This is a primer and introduction to Columbia that serves two purposes – A) it’s a pitch to those considering moving here explaining why I think this is such a great place to live, and B) it’s a reminder to all of us lucky enough to already live here on why this is such a unique and special place to call home. I preface that this article is solely my own perspective and that I am still very much a newcomer to Columbia myself, so please let me know if you think there is anything that you think I mischaracterized or left out. I do hope to revisit and update this article periodically.
Columbia, Maryland is a prosperous, racially and economically diverse, suburban city of 100,000 people located between Washington DC and Baltimore that offers a suburban lifestyle with amenities that can rival many larger cities. There is a strong spirit of community and commitment amongst our residents to each other and to their city that is often absent in the sprawl of suburbia. Columbia is truly a unique place whose residents enjoy a high quality of life. Even prior to the pandemic, demographic trends have been shifting away from big cities and I believe that COVID-19 will only intensify that trend. Columbia is a vibrant, diverse, inclusive, progressive community that provides all the benefits of a the ‘burbs (great schools, plentiful recreation options for youth and adults, little crime, a natural environment and open space) while still offering an experience-rich lifestyle and a vibrant arts and culture scene.
THE COLUMBIA VISION
Columbia’s unique history and founding ideals are a necessary starting point for any introduction to our city. Columbia, MD is a master-planned community born in the mid 1960s from the visionary urban planner James W. Rouse. Rouse - the ambitious businessman and crusading activist - imagined a beautiful, self-sustaining American City - a new America, really - that fostered economic, racial, and cultural harmony. In his words, “a garden for growing people,” where the city could enhance it's residents quality of life, and in turn, its citizens held sense of responsibility to one’s city and to one’s neighbor. Rouse's goals: 1) to create a fully self-sustaining city, not just a better suburb, where residents would both live and work, 2) to respect the land, 3) to produce the most accommodating environment for the growth of people, and 4) to make a profit. To realize this vision, Rouse and his team secretly bought 15,000 bucolic acres of woodland and farmland in rural Howard County, and then with much fanfare, unveiled his plan to the public on June 21, 1967.
Rouse established Columbia with the purposeful goal of being an integrated community at a time before the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, national origin or religion. And while FHA offered an empty promise in many American suburbs due to housing costs that were simply not affordable for many of the people who at long last were finally legally allowed to purchase homes, a mix of housing types are intentionally interspersed in Columbia's neighborhoods, so homeownership could be more attainable for whomever desired to live here. Rouse envisioned Columbia as a place where the janitor and the CEO would be neighbors and their children would attend school together. Columbia was founded as a truly open city. Rouse wrote “Simply stated, we are ‘colorblind’, this means that every person or family coming to Columbia to seek a lot, an apartment, a house; to start a business; to golf, tennis, ride horseback, sail, swim, or use any other facility open to the public will be treated alike regardless of whether the color of his skin is white, black, brown, or yellow.” At the time, Rouse's ideas were revolutionary. And indeed, the vision attracted civil rights activists, hippie baby-boomers, and interracial families to set down roots in early Columbia.
THE DESIGN AND FUNCTION OF COLUMBIA
Rouse intentionally designed Columbia in a way to enhance it's residents quality of life and promote interactions with one's neighbors. Columbia is made up of nine interconnected residential areas, known as “villages” which surround a central town center. Each village contains several neighborhoods with serpentine streets and tightly packed cul-de-sacs that are nested within protected open spaces and connected by pathways that lead to community pools, playgrounds (known as “tot lots”), and schools. Within each village is a Village Center - a gathering place with civic spaces containing resident serving amenities such as grocery stores, barber shops, restaurants, and other small businesses.
Columbia has never incorporated. Most government functions are handled at the county-level, though some governance is provided by the non-profit Columbia Association, which was established as the keeper of the Columbia vision. The organization serves multiple roles; part government, part homeowners association, and part purveyor of sports and fitness facilities. CA manages the 3,600 acres of open space, 95 miles of pathways, 23 outdoor pools, and 170 tot lots interspersed in our neighborhoods. CA has expanded to additionally include fitness centers, indoor pools, golf courses, sports parks, and tennis clubs - of all which are offered at reduced prices to Columbia residents. CA operations are financed by a mandatory annual assessment that Columbia residential and commercial property owners are required to pay. CA is overseen by an elected body of residents who sit on the Board of Directors. Each village contains its own elected Village Board confronts local issues pertinent to the Village. These important positions provide a low barrier way for civically minded citizens of Columbia to contribute to their community.
