Columbia, Maryland, U.S.A.
“I believe that the ultimate test of civilization is whether or not it contributes to the growth— improvement of mankind. Does it uplift, inspire, stimulate, and develop the best in man? There really can be no other right purpose of community except to provide an environment and an opportunity to develop better people.”
James W. Rouse
Columbia, Maryland is a well-known example of what was called the “New Town Movement” in the United States, or planned communities built after World War II that were designed to move people away from overcrowded cities into more livable spaces. James Rouse was the driving force behind Columbia’s development and he felt strongly about creating a community that both centered around people and that was racially, culturally, and economically integrated. At the time, this was no small goal. Maryland had been a slave-holding state and, even well into the 1960s, there was still racial segregation in schools, restaurants, health clinics and public buildings. Although many people in the county wanted to keep things this way, there were others that were attracted to Rouse’s vision for Columbia as an “open community” and they started to settle there when construction began in the late 1960s.
Rouse had begun to buy up land in Howard County in the early 1960s and, by October 1963, he publicly announced the acquisition of 14,000 acres to build a new town. While this was not unusual per se, both Rouse’s vision and the subsequent planning process were considered to be ahead of their time. A Work Group was formed that, although not very diverse itself, tapped some of the best expertise from across the country and from a wide array of disciplines. This Work Group included not only the standard architects and planners, but also educators, sociologists, religious leaders, etc… They engaged in an extensive consultation process over a 6-month period, came up with some innovative ideas for people-centered communities, and started Columbia’s construction in June 1966.
The “Work Group” ultimately developed a governance system for Columbia that centered on a village model. Although community buildings and open space are still managed by the non-profit Columbia Association, Columbia also has 10 self-contained “villages” that, with a couple of exceptions, are characterized by a mix of home construction catering to both low and high income residents, with some subsidized housing available for the former. Children from these villages attend the same schools, which has led to an integrated student body. Interfaith centers in several of the villages have received particular commendation as these common worship facilities are owned and jointly operated by a variety of religious congregations. There are rarely blended services, but diverse religious groups continue to share space at these centers. Saving money was a big incentive, but Columbia’s religious leaders also stood against initial resistance to support the center’s unifying aims.
In 2011, Columbia has a population of approximately 100,000 and is still seen as a model of New Town Development. Barbara Kellner, the Columbia Association’s archivist, notes that Columbia’s example has shown that mixed communities can be both economically and socially successful. It’s not just the diversity, said Kellner, but how people feel about living in Columbia. The kids who grow up here are more open to all kinds of different people, she added. Columbia and nearby Ellicott City have consistently been rated by Money Magazine as one of the best places to live in the United States for, among others, its job opportunities, good education, low crime, and its many leisure activities. In line with the Rouse vision to preserve the environment, about 25% of the land remains designated green space. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 55.5% of Columbia’s residents are white, 25.3% are black or African American, and the remainder consist of Asian and other races.
Rouse’s vision for Columbia was that it would be a place for people at a human scale, with a focus on empowering local communities. It is, however, located between the two major metropolitan cities of Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland. As such, many people who live in Columbia (now about 2/3) commute to work via private automobile—in part because regional transport options are poor. Hence, to some, it has become just another suburb with its big box stores and too few people participating in the life of the community, such as voting in village elections. The Town Center, although due to be revitalized, has consisted of a large shopping mall. Recently too, there has been a trend toward churches, summer camp programs, and political parties catering to particular racial groups.
Developing a new town from scratch is not for the faint of heart, e.g. it was a huge financial risk and it took more than 20 years for the Columbia Association to get out of debt. And, visionary leadership was critical. James Rouse, who revolutionized the way America thought about community development, had to fight a lot of derision in Columbia’s early days. And, he intervened where needed to keep his vision on track. For example, when the president of a homebuilders association was steering prospective buyers to supposedly “black” and “white” neighborhoods, Rouse put his foot down and wouldn’t sell him any more land. He subsequently wrote a memo to every developer and sales associate in the community noting that they all were to be “color blind” when it came to selling property. “It is our hope that Columbia’s policy as to race may be so clear and vivid from the beginning that it will be unmistakable to everyone,” he said. While Columbia is by no means perfect, this vision still guides what today remains a very integrated community.
Interview Sources/Additional Links:
Barbara Kellner, Director, Columbia Archives
Padraic Kennedy, President of Columbia Association (1972-1998)
(Disclosure: The MoU webmaster lives in Columbia and is on the Advisory Board of
Columbia’s International and Multicultural Affairs Committee)