When Baltimore developer Jim Rouse secretly started gobbling up thousands of acres of Howard County farmland in 1962, he was 48 years old and known nationally as a champion of urban renewal. He’d already developed the first enclosed shopping mall in the East, at Harundale in Glen Burnie, and planning for the Village of Cross Keys, on an old Baltimore country-club golf course, was underway.
Rouse didn’t like what cities had become, and he also didn’t like the suburban sprawl other developers were promoting. He had a better idea: Build a small city from scratch that would be “a garden for growing people.”
He planted just such a garden on 14,000 acres in rural Howard County. With Interstates 95 and 70 about to open, he knew Howard County would not remain rural for long, so he persuaded the county’s anti-development leaders and residents that he could do development right.
In keeping with the progressive spirit of the 1960s and Rouse’s own beliefs—he’d send copies of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches to business associates—Columbia was created as a diverse oasis, welcoming to people of all races, faiths and income levels.
As his vision crystallized and residents moved in, Rouse and his Columbia project attracted massive amounts of media coverage. Now, 50 years later, the community is back in the news as it celebrates its golden anniversary. Six months of festivities kicked off in March. Homeowners from the city’s first decade—thousands are still there—now have gray hair or none at all.
A series of interviews with many of these early settlers by a University of Maryland anthropology class found them no less enthusiastic now than when they first embarked on a massive experiment in suburban planning. But whereas Rouse’s challenge was building something out of nothing, today’s residents face an entirely different challenge: being established.
“Some expressed a concern that the goals have weakened over time due to rapid population growth, increased emphasis in pursuing profit over growing people and larger changes in society,” the Maryland report found. “Residents cited increasing traffic congestion, the technology revolution, better understandings of the natural environment, rising housing prices, generational turnover and new incoming populations as areas Columbia will need to address in planning ahead for the future.”
In the beginning, Rouse had four key goals for Columbia.
First, 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.”
Second, to provide for growth, a principle embodied by the People Tree in Columbia’s Town Center. “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.”
Third, to build a complete city. Rouse wanted to establish a “sound economic base,” envisioning 30,000 houses and apartments with price points attractive to a broad swath of the population, as well as schools and churches, a library and other facilities. “Like any real city of 100,000,” he said at the time, “Columbia will be economically diverse, multifaith and multiracial.”
Fourth, to make a profit. It was also important to demonstrate that good development that focused on the other three goals could, indeed, make money.
In the first 20 years as he pursued these goals, Rouse and his “new town” out in the cornfields and pastures was touted across America in newspapers, magazines and network broadcasts.
Life magazine did a photo spread headlined “Messianic Master Builder.” The Washington Post said Columbia was “surely one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful ventures of new city planning attempted in the United States since William Penn conceived Philadelphia and Pierre L’Enfant laid out the city of Washington.”
Not bashful about its own promise, the Rouse Company marketed the town as “The Next America.” It attracted thousands of like-minded residents from Maryland and around the country.
Andy Barth moved to Columbia in August 1971, the week The Mall in Columbia opened. He was drawn to the convenience of living between Baltimore—where he worked as a reporter for WMAR-TV (Channel 2)—and his wife’s job in Silver Spring.
“At first, it was just convenient; then we became converts,” said Barth, now press secretary to Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. “Columbia was a story at that point. We did a birthday story [about the town] pretty much every year.”
“At some point,” he added, “it stopped being new.”
Adam Herson moved to Columbia at the end of 2012 after repeated visits to a friend there—despite initial misgivings.
“I didn’t like just about everything about Columbia,” said Herson. “You pretty much had to drive everywhere. The fact that you couldn’t find anything. There are no signs.”
Still, he was drawn to the greenness of the place, among other attributes.
Urban design professor Ann Forsyth, who’s studied Columbia for many years, said the 94 miles of pathways through streambeds and woods that establish most of the boundaries of Columbia’s 10 villages “took advantage of the strengths of the rural landscape but has made the shape of each neighborhood and village difficult to perceive from the ground, because the edges are literally buried in trees.”
Environmental author Ned Tillman has been watching Columbia for decades, first from a farm outside of town and now perched in a condo with a view of Lake Elkhorn, one of Columbia’s three lakes.
“Open space is probably one of the major successes of Columbia,” Tillman said. “Many cities and towns did not do a good job of that.”
Due to Rouse’s insistence on landscaping, lakes and streams, Columbia actually has thousands more trees and scores more wildlife than when the land was farm and pasture.
The Heart of a Village
Each of Columbia’s villages has a population of 10,000 to 15,000 made up of three or four neighborhoods. But while the plan called for a village center where all of the basic institutions would be clustered—shopping, banks, community centers, high schools, recreation facilities, churches—this has proven difficult to realize.
The first supermarkets were too cramped, and with the changes in the retail industry, they’ve changed hands or shuttered. The Rouse Company, which initially owned all the retail and commercial buildings, eventually sold them off. In 2004, the firm sold itself for $12 billion to General Growth Properties, contributing mightily to GGP’s later bankruptcy.
