How Columbia Became Maryland's First Planned Community

Monday, November 2nd, 2015 at 12:00pm.

How Columbia, Maryland Became the First Planned Community

Columbia, Maryland is a large community located in Howard County that includes ten, self-contained villages. Columbia, Maryland is one of the country’s oldest planned communities, created and developed by James W. Rouse before opening in 1967.

Columbia has no official boundaries but is located between Washington DC and Baltimore City, just southwest of Ellicott City, north of the I-95. The population of Columbia MD is a little over 100,000. 

The oldest neighborhood in Columbia is Wilde Lake, northwest of The Mall in Columbia. The community of Columbia MD comprises 10 different sub-communities, which you can read about below. 

Columbia's Early History

Columbia MD was created by a visionary developer, James W. Rouse. Rouse was concerned with the rate of population growth and suburban sprawl in the United States and envisioned a modern, integrated, value-driven community as the answer. 

Rouse was a pioneer in real estate development and in the field that would become known as urban planning. From 1935 to 1967 Rouse acquired experience in all levels and facets of urban and residential development, he also honed his skills as an engaging public communicator, eventually gaining widespread attention for his views on progressive urban planning. 

He also co-founded the Citizens Housing and Planning Association just after World War II and joined President Eisenhower’s National Housing Task Force in 1953. He began developing shopping malls in the late 1950s, and then turned his focus to planned residential communities. In the summer of 1961, Rouse bought 68 acres inside the city of Baltimore, with plans to develop a residential community that would meet the same high standards that marked his shopping center developments. This new development would be called Cross Keys, and while it was still under construction, Rouse turned his attention to building a whole new city, the city between Baltimore and Washington that would become Columbia, Maryland.

Rouse scouted a number of locations for a new model community that conformed to his ideas, but settled on an area between Baltimore and Washington DC, due to its potential for growth and proximity to such major urban centers.

Rouse began purchasing land for the new community in 1962. Throughout the next few years, Rouse worked to find financing partners and gain zoning approval for his new city, and in June of 1967, the first phase was unveiled. 

Columbia, MD Takes Shape

Rouse’s goal was a city complete with jobs, schools, shopping, medical services, and of course, a range of attractive housing options. A panel of respected social science experts, known as the Work Group, would participate in the planning process for the city.  Part of the Work Group’s Master Plan for Columbia called for everyday life to revolve around self-contained villages.  The villages would comprise nearly everything a resident may need or want, all within a convenient distance, including:

  • Shopping centers
  • Recreational facilities
  • Walking and biking paths
  • Religious centers
  • A community center
  • Schools

The ten villages were all completed and opened between 1967 and 1990. They include:

  • Wilde Lake
  • Harper’s Choice
  • Oakland Mills
  • Long Reach
  • Owen Brown
  • Town Center
  • Hickory Ridge
  • Kings Contrivance
  • Dorsey’s Search
  • River Hill

At the center of community life would be The Mall in Columbia and a large man-made lake (the first of an eventual 3) named Lake Kittamaqundi. 

Columbia, MD Today

Today Columbia is a thriving and prosperous community with most of the idyllic features first envisioned by Rouse.

The city has been named in the top 10 of Money magazine’s “100 Best Places to Live” list numerous times over the past decade, as well as on CNN’s “Best Places to Live in America” list. The positive recognition is well-deserved, especially considering that Columbia was built specifically with the intent of being a well-rounded and edifying place for people to live.

For recreational needs, there are 23 outdoor swimming pools, two indoor pools, ice skating rinks, roller skating rinks, an equestrian center, a sports park, three athletic clubs, water slides, and much more. For entertainment, residents visit bars like Union Jack's and Sonoma’s Bar & Grille, to see local bands, as well as the well-known outdoor concert venue Merriweather Post Pavilion. There are also several performing arts organizations presenting professional theater. Shopping attractions are plenty, including The Mall in Columbia, which is located in Town Center and contains five department stores and a multiplex movie theater among 200 stores and restaurants.

Though there are no conventional four-year universities, several college-level programs have facilities in Columbia, including the University of Maryland Johns Hopkins University and Howard County Community College. Today’s economy is dominated by office, retail, and wholesale, though there is still a small industrial area. Many residents also commute to government and government contractor jobs in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

With jobs, shopping, schools, arts, and recreation readily accessible for all residents, Columbia has become the bustling and successful city Rouse had imagined decades ago. If you are interested in properties in the much-desired city of Columbia, MD, contact the Northrop Team today!

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