By Joshua Olsen

If you take a straight path from the countryside to the downtown in any American city, you will likely pass by a number of different sights. In the suburbs, there are single-family homes on separate lots. Some of these may be carefully grouped together around parks and schools. Between the homes and a major highway, you will likely see a shopping mall, identifiable by its parking lots and the fact that most of its stores face inward.

As you get closer to downtown itself, you may see signs of decay – abandoned houses and deteriorating infrastructure. But here and there appears a renovated house with a sign saying that a community group has been at work, or maybe even whole blocks are being renovated. In downtown itself, there is evidence of past redevelopment, most of it consisting of large inter-connected buildings and plazas with 1960s and 1970s architecture. In the center of downtown, there is probably a relatively new place devoted to retail and restaurants, perhaps something facing the water and providing a venue for street performers and pushcarts.

On such a trip, we may marvel at the complexity of the American city, and yet much of what we passed can be traced back to the influence of a single man. This man was James W. Rouse (1914-1996), and more than any other individual, he is the story of the shaping of the American landscape during the second half of the 20th century.

“I’m not an architect. I keep being accused of that. I’m a developer. And I’m a lawyer who never practiced law.” This is how Jim Rouse attempted to explain his career. He did not draw the blueprints for what he built himself, but he did tell the many architects and planners that he employed what should go into their drawings. As a real estate developer, Rouse bought land and assembled buildings on it. Those creations were things that few Americans had seen before: shopping malls, planned communities, downtown “festival marketplaces.” Politicians also asked Rouse what they should do in their cities, and Rouse suggested urban renewal, even helping pen the legislation that would make that phrase part of every urban planner’s vocabulary. In his retirement,


Rouse started a foundation, now one of the country’s largest, to create affordable housing for the poor.

Jim Rouse wore rumpled suits and drove a station wagon for most of his life. He made money from his buildings, but this was never really his primary motivation. He was more of a classic American entrepreneur than a titan, creating new things just because he thought they were better.

City builder Jim Rouse did not grow up in the city, but instead in a small town not far from the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. From his birth in 1914 until the Depression of the 1930s, he enjoyed an idyllic childhood navigating a “quite tippy” sailboat along the Bay and playing baseball and tag. For the rest of his life, Rouse talked about his small town upbringing, and much of what he built can be seen as an attempt to recapture the sense of community that he experienced as a youth.


That idyllic period came to an abrupt end at age 16 when both of Rouse’s parents died within a few months of each other and the bank foreclosed on his family home. Rouse ended up in Baltimore, where, despite the Depression, he was lucky enough to attend night law school. During the day, he worked for a New Deal agency, the Federal Housing Administration.

There, Rouse learned all about a government program to guarantee long-term, self-amortizing mortgages for homebuyers. In fact, he gleaned enough to start his own business arranging loans as a mortgage banker. After World War II, as thousands of soldiers returned and started families, Rouse was there, making it possible for them to buy small homes in the growing suburbs. James W. Rouse & Company became the largest mortgage banking operation in Maryland, and soon expanded across the country.

One day in the fall of 1953, Rouse was discussing this business with another young executive. “I went in and sat down and Jim put his feet up on his desk, which was his standard procedure,” recalls Harvey Moger. Just as he never dressed well, Rouse was perpetually forgetting about time, and it was not long before a secretary came in to remind him of another appointment. “Okay, okay, fine, yes, I’ll do that,” Rouse said before settling back into his bull session. Soon, the secretary returned again, this time more flustered. “I’m sorry, Mr. Rouse, but you must leave now,” she demanded, and then added for the guest’s benefit, “Excuse me, Mr. Moger, but President Eisenhower has an appointment with Mr. Rouse in 50 minutes.”


When Rouse finally did get to Washington, he learned that Eisenhower wanted him to serve on an advisory committee to outline the role of the federal government in urban redevelopment. Rouse headed up a subcommittee that recommended a program of “urban renewal” (a term that had been suggested earlier, but only became part of the popular lexicon with the recommendations of Rouse’s subcommittee) through which the federal government could provide funds to municipalities to tear down outdated sections of their cities and replace them with new development. This suggestion became the most important part of the Housing Act passed in the following year, and Rouse became a national spokesperson for urban renewal. It was a controversial, but long-lived program, one which re-shaped many American cities.

One of the things that Rouse liked most about urban renewal was its emphasis on careful planning, rather than haphazard growth. According to him, “Such planning, embracing the entire metropolitan area, will attempt to fit the right uses in the right places by providing adequately for them where they ought to be.” This was easier to do in the compact center of the city, where areas to be rebuilt could be clearly defined. It was less easy to accomplish in the rapidly growing suburbs.

