full swing. However, he was looking ahead to something bigger — a large enough area to build a real city in-between two metropolitan areas At the time, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., were two of the fastest-growing regions in the country. The purchase of 1,039 acres in November 1962 started a fast-paced and necessarily secretive land acquisition. On Oct. 30, 1963, Rouse announced to Howard County officials and residents that his company had acquired 14,000 acres and planned to build a city.
- The first step to the success of Columbia was an arrangement with Connecticut General Life Insurance Company. Under the leadership of Frazar Wilde, Connecticut General invested $23 million and joined The Rouse Company in forming Howard Research and Development to develop the new city.
A month before Rouse’s October 1963 announcement of the land acquisition and intention to build a city, he delivered a speech at the Conference on the Metropolitan Future at the University of California at Berkeley (click here to download speech or listen to audio). He had been asked to deliver a keynote address at this conference, which was one in a series on California and the challenge of growth. No one outside of Rouse’s inner circle knew about the plan to build a city, and his speech outlined a philosophy that would soon form the basis of the Columbia planning process.
Detailed planning for the new city proceeded from October 1963 to November 1964 with a team that became known as the Work Group. Rouse recruited nationally-known experts in a wide array of disciplines to look at the possibilities — the optimum way to develop a community that would work best for its residents.
On Nov. 11, 1964, James Rouse made a formal presentation to county officials. He shared a comprehensive 51-page booklet that set forth the goals and general ideas for the city’s design, introducing the village and neighborhood concept, plans for business and industry, recreation and open space and the Town Center. In fact, the key physical part of the presentation was a model of Town Center, which left no room for misunderstanding that the plan was for a city and not just another suburb.
In August 1965, Rouse’s plan got the green light when Howard County lawmakers passed “New Town zoning,” a code that had been written by county planners and Howard Research and Development.
Construction began in June 1966. The dedication ceremony at Wilde Lake was held a year later, on June 21, 1967, marking the beginning of Columbia.
The development of Columbia was guided by four basic goals:
To build a complete city. Rouse explained it this way: “There will be business and industry to establish a sound economic base, roughly 30,000 houses and apartments at rents and prices to match the income of all who work there. Provision has been made for schools and churches, for a library, college, hospital, concert halls, theaters, restaurants, hotels, offices and department stores. Like any real city of 100,000, Columbia will be economically diverse, polycultural, multi-faith and inter-racial.”
Today, those elements are in place. Columbia has more than 36,000 residential units ranging from subsidized apartments to single-family homes. There is a strong economic base, with more than 91,000 jobs. Numerous institutions, organizations and private enterprises serve the community, including Howard County Library, Howard County General Hospital , Howard Community College, performing arts spaces, movie theaters, restaurants, hotels, and retail options. Though governed by Howard County (as an unincorporated community), Columbia Association has a pivotal role in the high quality of life in the community manages many of Columbia’s services and amenities.
Columbia has also achieved racial and ethnic diversity. According to 2010 statistics, it is approximately 57 percent white; 25 percent black; 11 percent Asian, and with 9 percent identifying themselves as Hispanic or Latino. Three interfaith centers housing multiple congregations, plus more than 41 other congregations, reflect the multi-faith population.
- To respect the land. Rouse believed strongly that “there should be a strong infusion of nature throughout a network of towns; that people should be able to … feel the spaces of nature all as part of his everyday life.”
This belief led to open space integrated into the community rather than having green space merely encircling the developed areas. It led to the creation of three manmade lakes, an extensive pathway system, playgrounds and parks and dedicated natural areas allowing habitats for birds, waterfowl and other animals. Columbia Association owns and maintains the open space, ensuring that people have the opportunity to experience nature.
- To provide for the growth of people. Rouse believed that “the ultimate test of civilization is whether or not it contributes to the growth — the improvement of mankind. Does it uplift, inspire, stimulate and develop the best in man?”
Fulfilling this goal began with the neighborhood and village design, replicating the scale of small towns and providing a platform for citizen involvement. Columbia’s developers included other design elements (including village centers, neighborhood pools and a pathway system) and committed to the growth of high quality institutions to create a greater feeling of community.
Among the organizations that today serve this vision: Community Foundation of Howard County, which helps nonprofits grow; Columbia Association, which offers recreational and educational opportunities and abundant areas to experience the natural environment; the Horizon Foundation; Association of Community Services; Howard Community College; Howard County General Hospital; and the highly ranked Howard County Public School System.
The People Tree, the symbol of Columbia, perhaps best illustrates the realization of Rouse’s desire to offer opportunities for personal and community growth. The outstretched arms represent the individual’s ability to reach out to be the best that they can be, and the linked feet symbolize the strength created by people working together to form communities.
To make a profit. It was important to The Rouse Company to demonstrate that good development could also be good for the developer.
It took a long time, but Columbia ultimately proved to be profitable for the developer. Howard Research and Development purchased Connecticut General’s share in 1985 and substantial profit from the development of Columbia began to be realized by 1986. In 2004, General Growth Properties purchased The Rouse Company in a deal valued at $12.6 billion. Nearly all of General Growth’s Columbia holdings have subsequently become a part of Howard Hughes Corporation.
It is generally agreed that Columbia has met its four goals and is considered a success both by those who live here and those who study planned communities. Columbia celebrated its 50th birthday in 2017. When Columbia was first touted as “The Next America,” there was the promise of a city that would pave the way to better places to live. While it basks in success, Columbia still faces challenges to keep it moving in a forward direction. One is the development of a true downtown. In 2004, Howard County began a process to develop a master plan for Downtown Columbia.
A charrette in 2005 — followed by research and planning by Howard County Planning and Zoning, General Growth Properties and, later, Howard Hughes Corporation — concluded in the passage of the General Plan Amendment in 2010. This document created the guidelines for the development of Downtown Columbia for the next 20 to 30 years. It allows for up to 13 million square feet of mixed-use development, including up to 5,500 residential units, 1 million square feet of retail, 5 million square feet of office space and 640 hotel rooms.
That development is now underway. Beginning in 2014 with the adaptive re-use of the former headquarters of The Rouse Company as Whole Foods and Columbia Association’s Haven on the Lake, the downtown is moving toward the goal of a vibrant city center. Howard Hughes Corporation, as the primary landowner in downtown, has completed two major office buildings in the 391-acre Merriweather District and has more in the planning stages. Merriweather Post Pavilion, the popular music venue that gives the district its name, is in the midst of a major, multi-year renovation. Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, a 40-acre park, includes the new Chrysalis, a unique venue for arts and cultural offerings.
Creating a more walkable/bikeable downtown is an important component of the development plan. A multi-use pathway now links Howard County General Hospital and Howard Community College to the Merriweather and Lakefront districts and across Route 29 to the village of Oakland Mills and the 300-acre Howard County-owned Blandair Park. Bike-share stations dot the path.
When Wilde Lake was dedicated in 1967, Rouse remarked that he hoped Columbia would never be finished, that the community would continue to develop and that the residents who would come to call Columbia home would be actively engaged in the process. That has proven to be true — and the history of Columbia is an ongoing story.