Columbia's nature center is a front door to suburban landscape

Where do bats live? What do spiders eat? How old is the forest?

The answers to those and many other questions can be found at the James and Anne Robinson Nature Center, a $17.6 million educational facility that opened this month in Columbia.

With two levels of interactive exhibits set amid 18.3 wooded acres, the center is Howard County's new front door to nature, a year-round attraction that invites visitors to learn about the surrounding landscape and then go and explore it.

Owned by Howard County and operated by its Department of Recreation and Parks, the nature center is named after a couple who lived on the land for many years and wanted to share it with the community.

Located at 6692 Cedar Lane, the property is next to an environmental area with the Middle Patuxent River running through — one of the largest undeveloped tracts in Howard County. The center's opening Sept 10 marked the culmination of years of planning and construction aimed at fulfilling the couple's wishes.

"You think the building is great from the outside? What until you see it from the inside," Howard County Executive Ken Ulman told visitors on opening day. "It really came together. … You feel like you're in the woods on three sides."

"Everyone knows we have to change the way we live if we are going to protect the environment," said Del. Guy Guzzone. "This nature center will teach children how to build better buildings and live better lives."

The forest and the trees

The project's architect and exhibit designer, GWWO of Baltimore and Howard+Revis Design Services of Washington, previously collaborated on a visitor center for the Everglades National Park in Homestead, Fla. Hord Coplan Macht of Baltimore was the landscape architect. For Howard County, they created a multi-layered facility that aims to educate visitors about a wide range of subjects, including both the forest and individual trees.

Jeff Howard, a principal of the exhibit design firm, said one of the biggest challenges of creating a nature center for an area such as Columbia is that the environment isn't as pristine or exotic as the Everglades or the desert.

Part of the exhibit designers' goal, he said, was to show how many animals and plants co-exist with people in a developed region. He said the designers' goal was to have people use the building as a starting point to learn about nature and then head outdoors to tour the trails and other areas. "I like to think this is a new paradigm for what nature centers can be," he said.

Once they enter the glass-and-wood building, visitors follow a one-way sequence that takes them past the "Chesapeake Watershed" exhibit about Howard County, its natural history, and its development over time.

Visitors can learn about how the land was used before Columbia was built, starting with Indian villages and the nearby Simpsonville Mill. They can read about Maryland native James Rouse and how he planned to develop what is now the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area as part of Columbia until he was dissuaded from doing so by a noted biologist and a bird that lived on the land, the woodcock.

The biologist, Al Geis, brought Rouse onto the property one day and showed him the woodcocks' elaborate courtship display, according to one exhibit, Rouse was so moved by the mating ritual that he decided to set aside the Middle Patuxent property, which his company had acquired, and protect it from development, according to historians. The woodcock is now a symbol of the nature center and is depicted in a decorative work of stained glass art that hangs in its front room.

After learning about the impact of people on the landscape, visitors move onto exhibits about the woods and wildlife that coexist with the built environment. The signature exhibit, entitled "Life of the Forest," includes a large artificial tree inside the building, with oversized leaves that bear images of animals and plants that can be found just outside.

The nature center tree, a conceptual cousin of Columbia's famous People Tree, is surrounded by a circular ramp that leads visitors from the entry level to one below. As they descend the ramp, visitors pass exhibits about the trees on the property — including tulip poplars, maples and pines — and trees in general. They can also look out the windows and see the surrounding woods from different vantage points, and interact with exhibits about the changing of the seasons..

At the bottom of the ramp, patrons encounter a facsimile of the forest floor and the nocturnal creatures that live there. They learn about the cycles of day and night and which animals thrive in the dark. At the end of their journey, they see simulated car lights in the distance, as if from a Columbia resident heading for work early in the morning. It sends a gentle message about conservation and the need to protect nature from encroaching development.

Besides the multi-sensory exhibits, the 23,000-square-foot building contains a domed "NatureSphere," a Children's Discovery Room; an auditorium and classrooms. Last weekend, a group from the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center showed live owls rescued from the wild in one demonstration area.

'Long overdue'

Reaction from the public has been overwhelmingly positive.

"It's awesome. It's long overdue. Our community needed something like this," said Srinivas Rao, a veterinarian who lives in Columbia and came with his son, daughter and wife. "You can just see the excitement on the kids' faces."

Rao said he liked the attention to detail and amount of useful information, such as a chart that showed which Maryland snakes are poisonous. "This is taxpayers' dollars very well spent, especially in this environment." he said.

Sue Probst, a Village of Longfellow resident, called it "very well thought out. I think they did an excellent job."

Marsha McLaughlin, director of the county's department of planning and zoning, said she likes how the "Chesapeake Watershed" exhibit shows that Howard County is part of an ecosystem that affects the bay. "It's good to understand we're all tied together," she said.

A nature center was largely the dream of Anne Robinson, a diminutive but feisty woman who died in 2005, 18 years after her husband, a longtime Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. executive. In 2003, she created the nonprofit James and Anne Robinson Foundation to hold the land and help plan the nature center and its programs.

According to accountant Jeffrey Ring, chairman of the foundation's board, Anne Robinson left instructions that the land be sold to Howard County and used for a nature center, not housing or commercial development.

Ring told the opening day crowd that Anne Robinson received numerous offers for her land from developers, the last for more than $5 million, but turned them all down. "I am not concerned about the economic value of my property, nor am I concerned about leaving it to any potential heirs," a 2002 Letter of Instruction states, "I want the property to serve as a source of inspiration, education and beauty for the general public."

Ring said the land was sold by the Robinson Foundation to the county for $2 million, with $1 million donated back to the county as seed money to help build the nature center. The foundation used the other $1 million to support the project and its programs. Howard County raised the rest from county, state and federal funds and private donations

Mark Raab, superintendent of the parks department's Natural Resources Division, said one of the most fortuitous aspects of the transaction is that the Robinson property adjoined the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, the 1030-acre tract that Rouse had agreed to protect, and can serve as a gateway to it.

Raab said ideas for the exhibits came largely from the county's Recreation and Parks employees, in consultation with members of the Robinson Foundation and others, and were then conveyed to the designers.

Alan Reed of GWWO said the building's 'green' features include solar panels, sustainably harvested wood beams, and a geothermal heating and cooling system. Wood siding from a barn on the Robinsons' property was salvaged and used in the interior, he said.

The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $5 for adults; $3 for children 3 to 17, and free for children under 3. For more information call 410-313-0400 or visit

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