The emergence of suburban sprawl was especially apparent when it came to retail. Shopping in the suburbs largely happened along highway strips. People would drive between stores, which shouted their presence with huge neon signs. An alternative arrived when the Baltimore News-Post stuffed a special section into the papers it delivered Tuesday morning, September 30, 1958. “The only shopping center in the East under one roof, Harundale Mall, with 45 stores in tropical surroundings, will open tomorrow at 9 a.m.” Jim Rouse had decided that there was a better way to organize suburban commerce. Using his mortgage banking contacts, he organized financial backers and decided to build a prototype himself. Instead of each shop existing separately in a stand-alone building, Rouse grouped them together in one structure. Instead of each facing a parking lot, he made the stores face inward to a corridor, which he referred to as a “shopping street,” and filled with indoor gardens and kiosks.

This had been done once before in a suburb of Minneapolis, but that example had not been immediately copied. It was considered either an extravagance, affordable only because a powerful department store had built it, or a quirky comment on the harshness of Minnesota winters. Rouse was the first developer to build a mall, and it was his example that would be replicated all across the country. Over the doors to his creation outside Baltimore, Rouse erected steel letters that read “TO THE MALL,” and that term itself, “mall,” would become forever associated with this type of retail enclosure.

Rouse’s company would go on to build scores of malls all across North America. They would soon become as commonplace in the suburbs as the highway cloverleaf. Rouse identified with the merchants that opened stores in the malls, and indeed was quite a salesman himself, peddling his idea for new malls to financial backers and local government officials. But Rouse saw the mall as something more than just a profitable cluster of stores; he saw it as a community center for the suburbs – the modern version of the New England village green. He put churches and post offices in his malls. He was the first to create a central court in his malls, and then invited community groups to put on flower shows and local high school bands to play concerts.

In one internal memorandum, a Rouse employee tried to analyze why they were expending so much effort on something that did not directly cause the cash registers to ring. He jotted down such things as “customer loyalty,” “competitive edge,” and “enhancing the company’s prestige.” Rouse responded by crossing them all out and putting a number one by the last goal listed: “to conceive, design, and bring into being better places for people to live, to work, to shop.” The suburban mall is now seen by some as a crass monument to consumption, but Rouse, the mall’s creator, saw it “as a lively meeting place as well as a market place.” “The soundest economic base for a ‘main street’,” said Rouse of the mall, “is to make it an indispensable servant of the community.”

Rouse soon decided that he wanted to take this idea to its logical end. Instead of just building community centers in the form of shopping malls, Rouse wanted to build a complete community. In fact, he wanted to build an entire city. In 1963, he announced that he had bought about 20 square miles halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and that he was going to build a city. He described the undertaking as “a garden to grow people” – it was a wildly speculative real estate undertaking and a utopian dream. Rouse pulled it off.

He was aided by the ethos of the early 1960s. There was a sense that America was not perfect, but there was a persistent belief that it could be made so. Kennedy was promising a trip to the moon, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was promoting peaceful racial integration. In this atmosphere, Rouse assembled a cadre of experts in housing, education, religion, ecology and other fields. He asked them to help design a city – to help the architects and planners incorporate the needs of people into the physical design

Rouse’s vision of the future did not have rocket pads or moving sidewalks, but it was nevertheless revolutionary. It was rare to find places in America where all the bits and pieces of community life were so thoughtfully arranged. Rouse also insisted that his new town be racially integrated, something that was unheard-of in 1963. The press loved the idea of building a city from scratch, and Columbia was widely hailed around the country. Life magazine ran a piece praising “The Messianic Master Builder.” People flocked to Rouse to help him build the new town. Among them were Jim Ryan, who founded Ryland Homes, now one of the country’s largest homebuilding companies, and Frank Gehry, the architect who later gained fame for his design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The first residents moved to Columbia in 1967 and the city grew rapidly. Despite an economic downtown in the 1970s that slowed development and brought the whole project into question, Columbia not only survived, but thrived in the 1980s and beyond.


In the 1970s, Rouse’s sights turned to old cities and revitalization. He began making trips to visit a crumbling 19th-century warehouse in Boston. The place held a few wholesale merchants, but many more rats. The basement routinely flooded with seepage from the nearby harbor. It was, however, right behind historic Faneuil Hall, and just a block from the civic center. “Think of what this could be!”, Rouse told his skeptical employees.

He had seen a vision in some drawings that a local architect, Benjamin Thompson, had shown him. Those drawings depicted the warehouse refurbished as a retail marketplace, with colorful stalls selling jewelry, flowers and fresh fruit. It would be like an Old World bazaar, said Thompson. “The two of them took off into fantasy land,” one Rouse employee later said about this encounter between real estate developer and architect. “They’d each met their match, and Jim Rouse got so stirred up and so excited, so intrigued … and that was the beginning of that romance.”

