Columbia, Maryland

Columbia is a census-designated place and planned community in Howard County, Maryland, United States. It is a suburb of Baltimore and, to a lesser degree, Washington, DC. It began with the idea that a city could enhance its residents' quality of life. Creator and developer James W. Rouse saw the new community in terms of human values, not just in terms of economics and engineering. Opened in 1967, Columbia was designed to not only eliminate the inconveniences of then-current subdivision design, but also eliminate racial, religious, and income segregation.

Today, Columbia has a population of about 97,200 and is the most populous census designated place in Maryland, after Baltimore. By the early 2000s, the town had acquired many of the characteristics of other contemporary U.S. suburbs, such as increasingly large private homes on large parcels and "big box" retail stores accessible mostly by automobile. Nevertheless, Rouse's ethos remains a strong influence upon the physical and political development of Columbia.


The Rouse Company accumulated over 14,000 acres (57 km²), 10% of Howard County, Maryland (located between Baltimore and Washington DC), from 140 separate owners. This acquisition was funded by Connecticut General Life Insurance, at an average price of $1,500 per acre ($0.37/m²). In October 1963, the acquisition was revealed to the residents of Howard County, putting to rest rumors about the mysterious purchases. These had included the theory that the site was for a laboratory to study diseases and another that the site was intended to become a giant compost heap.

At this unveiling, James Rouse described Columbia as a planned new city which would avoid the leap-frog and spot development threatening the county. The new city would be complete with jobs, schools, shopping, and medical services, and a range of housing choices. The property taxes from commercial development would cover the additional services with which housing would burden the county. The planning process for Columbia included not only planners, but also a convening of a panel of nationally recognized experts in the social sciences, known as the Work Group. Meeting for two days, twice a month, for half a year, the Work Group suggested innovations that the planners should try in education, recreation, religion, and health care, as well as ways of improving social interactions. Open classrooms, the interfaith centers, and the then-novel idea of a Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) with a group practice of doctors (the Columbia Medical Plan) sprung from these meetings. Columbia was not incorporated; some governance, however, was to be provided by the Columbia Association, which manages common areas and functions as a homeowners' association with regard to private property. The first manager of the Columbia Association was John Estabrook Slayton, who died in early 1967. The community center in Wilde Lake, the Slayton House, was named after him for the contributions he made to the early planning of Columbia.

The physical plan, with neighborhood and village centers, also were decided upon at these meetings. Columbia's “New Town District” zoning ordinance gives the developer great flexibility about what to put where, without getting approval from the county for each specific project.

The first village to be developed in Columbia was Wilde Lake. The first high school to open in Columbia was Wilde Lake High School , which opened in 1971 as a model school for the nation. Constructed in the open classroom style, it was razed and reconstructed on the same site in 1996.

Columbia proper consists only of that territory governed by the Columbia Association, but larger areas are included under its name by the post office and the census. These include several other communities which predate Columbia, including Simpsonville, Atholton, and in the case of the census, Clarksville and Savage.

Master plan

To achieve the goals set forth by the Work Group, Columbia's Master Plan called for a series of ten self-contained villages, around which day-to-day life would revolve. The centerpiece of Columbia would be the Mall in Columbia and man-made Lake Kittamaqundi.

Villages and neighborhoods

The village concept is aimed to provide Columbia a small-town feel (like Easton, Maryland, where James Rouse grew up). Each village comprises several neighborhoods. The village center may contain middle and high schools. All villages have a shopping center, recreational facilities, a community center, a system of bike/walking paths, and homes. Four of the villages have interfaith centers, common worship facilities which are owned and jointly operated by a variety of religious congregations working together.

Most of Columbia's neighborhoods contain single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and apartments (though some are more exclusive than others). The original plan, following the neighborhood concept of Clarence Perry, would have had all the children of a neighborhood attend the same school, melding neighborhoods into a community and ensuring that all of Columbia's children get the same high-quality education.

  • Village – Neighborhoods (in rough order of opening)
    • Wilde Lake – Bryant Woods, Faulkner Ridge, Running Brook, The Birches
    • Harper's Choice – Longfellow, Swansfield, Hobbit's Glen
    • Oakland Mills – Thunder Hill, Talbott Springs, Stevens Forest
    • Long Reach – Phelps Luck, Jeffers Hill, Locust Park, Kendall Ridge
    • Owen Brown – Dasher Green, Elkhorn, Hopewell
    • Hickory Ridge – Clemens Crossing, Hawthorn, Clary's Forest
    • Dorsey's Search – Dorsey Hall, Fairway Hills
    • Kings Contrivance – Dickinson, Huntington, Macgill's Common
    • River Hill – Pheasant Ridge, Pointers Run, River Run
    • Town Center – Vantage Point, Banneker, Amesbury, Creighton's Run, and Warfield Triangle

Columbia takes its street names from 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 today

In 2006, Money magazine ranked Columbia (together with Ellicott City, its neighbor to the north) #4 out of the 100 "Best Places to Live" in the United States. In 2008, Columbia and Ellicott City were ranked #8 on this list.

Education and libraries

Columbia's public schools are operated by the Howard County Public School System. As of the 2007-2008 school year, the following high schools served some part of Columbia:

Note that almost all of these schools also serve students from outside Columbia, as is also the case with middle and elementary schools.

There are no conventional four year colleges or universities in Columbia, but several other college level programs have facilities there. Howard Community College is located near the town center, while the University of Phoenix and Loyola College have facilities on the east side of town.

Two of the six branches of the Howard County public library system are in Columbia, including the Central Library in Town Center and the East Columbia Branch in Owen Brown.


