History of Columbia

by Peter Tocco

Jim Rouse was fond of a particular quote from Daniel Burnham, the famous American architect: "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized."


Perhaps that is what Rouse was thinking when he envisioned Columbia. Ever since his work with the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930s, he had been thinking about ways to make cities better. In the 1950s, Rouse became one of America’s most successful shopping mall developers, helping to give birth to the very concept of a shopping mall. In the early 60s, he gave speeches on urban affairs, even advising President Kennedy.


By that time, Rouse was becoming a wealthy developer. Suddenly he had the wherewithal to build the planned city of his dreams. Not a utopia by any means, Columbia was the product of Rouse’s accumulated vision for improving cities. Specifically, he wanted to move cities closer to nature, incorporate the most modern technology, and ensure that no one was turned away due to skin color or religion.


Rouse spared no effort in assembling a world-class design team, taking a fairly new approach by calling on not just those who could lay out streets and buildings but also sociologists, psychiatrists, writers, professors, housing and transportation specialists, and some of the best urban planners in the country. Worried that too many American cities were falling victim to urban blight and crime, he set out to find a solution to widespread housing discrimination and the growing use of automobiles, which he saw as harmful to the envrionment and economically unsustainable. His vision for Columbia started out as a bold experiment to fix the problems plaguing American cities.


Rouse was above all a man who could identify social trends early on and crystallize them into concepts people could understand. He is credited with coining the terms “urban renewal” and “shopping mall,” for example. His influence on urban planning peaked several decades ago but it's still with us today, particularly in his festival marketplaces such as Harborplace in Baltimore and Fannueil Hall in Boston, places that were described by journalists of the 1970s as “making cities fun again.”


Planning for Columbia began around 1963, with the first homes sold in 1967. In the interim, Rouse’s reputation as a developer grew. Walt Disney quotes Rouse in a 1966 promotional film about EPCOT as saying that, “The greatest piece of urban design in America today is Disneyland.” Disney died suddenly in December of 1966, two months after the film was made, but not before he and Rouse became good friends. The two held very similar views on urban planning. Rouse’s exact influence on EPCOT is unknown, but in the following YouTube clip, Disney is seen waxing eloquent on the planning principles behind EPCOT, the “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow." Sounding very Rousian, Disney states that EPCOT will takes its cues from the best information available, that it will always be testing new ideas and will never be quite finished. “Finding solutions to the problems of our cities” is the highest challenge we face, according to Disney, words that could have come directly from Rouse himself. Also Rousian is Disney’s desire to start from scratch on fresh ground to build his planned community, similar to Columbia. “EPCOT will never cease to be a living blueprint of the future, where people will live the life they cannot find anywhere else,” said Disney. “Everything in EPCOT will be dedicated to the people who work, live and play here.” What was he thinking? No developer today would make such bold claims about what an urban development was capable of doing, not even Jim Rouse, who was known to gush profusely at times about urbanism. In any case, he and Rouse were two peas in a pod: eternal optimists who were not afraid to dream big and sometimes turn those dreams into reality.

Disney promotional film that references Jim Rouse and his planning philosophy

It’s impossible to say where Disney was getting his ideas, except that Rouse is the only planner Disney mentions by name in the film. EPCOT bore no small resemblance to Columbia, which was getting a lot of press at that time as it began marketing itself and selling homes. As might be expected, this marketing effort was steeped in glorious imagery. Later, as Columbia matured, it became increasingly like all the other suburbs, with only a few exceptions. EPCOT, too, apparently was born of great marketing fluff and expectation, except that the original plans for EPCOT went light years beyond Columbia. Its original layout was straight out of science fiction, resembling a giant starship with spokes emanating from a hub. It featured an impossibly elaborate transportation system consisting of two electric trains (high speed monorail and light duty circulator) and an underground road network for cars, trucks, and parking. In the hub was a high-rise hotel and office complex surrounded by high-density multifamily, then a green belt with churches, schools and parks, then a low-density green space with single-family detached homes. Disney's formidable planning staff had designed an enticing mix of commercial, residential, and entertainment, not to mention the 1,000-acre industrial park nearby that promised jobs for everyone. From the outset, it was designed to serve a very corporate America in an environment so highly controlled that even the weather was maintained to perfection inside a protective bubble in parts of the hub. Pedestrians would be king, free from fear of any motorized vehicles. It would require a whole new concept of transportation: The "Webway" was designed to substitute for the car, loosely modeled after the people mover already handling 40,000 people per day in Disneyland, but which apparently never made it past the drawing board.


