Columbia, Maryland is often held up as an unusually successful suburb:
But as Columbia marks the 50th anniversary since the first residents moved in, it has become clear that Rouse got some important things right. As progressive urban planners have turned their attention to the suburbs, they’ve striven to achieve a lot of the same things Columbia already has. The unincorporated town of 100,000 is prosperous and more varied racially and economically than many revitalized urban neighborhoods in cities like New York, Washington and San Francisco, which have become islands of extreme wealth. It turns out that stable, diverse, flourishing communities can exist without short city blocks, warehouses-turned-lofts and beer gardens — and Columbia is the proof…
The “Columbia concept” was innovative in a number of other ways. Instead of having churches or temples, religious denominations shared interfaith centers. (Rouse thought each denomination getting its own plot was a waste of land.) There was even a community health plan that was an early version of an HMO. To maintain open spaces and public facilities, Rouse established the Columbia Association, a nonprofit whose board is elected by residents. The association acts as a quasi-government for the unincorporated town, with hundreds of employees paid through resident dues.
The town was organized but diffuse. Six loosely formed villages, each with a small shopping center and high school, were arranged around the Town Center, whose nucleus was the mall. The village centers catered to residents’ everyday needs, with grocery stores, barber shops, dry cleaners and recreation facilities. Tall signs were forbidden, and power lines were buried to preserve the land’s bucolic appearance. Apartments and townhouses, which were uncommon in suburbs at the time, drew singles, young couples and people with lower incomes than their neighbors in the split-levels and ramblers, a conscious attempt to foster what Rouse and his team called “social mix.” And Columbia was not simply a bedroom community: Rouse Co. executives wooed employers such as General Electric to open offices there.
Not everything worked out perfectly: At one point, Rouse thought he could get corporate executives to move to Columbia alongside their workers, but they largely didn’t. And some of the experiments, such as a minibus system, pilot day-care centers and a women’s center, didn’t pan out. Rouse also fell short of his goal of 10 percent subsidized housing. Still, by 2011, Columbia, flaws and all, had managed to surge past another target of his: a population of 100,000.
Aside from the things cited above, two things stand out to me from this article:
- Few developers or builders get an opportunity to plan an entire community. This requires a lot of effort: acquiring land, obtaining permission from local governments, and then seeing a long process through. Instead, much of suburbia is constructed in patches with a developer building a subdivision here while another builds an office park there.
- Much of the story of Columbia rests on the shoulders of the developer: James Rouse. Here, he is credited with forward-thinking ideas. He anticipated what might help suburban communities thrive rather than just focusing on profits. (However, I’m guessing he still made a good deal of money.) As noted above, not all of his ideas worked out but many of the key features were his.
On the whole, would it be worthwhile to take these two lessons and apply them to future suburbs? What might happen if developers were given (1) thousands of acres to work with in order to create a full community and (2) the developer had the ability to craft and put into practice a particular vision?
I would venture that some of these master-planned communities would be successful while others might not. Indeed, some of the success might be out of control of the developer and local residents. For example, if the template for Columbia was transported to the Houston region in the 1960s, would it be so successful? Or, if it was plopped into the Bay Area today? Not necessarily given changing regional forces, different demographics, and varied reactions from local officials.
It is interesting to think about how the public narratives regarding urban planning in the last century or so often involve powerful people: Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, the Levitt family, James Rouse. These narratives are either triumphs or disasters depending on how much influence the person wielded (and how they used it) and how their projects operate decades later. Would a structural view of these individuals as well as urban planning as a whole help us better understand how to contribute to thriving communities?