Columbia has been described, says urban historian Howard Gillette Jr., “as a city built around a shopping mall.” Rouse rejected the advice of his own planners to put the mall near I-95. He envisioned the mall as Columbia’s Main Street, and in its first decades, it was full of local merchants and community activities.
On Facebook, people wax nostalgic about hanging out there or getting their first job there. But malls have been constantly remaking themselves. Three of the four anchor department stores at The Mall in Columbia—Sears, J.C. Penney and Macy’s, none of them the original occupants—are struggling to survive.
Where Columbia has succeeded is in the interfaith embrace that made Rouse equal parts evangelist and developer. Its interfaith centers, where several congregations share the same building, are a product of the ecumenical awakening of the late ’60s.
Father Richard Tillman, now a monsignor, arrived as pastor of St. John the Evangelist in 1977. He stayed on for 33 years, four times as long as most Catholic pastors. Tillman remembered how, in his early years in Wilde Lake, “four or five of us pastors would get together to discuss our sermons,” based on the same readings from the standard lectionary.
The interfaith centers were a good solution to the problem of startup congregations in a new community. But as the congregations prospered, they began crowding each other and outgrowing the space.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Turner arrived from Cambridge, Mass., in 1993, to pastor St. John Baptist Church with hopes of working with others.
“I was intrigued by this concept of the planned community, and even more intrigued by the interfaith centers,” Turner said. But once he arrived, he found that there was little shared ministry beyond an occasional exchange of pulpits. And as the ministries for his own congregation grew, there was increased competition for space in Wilde Lake.
St. John Baptist Church eventually built its own sanctuary on land once intended for an elementary school. Turner feels the interfaith centers, as unique as they are, represent a missed opportunity. Only four of the 10 Columbia villages have interfaith centers at which more than one congregation worships.
There may actually be more worship going on in Columbia’s business parks, like Bridgeway, a mega church operating out of a large complex in the former headquarters of Head Sports. There, in a hall that holds 1,000, songs are sung in five languages by a choir as ethnically diverse as the people who pack the pews.
“Our goal was to be a multicultural army in Columbia,” said Rich Becker, who
co-founded the church nearly 25 years ago with Senior Pastor David Anderson. “We wanted to work hard to create a church that people wanted to come to … a place that wouldn’t be boring.”
Anderson, who is African-American, is the author of the book Multicultural Ministry: Finding Your Church’s Unique Rhythm, which talks about the ministry he and Becker, who is white, started together. They chose to start it in Columbia specifically because of its welcoming diversity, and the church is now staffed by 40 people in many shades, from pale pink to dark brown.
Hill, who represents west Columbia in the House of Delegates in Annapolis, moved to the area in 1969 when she was 10. Her father worked at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, as many Columbians still do. Her older sister, Donna, who’d eventually become a judge and deputy attorney general, opened the new Wilde Lake Middle School and then Wilde Lake High, the first schools in Columbia’s first village. Both schools were innovations designed to operate in the round.
“By the time I got [to high school], we had schedules, but you were still working at your own pace,” said Hill.
Hill, who is African-American, threw herself into Columbia’s opportunities—the winter swim league, dance classes, lifeguarding, using the Call-a-Ride system to get around. She was president of her junior and senior classes. She went off to Harvard and then Columbia University for medical school, and did a residency in plastic surgery at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital.
“When you leave Columbia and start dealing with people from other places, you realized how different Columbia is,” said Hill, who returned in 1991. “I still think Columbia is something special.”
Hill’s high school classmates, many of whom still live in Columbia, get together for reunions every five years. “My closest friends are still in Columbia,” she said.
True to Rouse’s vision, Columbia has indeed become Howard County’s urban core, an economically and racially diverse community with all of the challenges and assets of a modern city. Columbia has the county’s highest concentration of lower-income residents, living in aging (and thus lower-priced) apartments, condos and townhouses—but these “lower- middle-class” incomes are only in contrast to one of the highest median household incomes in the United States.
The schools in Columbia, depending on the housing mix, are generally 18 to 30 percent white, with high concentrations of African-Americans and growing numbers of Latinos. Columbia’s first neighborhood school, Bryant Woods, is 58 percent African-American and 11 percent Latino, and is a Title I school based on concentrations of low-income students. Fifty-three percent of the kids get free or reduced-price lunches. Its standardized test scores are below county averages and even below state averages.
Hill, for one, is not thrilled with some of the new downtown development just beginning in the Merriweather District surrounding the music pavilion, one of the first buildings in Columbia. Still, she believes Columbia has “the best of urban living and the best of suburban living.”
“Columbia doesn’t want to be Bethesda,” she said. “If Columbia is not urban enough for you, then go move to another place.”
In 2016, Money magazine rated Columbia as the best place to live in America. It has been among the Top 10 for a decade.
As a singular work, a mold for how a master-planned community should be, Rouse’s blueprint failed in that it did not become a widely duplicated model, though some of its features did. But in organically becoming something new, it remains fairly unique in Maryland and, with few exceptions, in America.
“There are a hundred ways that Columbia is deficient,” Rouse said prophetically in 1979. “Lots of things that are wrong, but there are a thousand ways in which Columbia is far beyond anything that could have happened unless we had worked toward an ideal.