It’s hard to imagine a time before Columbia, when its mall, human-made lakes and Merriweather Post Pavilion were just sketches on the drawing board for a city planned from scratch. More than half a century after its inception, the model community — carved from 14,000 acres of farmland — is a bustling touchstone between Baltimore and Washington and a showcase for diversity. It’s a fusion of cultures, as developer James Rouse had intended: Columbia’s residents are 47% white, 24% Black, 14% Asian and 10% Hispanic.
There is a cluster of 10 distinct villages, each with an eclectic mix of single-family homes, condos, town houses and apartments; verdant pathways, ponds and playgrounds; and a village center flush with shops and services. Streets bear embarrassingly cute names, like Barefoot Boy and Liquid Laughter Lane. Each village conveys an air of cordiality, right down to the placement of residents’ mailboxes, which are bunched together so that you greet your neighbors when you go to get your mail.
Though Columbia has run out of elbow room — its 10th and final village, affluent River Hill, opened in 1992 on the site of an old game farm — change is constant. The mall, which turns 50 this year, has undergone several expansions and boasts 218 stores and restaurants. And the town center is undergoing a 30-year, $5 billion renewal with an eye toward health and fitness. Plans call for medical offices, wellness clinics and an outdoor yoga deck.
Nearby sits Merriweather Post Pavilion, an amphitheater tucked among 40 woodsy acres and a throwback to the town’s beginnings. On July 14, 1967, to celebrate the opening of Wilde Lake, Columbia’s first village, pianist Van Cliburn and the National Symphony Orchestra played to 2,500 guests, including Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The site has since hosted hundreds of concerts by everyone from The Who to Willie Nelson. Opened in 2017, the Chrysalis at Merriweather Park is a futuristic green open-air venue within the trees that also hosts concerts and cultural events.
Open space is plentiful, even downtown where, near the mall, Lake Kittamaqundi draws hikers, bikers, anglers and boaters to its shores. A 1.4-mile paved trail surrounds the 27-acre lake. The larger Lake Elkhorn (37 acres), in the village of Owen Brown, offers fishing and a walking trail. Wildlife abounds at the Robinson Nature Center, in the village of Hickory Ridge, which greets visitors with hands-on exhibits and a network of short wooded trails.
Columbia also has an ice rink, sports park (with an 18-hole mini-golf course), skateboard park and, for canine recreation, a dog park.
At a glance
Median home price: $372,000
Villages: Dorsey’s Search, Harper’s Choice, Hickory Ridge, Kings Contrivance, Long Reach, Oakland Mills, Owen Brown, River Hill, Town Center and Wilde Lake.