This was to be a truly new type of city, a showcase of industry and futurism in which 20,000 people lived, worked, and played. Schools would welcome new ideas, people would only need to drive their cars on weekends, and everyone would have a job, according to Disney. This was a far-flung fantasy that only a Walt Disney could have envisioned. But then in December of 1966, two months after the EPCOT film was made, doctors discovered a tumor and he died suddenly of a heart attack following surgery. The actual EPCOT turned into something far different, more tourist attraction than mixed-used, transit-oriented community. In any case the EPCOT described by Disney seemed too utopian for its own good. Had Disney lived, EPCOT might have retained more of the quixotic vision.

Rouse would live on for another 30 years, but his Columbia, like EPCOT, lost a lot of its thunder as practical reality set in and some of the bold ideas were trimmed back. Rouse and Disney may have been idealists, but both men knew how to subjugate their idealism when faced with the real world. Rouse was a businessman first, an idealist second. In that sense he had most of the other developers beat, who were businessmen, period. 

Early EPCOT concept rendering showing high-rise hub and radiating spokes

Rouse envisioned at least four vital areas of improvement in his new town of Columbia: closeness to nature, a color-blind social policy, the best in electronic communications, and a form of local transportation that minimized dependence on cars. Columbia succeeded in the first three: Its ample open spaces have brought people closer to nature. Its acceptance of all races was well ahead of the curve. And local TV broadcast of classrooms and community meetings were just some of its advanced communications. However, virtually nothing remains of Rouse’s transit plans. Today Columbia is about as car-centric as it can be.


Let’s look at some of the transit plans that did not survive. Rouse encouraged his planners to think outside the box. But the Rouse team was split between those who favored a suburban automobile-dominated environment and those who wanted urban amenities. Part of the team envisioned a mall bisected by a main street with frequent bus service, similar to a big city. Buses would circulate in a figure-8 loop that connected the villages with downtown. Some routes would have dedicated rights of way for buses. Wait times would be as short as four minutes along busy streets. But other members of the team envisioned a more suburban mall with a huge parking lot. Their plan won out.


Probably the most dramatic plan that didn’t happen is the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). Around 1969, Columbia tried to win a federal grant for a PRT, spending months if not years on an elaborate system that would put them in league with Disneyland and only a handful of other places with advanced transit in operation. Columbia's PRT would have operated with driverless cars that proceeded nonstop along elevated guideways, with riders selecting a destination from a keypad. It was a devastating blow to Columbia not to receive this grant, since Columbia was perhaps America's preeminent experimental community at the time.

Another idea that never happened was a car-free village similar to Mackinac Island, Michigan, which did not have cars. However, the banks would not finance this type of development. The idea was quietly dropped. Rouse himself was no car lover and in fact prided himself on driving a street-legal ultralight electric vehicle around Columbia for a number of years. He was also known for driving an older model station wagon, an anomoly for an executive of his level.  


There were a few small successes with alternative transportation in Columbia, however. A system of mini-buses that people could call on-demand, like a taxi, was popular but had to be cancelled after a few years because it was not profitable.

Columbia's PRT concept

Perhaps the most visible evidence of Rouse’s passion for innovative transportation involves the oldest form of transportation of all, the foot. Extensive pedestrian trails connecting neighborhoods, parks, schools, and village centers were quite a novelty at the time and remain one of Columbia’s most unique features. It is very likely future generations in Columbia will find ways to build upon this asset.

Today, Columbia's local bus service typically runs once per hour at most of the stops, which is not frequent enough for some residents. Buses remain the ugly stepchild of Columbia’s transportation, a service designed mostly for the poor and indigent, not the typical affluent Howard County resident. A future spike in oil prices may change all that in a heartbeat, however. In the next 10-20 years, it’s a safe bet that oil prices will double, triple, or worse. Expect that change to be reflected in the quality of Howard County’s bus service.

Rouse driving his electric car in Columbia, circa. 1976

In the final analysis, everyone knows this is not a perfect world, for in a perfect world, Columbia would not have been partitioned by US 29, which left a deep cleft in its heart that impedes the city. Rouse did not have all the answers for the future of Columbia and how to deal with such matters. He left that to future generations. Were he alive today to witness the anemic downtown life or the way in which East Columbia seems to exist without any relation to West Columbia, however, he would not be pleased. One of the early plans for Columbia called for a bridge connecting East Columbia and the downtown. Today, Bridge Columbia is reviving that plan as a way to funnel growth into the urban core and create synergy and excitement. It seems abundantly clear that if Columbia is ever to mature as a city, it needs an urban core, just as Howard County needs a least one truly urban center. The Bridge plan would restore Columbia as a transit innovator, and make Columbia more than just a passive recipient of a car culture with an uncertain future. It also restores Columbia as a city capable of dreaming big, for in the words of Daniel Burnham, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood.”

© 2016 by Friends of Bridge Columbia