In the strictest sense, Columbia proper consists only of CA assessed properties - properties that sit on the land that Rouse originally purchased. Outparcels of land are scattered throughout the region - the holes in the Swiss Cheese that is Columbia, though the entire area is still considered Columbia by the US Postal Service and Census Bureau. Other quirks of Columbia include communal mailboxes scattered in our neighborhoods (to promote interactions with one neighbor while retrieving your mail) and streets named after famous works of art and literature (for example, the neighborhood of Hobbit's Glen takes its street names from the work of J. R. R. Tolkien; Running Brook, from the poetry of Robert Frost; and Clemens Crossing, from the work of Mark Twain).
Columbia's Town Center has long intended to serve as Columbia's downtown and it does contain our most known landmarks: Merriweather Post Pavilion (the renowned outdoor music amphitheater), the Mall of Columbia (Rouse also pioneered the enclosed shopping mall), Lake Kittamaqundi (a large man-made Lake containing a large pedestrian promenade that is the civic heart of our city) and Symphony Woods (our central park of open space). And while these amenities may feel somewhat isolated from each other today, separated by vehicular throughways, Downtown Columbia is in the midst of an exciting evolution as a massive redevelopment will transform what we already have in downtown Columbia into a true urban center that had long been envisioned.
A GREAT PLACE TO LIVE
Columbia often tops magazine lists of the Best Place to Live, Best Place to Raise a Family, Safest Cities in America, Best Cities for Jobs, and Best Public School District in the State. For good reason.
Our densely wooded areas provide trails, lakes, and parks for families to spend time together. Our pools and recreation facilities provide ample opportunity to meet your neighbors by spending a lazy weekend afternoon at the pool watching your children play with their friends or compete in the Columbia Neighborhood Swim League - a summertime tradition for youth in Columbia that combines poolside socials and pep rallies with swim competitions. The Columbia Association, Howard County Recreation and Parks, and many other private and not-for-profit organization provide every sports, recreation, arts, or education opportunity for children, adults, and seniors imaginable.
Our schools are excellent. All HCPPS schools provide the same amazing curriculum and are home to inspiring teachers and administrators working tirelessly to educate our children. If considering Columbia, I suggest families look past Great School ratings (which nudge families towards school in more affluent areas) recognizing that the diversity of Columbia is our strength. I would also caution against focusing on any specific school, as Howard County frequently changes school assignment boundaries, and recognize that whichever building your child learns in, they will be provided the same fantastic HCPSS education. I think that living in one of Columbia's original villages (which offer a range of housing options at a variety of price points and to which enjoy close proximity to the ongoing rejuvenation of Downtown Columbia) offers the most quintessential Columbia experience.
Downtown Columbia's revitalization is transforming our city center into a vibrant, culturally rich, people-oriented place to live, work, and play - all guided, in true Columbia fashion, by a meticulously developed master plan. Per this plan, Downtown Columbia will be a diverse, mixed-use, livable, physically distinct and human-scaled place with a range of housing choices and recreational, civic, cultural, and educational amenities. The ambitious project includes adding 14 million square feet of new downtown development, which is roughly half the size of downtown Baltimore, including an additional 5,500 market-rate residential units, 900 units of affordable housing, 4.3 million square feet of new office space, 1.3 million square feet of new retail space, 640 new hotel rooms, and new public parks, paths, and people-oriented streets.
Columbia got a glimpse of the future during 2020 with the opening of The Juniper building and Color Burst Park (containing a summer splash pad and winter ice rink) in The Merriweather District. The development is set to explode this year and beyond with the opening of Columbia's Busboys and Poets, dozens more more restaurants and retail offerings, and the groundbreaking of new mixed-use buildings, hotels, cafes, a flagship public library, and transit center planned for the future. Howard County just approved a first-class Arts and Cultural Center that will contain multiple theaters, children and adult programming, and become a new home for Toby's Dinner Theater - the venerable Columbia playhouse.
