Columbia, located in Howard County between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., is one of the most successful and innovative new towns conceived and built in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century. It is also the most successful and ambitious of renowned developer James W. Rouse’s many ventures. By the early 1960s, “suburban sprawl” had been introduced as a negative concept after more than a decade of rapid, massive, and often haphazard expansion of the metropolitan suburbs following World War II. The few large-scale builders and developers who were receptive to progressive ideas pursued new towns as a marketable solution to social and environmental ills associated with conventional suburban planning. These ills were diverse and included racial and socioeconomic homogeneity; the near-total reliance on the automobile for all activities outside the house; escalating property taxes to fund infrastructure, services, and amenities; and a lack of expansive parkland and greenspace. Rouse depicted Columbia in a 1964 prospectus as “an opportunity for the growth of America to change course away from needless waste of the land, sprawl, disorder, congestion, and mounting taxes to a direction of order, beauty, financial stability, and sincere concern for the growth of people.” Columbia and Reston, its contemporaneous counterpart in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., were among the most prominent and publicized new town experiments in the country.
Rouse got his start in the mortgage banking industry in the 1930s and established the Rouse Company in 1954, which became one of the largest and most influential commercial developers in the country. The Rouse Company was among the earliest pioneers of fully enclosed shopping malls and later devised the concept of festival marketplaces, such as Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace/Quincy Market (1976) and Harborplace in Baltimore's Inner Harbor (1980). Rouse was a keen observer of human interaction and this interest underpinned virtually all of his major projects. He came to see shopping malls and festival marketplaces as important gathering places and social spaces, the former for the newly constructed suburbs and the latter for revitalized urban areas. The creation of a multifaceted, fully engineered city de novo was an obvious, if exceptionally ambitious, outgrowth of Rouse’s progressive social inclinations and his political and entrepreneurial pragmatism about how private enterprise could foster community through the built environment.
Rouse turned to a former employer and previous development partner, the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, for the funds to quietly acquire land in Howard County beginning in late 1962. Over the course of a year, the partnership secretly amassed approximately 14,000 acres using various shell corporations and subsidiaries as a strategy for keeping land costs down. Between October 1963 and November 1964, Rouse assembled a professional team known as the “Work Group” to develop a vision and master plan for the community that was notable in its breadth and its incorporation of varied notions about the necessary components of high-quality suburban development. The array of professionals and academics consulted for the project—ranging from architects, landscape architects, engineers, and experts in transportation, land use, and development to sociologists, psychologists, housing economists, and specialists in such areas as health, education, administration, and governance—designed an overall concept for Columbia that aimed to “provide the best possible environment for the growth of people.”
The original plan proposed ten villages—each containing several residential neighborhoods, and commercial, educational, and recreational facilities—arrayed around a large town center. The villages also include green space and pedestrian-friendly bike and walking paths, as well as a variety of housing types—single family, town houses, condominiums, and apartments—to accommodate every income level. Curvilinear roadways, old-growth trees, common signage, and public art contribute to the aesthetic distinctiveness and sense of community. Perhaps the heart of Columbia is the public gathering, recreational, and cultural center formed by Merriweather Post Pavilion, its surrounding woodlands, and nearby Lake Kittamaqundi. The latter includes lakefront promenades, cafes, and the People Tree—a sculpture that has become the symbol of Columbia’s inclusive philosophy. Adjacent is the Columbia Mall, the commercial and retail center of the town.
Howard County approved the needed changes to its zoning regulations in August 1965 and construction began in June 1966. Rouse officially dedicated the Village of Wilde Lake on June 21, 1967 and the first residents soon began occupying its single-family houses and apartments. While Rouse intended Columbia to be fully completed by 1980, construction of the final village, River Hill, did not begin until 1990. The city of just over 100,000 people remains one of the Baltimore–Washington area’s most desirable places to live and, although it functions to a degree as a bedroom community for the nearby urban centers, Columbia fully met Rouse’s goal of creating a “complete and balanced community” that included all elements of modern life.
Bloom, Nicholas Dagen. Merchant of Illusion: James Rouse, America’s Salesman of the Businessman’s Utopia. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004.
Columbia Association. “History of Columbia.” Accessed December, 30 2014. www.columbiaassociation.org.
Community Research and Development, Inc. “Columbia: A New Town for Howard County.” November 11, 1964. Accessed December, 30 2014. www.columbiaassociation.org.
Goldberger, Paul. “James W. Rouse, 81, Dies; Socially Conscious Developer Built New Towns and Malls.” New York Times, April 10, 1996.
Mitchell, Joseph Rocco, and David L. Stebenne. New City Upon a Hill: A History of Columbia, Maryland. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2007.
Olsen, Joshua. Better Places, Better Lives: A Biography of James Rouse. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2003.
Stamp, Jimmy. “James W. Rouse’s Legacy of Better Living through Design.” Smithsonian Magazine, April 23, 2014.