“I wouldn’t put a penny downtown,” countered Edward DeBartolo, one of the most successful suburban mall developers in 1973. “It’s bad. Face it, why should people come in? They don’t want the hassle, they don’t want the danger … No individual or corporate set-up can make a dent on those problems. So what do you do? Exactly what I’m doing, stay out in the country, that is the new downtown.” Rouse ignored this advice, and convinced Boston’s mayor and city council to do the same. They refurbished the old building, and Rouse’s leasing agents traveled the back roads of New England to find off-beat merchants and restaurateurs that would take a chance on a venue in the downtrodden inner city.

Even Rouse’s supporters were cautious in their enthusiasm, though. The evening before the project was set to open in August 1976, Mayor Kevin White took Rouse aside at a dinner, and warned, “It will take time for Boston to adopt it, but in the long run it will become part of the city.” Having poured much of his time into the project, Rouse was not reassured. “Kevin, if you’re right, we’re dead. This has got to really go tomorrow.”

Fortunately for Rouse – and Boston – it did go. With many out of the city on vacation, and Boston’s large student population not yet returned, an amazing 100,000 people appeared for the opening of Faneuil Hall Marketplace. The crowds returned day after day. In the first year, more people visited the marketplace than Disneyland. “I felt good to be there,” one reporter explained, “and everybody around me appeared to feel the same way. People mingling with people, comfortable, unafraid, having fun. This is not the way American cities are supposed to be.”

Rouse had found a winning recipe. It turned out that if a city put interesting shops in a colorful setting, and threw in restaurants, street performers, and entertainment for good measure, it could create an urban mecca. The middle class would leave the suburbs and venture downtown.

In fact, the impact of this project, which Rouse called a “festival marketplace,” would go much further than Boston. Mixed in with the crowds who visited the marketplace everyday were planners and architects from around the globe. “It’s like Star Wars,” the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority observed. “Everybody wants to copy it. Cities all over the world want to replicate Faneuil Hall Marketplace.” Many places did copy it in one form or another. Rouse himself went on to build Harborplace in Baltimore, making the city a model for how to turn a run-down harbor into a public gathering place. His company also built festival marketplaces in New York, Miami, and Seattle.

Because of the sea change in urban fortune that his developments created, Rouse ended up on the cover of Time magazine in 1981, his picture accompanied by the caption “Cities are Fun!” (View cover of Time at Rouse correctly predicted that this was the beginning of something new. “The American dream for millions and millions of young Americans is no longer a quarter-acre lot and a picket fence. It’s rehabilitating a house in the central city, or buying one that’s rehabilitated, typically [by] two people who are working. … This kind of household doesn’t find its life best lived out in the suburbs, but in the center of the city with its convenience and vitality.” As the advertisements for urban condos and lofts all over the country testify, the back-to-the-city movement continues today.

Jim Rouse did have one other thing that he wanted to undertake. Places like Faneuil Hall made downtown popular again for the middle-class, but the inner city also held people whose needs were much more basic, and desperate. In 1979 Rouse retired from his for-profit development company and started the Enterprise Foundation (since renamed to Enterprise Community Partners) to promote the creation of housing for the poor. A successful entrepreneur, Rouse structured the mission of his foundation in a way that appealed to corporate donors. “We can, we really can, find new answers,” he promised, “new and better ways for solving stubborn old problems if we put the kind of creativity, enterprise, and resources to work on the opportunity as we do in developing new products, new systems in our business world.”


The Enterprise Foundation helped knit together a network of smaller local groups that were building affordable housing. It made their efforts more informed and more professional. Rouse and Enterprise also lobbied the federal government for new initiatives in the same vein. As he had with urban renewal, Rouse became the driving force behind a far-reaching government program, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. The credit encouraged private investors to back the development of housing for the poor, and proved incredibly successful, doing far more to provide affordable shelter than other programs like public housing ever did. The Enterprise Foundation itself became one of only three organizations in its field to operate on a national level. In 1995, the last year that Rouse was able to visit the Enterprise offices on a regular basis, the group financed almost 9,000 homes, and provided support for 700 community groups in 153 cities.

As Rouse entered his 80s, he was diagnosed with both cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease. He continued working, though. On April 9, 1996, he was scheduled to have a meeting to discuss progress on an Enterprise initiative in Baltimore. That morning, though, Rouse was found in his kitchen, inanimate in his wheelchair. He had passed away just a few feet shy of the desk where he was always working.

What Rouse built, others have copied over and over again. Although he died more than a decade ago, we still live, work and play in his legacy. Not everyone likes shopping malls, and “sprawl” is the best way to describe the form of America’s urban areas. Developers themselves have a reputation for greed and corruption. Yet Rouse’s story was not one of power plays, deception or ill-gotten gains. It was not the story of faceless capitalist forces building an alien landscape. Rather, it was the story of a man who honestly believed that the plans that he carried under his arm would create “the next America.” By building things that had never been built before, he did create that future, and for better or worse, today we live with the result.

Joshua Olsen is the author of Better Places, Better Lives: A Biography of James Rouse (Urban Land Institute, 2004, ISBN: 0-87420-919-6), which can be purchased here.