Rouse's vision is focus of Founder's Day festivities on May 9

For The Baltimore Sun

With six months' worth of 50th birthday festivities already underway in Columbia, one coming event stands out for its goal of zeroing in on what the future may hold for the planned city.

"Founder's Day: A Celebration of the Vision, Leadership and Legacy of James Rouse" will be held May 9 with a dual mission of honoring the vision of Columbia's late founder at the half-century mark and defining ways to catapult that vision forward.

"Jim established the foundation for a better city, but the success of Columbia is up to the people living and working in Columbia today," said Barbara Kellner, who is director of the Columbia Archives and is organizing the free event.

Founder's Day "gives everyone a chance to explore the possibilities with other community leaders," Kellner said.

Ann Forsyth, a professor of urban planning at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, will moderate a roundtable discussion on the topic, "Going Forward: Today's Answers to Creating a Better City."

Panelists who will join Forsyth in dissecting where Columbia goes from here will include: Ken Ulman, former Howard County executive and current president of Margrave Strategies; Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission; Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation; and Heather Kirk-Davidoff, enabling minister of Kittamaqundi Community Church.

The event is co-sponsored by the Columbia 50th Birthday committee and Howard Community College and will be held from 9 a.m. to noon in the Smith Theater on campus. It will also include a presentation by Rouse biographer Josh Olsen.

Rouse's vision of a city as "a garden for growing people" included emphases on racial equity, lifelong learning and land use, Forsyth said, and a desire for Columbia to exemplify "what it was possible to achieve."

"There's worry now that people moving in don't realize the vision and intention" that Columbia was founded on in 1967, she said.

Forsyth — who works mainly on the social aspects of planning and urban development, and has studied suburbia and new towns — ranks Columbia as one of three successful master-planned communities in the United States along with Irvine, Calif., and The Woodlands, a township in Texas.

While none of them have achieved everything on their ambitious agendas, she said, they were "built much as planned and kept to their ideals."

"Columbia obviously had an important social vision, but there were also innovations in land use and work by [renowned architect] Frank Gehry and an imaginative team that was forward-looking in its plans," she said.

Forsyth, who is writing a book with Richard Peiser on new towns around the world, said the concept of a planned community peaked in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. There was a resurgence in Asia and Africa in the 1990s, she said.

"Columbia is still seen as an icon of good planning that has withstood the test of time," she said. "It does well from a global perspective."

In her lecture, titled "Health and Well-Being in Columbia: Early Aims and Future Potential," Forsyth will focus on the ways the environment affects health, noting that Columbia "has all the ingredients to be successful" in tackling that issue.

"As Columbia turns 50, it is fortunate to have a set of institutions capable of having these conversations," she said.

"The city was intentionally created, and now it's possible to intentionally re-create it," she said. "It's possible to revive the good parts and change the parts that weren't working … in a way that honors the original plan and moves it forward."

Josh Olsen, senior vice president of Monument Realty, will share insights from his research for his 2004 book, "Better Places, Better Lives: A Biography of James Rouse."

Olsen, who grew up in the Prince George's County portion of Laurel, became interested in Rouse's accomplishments as "a major figure in the real estate development world" and his book grew out of his master's thesis.

"Jim always had a moral motive and I found that to be the most interesting aspect of his career," he said.

Olsen will focus on setting the context for "Rouse's shining vision of what an American city could be." He will discuss, among other aspects of Rouse's life, how growing up in Easton — where Rouse said he could understand the town physically and socially — shaped his recipe for a successful city.

"It's a huge debate – where Columbia should go next," Olsen said. "Rouse created a city, and that it remains a living, breathing thing is a testament to him. Columbia is lucky to have the standard of Rouse's ideals to expand upon."

Highsmith Vernick, whose Horizon Foundation is a Columbia-based health and wellness philanthropy, said the theme of Founder's Day is: "How do we continue to re-imagine Columbia to fully realize the vision of Jim Rouse?"

She agrees with Forsyth that one of the keys to Columbia's future success is health initiatives, she said.

"We need to reconnect to the ideas of emotional and mental well-being," Highsmith Vernick said.

"We have a lot to do to realize our goals of walkability and bikeability to fit the way people live now. We've built our society around cars and we need to change that; we need to design our community to suit physical and social needs, and to embrace all the new people coming to Columbia."

Ulman, a Columbia native who served as Howard County executive from 2006 to 2014, he "thinks about Columbia's future all the time."

"How can we continue to uplift our community, forge connections and make this a stimulating place? What will continue to define us?

"We are starting to see components come together in Town Center; there are good things happening … and there's some stagnation," said Ulman, who resides with his family in Columbia.

"We have to create more opportunity to work and live in Columbia to support downtown's level of vibrancy," he said.

Ulman said Columbia's leaders must expand upon shared values of diversity and acceptance.

"My overall message is that Columbia can't rest on its laurels, but must stay ahead of the curve and continue to innovate," he said. "We have to adapt and evolve."

janeneholzberg76@gmail.com

If you go

Founder's Day will be held from 9 a.m. to noon May 9 in Smith Theater in the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Following the event, sophomore students in the James Rouse Scholars Program at HCC will join community leaders at an invitation-only luncheon to discuss the future of Columbia. They will answer questions about posters detailing their Rouse Responds Projects, in which they identified a community need and partnered with a local agency to create and implement solutions.

The event is free, but registration is encouraged; go to columbiamd50.com/events/founders-day to reserve a ticket.

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