Merriweather Post Pavilion recently completed a $58 million renovation that increases the capacity of the amphitheater to over 20,000, while adding unique seating options and backstage amenities to help ensure the venue that has hosted concerts by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, and The Grateful Dead remains a premiere stop on the country's top concert tours for decades to come. Merriweather Post Pavilion not only puts Columbia on the map, but it adds an authenticity and uniqueness that is absent from other town center redevelopments. Additional community programming, including Columbia's own 75-person Soulful Symphony orchestra, the Symphony of Lights winter festival, movie nights and high school graduations are also hosted here.
Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods is the wooded preserved surrounding Merriweather Post Pavilion that is host to dozens of amazing festivals each year, including Wine in the Woods, Hops and Harvest, Books and Bloom, FantasyWood and countless others. Managed by non-profit Inner Arbor Trust, the Park contains the Chrysalis Stage that has its own programming lineup including concerts, children programming, and community events, which can also act as a second stage to MPP for larger music festivals. Future plans for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods include adding many additional amenities to turn the area into a true wooded park to provide more community use in addition to its festival use.
Columbia's Lakefront already contains a Whole Food and new public park next to the People's Tree sculpture and Rouse brothers statue on the pedestrian plaza overlooking the lake. The lakefront serves our city's civic gathering spot, and additional areas around the lake are also set for further expansion in the coming years as the area is set to transform into a Health and Wellness district. Locals are eagerly anticipated what comes next for the prime lakefront restaurant space that had been move to Clyde's for 45 years as well as the neighboring intimate live-music space formerly called the Soundry. The Mall in Columbia remains a viable and popular destination with a row of recently built restaurants, a movie theater, and several new apartments with ground floor retail.
I don’t want to sell a false utopia - While much of the original ideology of Columbia remains, we are not perfect. There are concentrations of wealth and concentrations of poverty. The Village Center idea has been challenged by the commercial development elsewhere. The automobile remains a necessary requirement for transportation. And unfortunately, Howard County is not immune to the divisiveness that exists in our country - there is a vocal minority that threatens our progress.
Nonetheless, those committed to the founding ideals of Columbia are louder and significantly more numerous. For every racist comment on social media, there are dozens of anti-racists pushing back. When the youth of our county organized a HoCo for Justice March in June 2020 expecting a turnout of 500 people to demand an end to police brutality and a recognition that Black Lives Matter, 5,000 turned up instead. It was the largest demonstration in Howard County history and even lead Barack Obama to tweet his support. And as the coronavirus unveiled food insecurities and needs that have long existed in our community, a grassroots organization - Columbia Community Care - sprang up to connect those who can help with those who need help. There are more YIMBYs championing affordable housing initiatives, school desegregation efforts, village center revitalization, downtown redevelopment, and improved walking, biking, and public transit alternatives than there are NIMBYs opposing them. And we are blessed with many smart forward-thinking leaders in our County government who are committed to equity and restorative practices and furthering legislation that addresses racial disparities and inequalities.
Columbia was started as an ahead of its time social experiment, and there is strong contingency of passionate citizens and grassroot organizations pushing for Columbia to remain at the forefront of the fight for equality. Together, we strive for Columbia to be a national model in pursuing lofty goals and implementing sound policies that help address the critical issues of our time - racial injustices, economic inequality, and climate change. As we move into the future and as the excitement of our burgeoning urban core increases the desirably of living in Columbia, our challenge will be to ensure that we remain an intentionally integrated, diverse, and inclusive community that is affordable to all who desire to live here while continuing to make Columbia a place that all desire to live, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age, or income.
Rouse once remarked that he hoped Columbia would never be finished, that the community would continue to develop and that the residents who would come to call Columbia home would be actively engaged in the process. So, to all that live here now or will live here in the future, I look forward to joining you in continuing in the pursuit of Columbia's promise.
FURTHER READING & RESOURCES
Columbia’s Promise, Public Television Documentary
Columbia at 50 - A Bridge to the Future, a film presented by the Howard County Citizens Association
James W. Rouse’s Legacy of Better Living Through Design, Smithsonian Magazine
Columbia, Maryland was an early template for Smart Growth, Greater Greater Washington
A Haven for interracial love amid relentless racism: Columbia turns 50, The Washington Post
Columbia at 50: How the 'Garden for Growing People' got planted and grew, a 12-part series by the Maryland Reporter
Urbanizing the Town Center of Columbia, Maryland. Urban Land
A History of Columbia, Columbia Association