Columbia is a well-known example of the New Town Movement in the United States. It shares similarities with Reston, VA; The Woodlands, TX; Irvine, CA; and others. But Columbia stood out in its innovative approach to planning, which included a six-month period of interdisciplinary meetings bringing together experts in fields as diverse as education, recreation, sociology, transportation and religion, as well as architects and engineers. Columbia was also unique for its 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 pronouncement 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.
More than 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 and a highly desirable place to live — the No. 1 small city to live, according to Money Magazine in 2016. Columbia was developed by Howard Research and Development (HRD), a subsidiary of The Rouse Company, led by founder James Rouse. The community grew out of Rouse’s belief that private developers could plan and build an environment that nurtured the growth of people.
A charrette in 2005 — followed by much study and planning by Howard County Planning and Zoning, General Growth Properties and, later, Howard Hughes Corporation — concluded in the passage of the Downtown Columbia 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 14 million square feet of mixed-use development, including up to 6,250 residential units, 1.25 million square feet of retail, 4.3 million square feet of office space and 640 hotel rooms. This new chapter for Columbia began in 2014 with the adaptive re-use of the Frank Gehry-designed former headquarters of The Rouse Company as Whole Foods and Columbia Association’s Haven on the Lake, the downtown is showing signs of meeting the goal of a vibrant city center.
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.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
A short history of Columbia, MD
In October 1963, The Rouse Company announced to the citizens of Howard County, Maryland, that it had acquired more than 14,000 acres — one-tenth of the county’s land — for the purpose of building a city. In nine months, 149 separate properties had been acquired, at an average price of about $1,500 per acre. Detailed planning for the new city proceeded from October 1963 to November 1964 with a team that became known as the Work Group. James 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 the people who were to live there. They determined the most important social and institutional components of this new city and how these components might best be reflected in the physical environment. New zoning rules were passed in 1965. Construction began in June 1966. Two lakes — Kittamaqundi and Wilde — were carved out of fields. Ground was broken for the first commercial buildings in Town Center and the residential neighborhood of Bryant Woods. 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:
1. To build a complete city that meets all the basic needs of its people, including housing and jobs, as well as recreational, educational and cultural institutions, all in a community that is economically, racially, religiously and culturally diverse. 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. As planned, there are numerous institutions, organizations and private enterprises to serve the community, including Howard County Library, Howard County General Hospital, Howard Community College, performing arts spaces, movie theaters, restaurants, hotels, and retail options. Columbia has 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 house multiple congregations, plus more than 40 other congregations reflect the multi-faith population.
2. 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 as part of their everyday life.” Columbia Association maintains nearly 3,600 acres of open space integrated into the community as parks, playgrounds and natural areas, with 95 miles of pathways winding through natural areas and to three man-made lakes and more than 40 ponds.
3. 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. The most successful community would be that which contributed the most by its physical form, its institutions, and its operation to the growth of people.” Columbia’s neighborhood and village design replicate the scale of small towns and provide a platform for citizen involvement.Other institutions create a greater feeling of community, including Community Foundation of Howard County, which helps nonprofits develop and 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.
4. To make a profit. The success of Columbia is tied to its financial success. It was important to The Rouse Company to demonstrate that good development could also be good for the developer. Every idea was plugged into the economic model to be sure that it could work. It is the combination of idealism and pragmatism that made James Rouse and Columbia successful.
Reference: ColumbiaAssociation.org, Columbia Archives
*This web page has been adapted with permission from text originally created by the Columbia Association.
The Columbia Association
What makes Columbia truly special is an ongoing commitment to the vision espoused by James Rouse, our founding father. As he stated, “By creating the image of the rational potential of a city, we generate the power to carry it forward. Without vision, there is no power.”
Today, the Rouse vision is carried forward by Columbia Association (CA). Columbia, Maryland, strives to be a community that welcomes diversity, respects the land and fosters the growth of individuals. In support of this vision, Columbia Association offers a vast array of recreational, cultural, and community services. In addition, CA maintains nearly 3,600 acres of open space as a permanent asset for residents. Neighborhood amenities include lakes, parks, 170 tot lots, basketball and tennis courts, and 95 miles of walking, jogging and biking pathways.
Learn more at ColumbiaAssociation.org.