In Defense of Development in Columbia, MD
By David Saunier*
Our city was the brainchild of one of our country’s most brilliant humanitarians of the last half century. James Rouse, a real estate developer, envisioned a new kind of city that was carefully planned to avoid many of the pitfalls common to our country’s non-urban core—namely the haphazard and impersonal development known as urban sprawl. He believed that a thoughtfully considered city plan would enable a place that enriched the lives of its citizens, allowing everyone who lived there the opportunity to become the best that they could be.
Columbia would become a place that married nestled-in residential cul-de-sacs, beautiful open space and walkways, and clusters of commercial and public cores that would allow for pedestrian and bike-friendly access to all that was needed—shopping, entertainment, worship, and education. Columbia would have a downtown gathering place that residents would enjoy—providing more commercial options; including restaurants, music, nature, and art.
These initial ideals and the careful plan that followed over the next few decades resulted in one of the more successful planned communities anywhere in America (insert your favorite national accolade here). By most measures, Columbia is a model community that many have looked to replicate. But as with small start-up companies, our town has experienced some growing pains as it has become larger and older. In companies as they grow, one of the hardest things to maintain is the original culture that was carefully nurtured among the handful of early employees. So too, has Columbia struggled to maintain its identity of a community that is welcoming and providing of meaningful opportunity to people of all races, religions, and income levels. And yes, even classic suburban sprawl has crept into the periphery of our town, making our once-thriving village centers skeletons of their former selves.
Our residents, especially our younger ones, have often lamented the lack of fun and activity here. We can see where nearby younger cousins—Reston, VA and Kentlands, MD—have paid careful attention to correct the shortcomings of the early planned communities of Columbia and Greenbelt, MD in this regard.
Many who lament the recent plans and trends in Columbia to develop and redevelop our “urban” cores, fear a loss of Columbia’s original character and a loss of James Rouse’s original ideals. They often claim that greedy developers are simply making a profit without a care in the world for what Columbia is really all about. It can be a slippery slope, indeed, for either side of this issue to claim to be the true representative of Jim Rouse and his vision. But nonetheless, I will charge ahead and posit that continued careful development of Columbia’s urban centers (the Lakefront, the Crescent, and our village centers) is precisely in keeping with the values that made Columbia great in the first place.
So, as Columbians, what do we value? I, for one, value a continued commitment toward making our city welcoming to all that want to live here, a place that can be relaxing and exciting, a place that offers employment opportunities right in our city, a place that values the inspiration of the arts, a place that values exercise and fresh air, a place that values the education of our all of our residents, a place that accommodates young and old, and a place that continues to offer opportunities for me to see old friends and make new ones. It’s a long and often incongruent list, but one that Columbia has pretty successfully managed over the last half century. But it is managing it less and less as time goes on. Our city needs a rejuvenation of its original ideals to truly be successful at allowing its residents to be the best that they can be.
Careful urban development provides opportunities for residents to easily access all that they need and love. And more dense, mixed-use development allows for a pedestrian and bike-friendly environment that benefits everyone—including young people, those that cannot afford cars, those that care about carbon emissions, and those that value ready access to jobs within walking distance. Careful urban development benefits small businesses that can scarcely thrive in spread-out, sparsely-trafficked areas. Careful urban development benefits the community as a whole, as our downtown becomes an attractive place to shop, eat, and be entertained.
So what is “careful urban development”? Lucky for us, we have a historical model and functional framework here in Columbia. Careful development is a public-private partnership working within a long-term plan that seeks to manage the common problems that come along with growth—including traffic, parking, crime, and overcrowded schools. Careful development balances profit with purpose, ensuring that affordable housing remains a reality and ensuring that everything works at a human scale. Careful development is considerate of the community’s perspective, and recognizes that any good business is at first, responsive to the needs and desires of its “customers.”
With committed stewardship of those ideals on the part of the Columbia Association, the County Executive, the County Council, the County School Board and Zoning Board, and perhaps most of all, our citizens; our town can have careful urban development and continue to develop and flourish for another 50 years.
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*David Saunier came to Columbia while in diapers, in 1972. After receiving a degree in Architecture from the University of Maryland, he went to work for Jim Rouse's Enterprise Foundation. Today, he still lives here with his wife and two young children where he works as a designer and occasional rabble-rouser.