When developer James W. Rouse laid out his grand design for Columbia, planned cities were all the rage.
It was the mid-1960s, and suburban sprawl was engulfing the country. Some predictions held that the U.S. population would double by the year 2000, and a plan like Rouse’s promised an orderly, predictable antidote to a rush of development.
But things don’t always turn out as we’d planned. Though the town hailed as “the Next America” at its founding didn’t quite hold to Rouse’s original vision, experts say it has hung together remarkably well. Even as urban design has evolved, Rouse’s ideals are far from obsolete, and his work has paved the way for a new generation of planned communities.
The New Town
Ralph Bennett was an architecture student when the innovative “new town” sprouted from an expanse of cornfields and cow pastures.
Now head of Silver Spring’s Bennett Frank McCarthy Architects and a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, Bennett insists he sees little divergence between Rouse’s ambition and what actually happened on 32 square miles in eastern Howard County. In the 1970s, Bennett built the Chimneys of Cradlerock apartments in Owen Brown, and he watched the city blossom.
“It was a terrific counter-measure to suburbia, something was desperately needed,” he says, noting that his family has owned land in Howard County since 1954, though none that was included in Rouse’s voluminous purchases in advance of Columbia’s construction.
At the time, the Washington-Baltimore region was growing fast, and Howard County officials knew there was no stopping it. The Rouse Co.’s 1964 presentation to county officials made the case for Columbia.
“The United States is on the threshold of the greatest wave of population growth in its history. Between 1960 and 2000, the total number of Americans will almost double,” it read. “Nowhere else in the United States are two cities of such size and of such dynamic growth potential [as Washington and Baltimore] so close together.”
The prediction about U.S. population proved to be an overestimate. It rose by just under 57 percent over those four decades. However, Howard County’s population over that same span rose more than 585 percent.
How much more or less the number of county residents might have risen in the absence of Columbia, of course, is anybody’s guess. But Rouse made a persuasive argument that the planned city would be far less costly to the county than standard suburban development and that tax revenue generated in Columbia offset the additional county expenditures necessitated by the booming population.
“Large lots and scattered developments increase the cost of providing many services,” including garbage collection, police, school buses water and sewer, Rouse’s primer on the Columbia project read.
Big-box stores and bus systems
Not everything in Rouse’s original vision came to pass.
The 1964 pitch to the county said Columbia would have five man-made lakes instead of the three that were installed, and that each village center would have a medical office building and a library branch.
Even though they didn’t have all the originally envisioned bells and whistles, the village centers did arise. However, the advent of big-box stores and supermarkets that dwarf those of 50, or even 20, years ago have shifted the retail landscape dramatically, and many of the village centers have fallen on hard times.
“The retail took us by surprise,” says Robert Tennenbaum, one of Columbia’s original planners, who still lives there.
Rouse’s outline for the county’s consumption also described “a transit system of busses [sic] operating on their own roadways. For many families, the bus system will virtually eliminate the need for a second car.”
Rouse later lamented just how far short of that goal Columbia fell.
“The transportation system is a big disappointment,” he said in a video interview recorded for the Columbia Archives in 1986, 10 years before his death. “It was simply not possible within the technology we had then to provide a transportation system that substituted in any significant way for the automobile.”
Ann Forsyth, a professor of urban planning at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, studied that failure and phenomena in two other planned communities — Southern California’s Irvine Ranch and The Woodlands in suburban Houston — in her 2005 book, “Reforming Suburbia.”
“In that period, the thought was we use carrots to get people out of their cars, do things to make transit more attractive,” Forsyth says. But breaking up the romance between Americans and their cars also requires some sticks.
“The Europeans make it harder to drive,” she offers. “They need transit.”
She says Columbia’s development stuck more closely to its original plan than did that of Reston, Va., with which Columbia is commonly compared. Though the two “new towns” are of roughly the same vintage, “Reston jigged and jagged,” Forsyth says. “It’s not like its plan in a lot of ways.”
James Rouse never lost sight of the profit motive behind Columbia, and the community he founded fed off his idealism, especially his insistence that people of different races and income levels could and ought to live side by side. But his impact reached well beyond Columbia’s “pioneer” residents.
“He showed that it is possible to do racial integration,” even in a county that had only desegregated its schools a few years before the first Columbia residents arrived, Forsyth notes. “Not everyone believed that at the time.”
Forsyth also points to Rouse’s creation of the American City Corporation and its Urban Life Center, where Rouse Co. staff schooled other developers of new communities.
“Rouse wanted to be influential,” she says.
Tennenbaum, an architect and urban planner who was part of Rouse’s core team during the creation of Columbia, has lived in the same house in Bryant Woods for 48 years and raised two daughters there. Tennenbaum, who is white, says Columbia’s diversity had a tremendously positive effect on their interactions with all sorts of people.
“When they went off to college, they were shocked at how others behaved, looking down at people,” he recalls.
Rouse also put great value upon leaving large areas within the city in their natural state as permanent open space. Tennenbaum says this feature makes Columbia a lot more livable than it would have been if Rouse had taken out more trees.
“Columbia, particularly now that it’s spring, really is living in a city in a park,” he says.
“A lot of developers tended not to take advantage of the natural surroundings,” says Isabelle Gournay, associate professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “Rouse had a very humanistic way of looking at this, holistic.”
Gournay says that while Rouse influenced urban planners, architects and developers in a broad sense, Columbia likely won’t serve as a model for other communities in specific terms. For one thing, the cul-de-sacs so prevalent in Columbia have fallen out of favor with planners, many of whom favor the grid layouts of the New Urbanism school.
“It’s hard to use as a template,” Gournay says.
Bennett, though he’s an active member of the Congress of New Urbanism, calls the criticisms of Columbia’s street pattern and its dearth of mass-transit options “nitpicking.” He professes a deep admiration for Rouse and Columbia.
“It’s a great achievement,” Bennett says. “He’s a hero of mine.”
And the redevelopment of Town Center now under way, he says, doesn’t indicate a flaw in the original design, but the opposite.
“It shows resilience,” Bennett says. “The infrastructure is there.”
Bennett says planned communities are still being built in the United States, but on a much smaller scale than Columbia and others of its era.
Part of the reason for that, says Forsyth, is that the federal government moved away from subsidizing planned cities. “That made developers wary of large projects.”
As the planned-city concept fell out of fashion in this country, Forsyth says, she began to doubt that it would remain a viable field of study.
“But I was kind of wrong,” she says, noting that large-scale planned communities are popping up all over India, China and other countries where rapid population growth has necessitated innovations in housing and employment options.
The Next America could turn out to be the Next Asia.