Medical care is available in the recently renovated Howard County General Hospital, affiliated with Baltimore's famous Johns Hopkins Hospital. The Columbia Medical Plan was the city's largest health maintenance organization (HMO). In more recent years, however, this plan has divided into separate medical groups that simply share the Twin Knolls buildings. Today, there is a Kaiser Permanente facility located in the Columbia Gateway industrial park. There are also a number of clinics, such as the Nighttime Care Center offering after-hours care.


The Mall in Columbia is a large regional shopping mall with five anchor department stores (Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor, Sears, Macy's, and JC Penney) and over 200 stores and restaurants. Also containing a 14-screen AMC movie theater, an LL Bean retail store, a Cheesecake Factory restaurant, and a Bank of America, the Mall is a societal center for the community and is located in Town Center.

There are several other major shopping centers in the Columbia area, including Snowden Square, Columbia Crossing I and II, Dobbin Center, Gateway Overlook, Ellicott City's Long Gate Shopping Center, and Hanover's Arundel Mills (in neighboring Anne Arundel County).

Columbia's nine "village centers" provide residents with nearby shopping as well, often including supermarkets, gas stations, liquor stores, dry cleaners, restaurants, and hair salons. The layout of some of the older village centers is frequently criticized. Individual stores are not visible from the road (unlike traditional strip malls), making it difficult for newcomers and non-residents to know what shopping is available. At the same time, this setup is praised by some for eliminating much of the garishness of roadside America.

As this concept becomes dated, however, it is increasingly being replaced with more traditional shopping centers. A case in point is the Oakland Mills Village Center, which had a traditional Village Center layout (stores located off an indoor central corridor) until its demolition in the late 1990s. It has since been replaced with a more traditional strip mall styled center.


Jim Rouse conceived of a city, not a suburban bedroom community, and Columbia is today an "edge city" in the terminology of Joel Garreau. There are 15 office, industrial, and research parks in Columbia. Most are at the eastern and southern edges (such as the sprawling Columbia Gateway Center), but a number of office and residential high-rise buildings are located in Town Center surrounding the Mall in Columbia. Although many residents commute to nearby Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the business complexes in and around Columbia have grown drastically in recent years in response to increased population in the town as well as to a broader expansion of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Many residents work for the government at nearby U.S. Department of Defense facilities (such as Fort Meade and the National Security Agency, or NSA).


Recreation has always been an important part of the Columbia concept. The homeowners association, the Columbia Association, known to Columbians as "CA," builds, operates and maintains most of these facilities. CA operates a variety of recreational facilities, including 23 outdoor swimming pools, six indoor pools, two water slides, ice and roller skating rinks, an equestrian center, a sports park with miniature golf, a skateboard park, batting cages, picnic pavilions, clubhouse and playground, three athletic clubs including the 24/7 Supreme Sports Club, numerous indoor and outdoor tennis, basketball, volleyball, squash and racquetball courts, and running tracks. In February, 2006, LifeTime Fitness (a Minnesota company) opened a 24/7 health club at the edge of the Columbia Gateway industrial park. This facility includes 1 outdoor and 2 indoor pools (with water slides), racquetball courts, basketball courts, fitness equipment, and pilates and yoga facilities.

There are three lakes (Lake Kittamaqundi, Lake Elkhorn, and Wilde Lake) surrounded by parkland for sailing, fishing, and boating; of paths for jogging, strolling and biking; and 148 tot lots and play areas.

Nine village centers, 15 neighborhood centers, and four senior centers provide space for a large variety of community activities. There are a variety of fairs and celebrations throughout the year, including entertainment on the lakefront of Lake Kittamaqundi during the summer and the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

Columbia also has garden plots for rent, under the guidance of the Columbia Gardeners, which has been in existence since the 1970s. There are about 350 garden plots at three sites in Columbia, with each garden rented for a nominal fee (currently $30 per year). (Columbia Flyer, Doug Miller "Turning over a new leaf could be growing concern", May 31, 2007, page 17)

Entertainment / performing arts

In the absence of nightclubs, Columbia relies on local bars to bring in bands. Clyde's (near the Columbia Mall and on Lake Kittamaqundi) and Sonoma's (in Owen Brown) regularly bring in groups to perform.

Merriweather Post Pavilion, a well-known outdoor concert venue, attracts many prominent performers. In addition, there are several performing arts organizations that present professional theater: Toby's Dinner Theatre, which has produced the area premieres of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Aida, Titanic, and Ragtime, and will produce the Maryland/Virginia regional premiere of The Producers in 2008 and Rep Stage at Howard Community College.


Columbia's initial plan called for a minibus system connecting the village centers on a distinct right-of-way. This was never constructed, though minibuses were operated by the Columbia Association under the name ColumBus. These were eventually taken over by Howard County. Six Howard Transit bus routes now serve Columbia and connect it with its neighboring areas (such as Ellicott City and BWI Airport), while several Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) routes provide access to and from both Washington and Baltimore. MTA weekday commuter bus service connects Columbia to the Washington Metro system. There are no rail stations within Columbia, although the Dorsey MARC station is served by Howard Transit buses.


Columbia is located at . According to the United States Census Bureau, the CDP (census-designated place) has a total area of 27.7 square miles (71.6 km²), of which, 27.6 square miles (71.4 km²) of it is land and 0.1 square miles (0.3 km²) of it (0.36%) is water. The city lies in the Piedmont region of Maryland, with its eastern edge at the fall line. The climate is that of central Maryland, tending to hot, humid summers and cold but wet winters. The primary landforms in Columbia are rolling hills and stream valleys; Columbia's road network is laid out to follow the terrain, with many winding streets and cul-de-sacs. Elevations range from about 200 to 500 feet (60-150 m) above sea level. Most of Columbia is drained by the Middle Patuxent River and Little Patuxent River. There are three artificial lakes, created by damming of tributary streams during city construction. Along with Symphony Woods, many other stands of mature trees have been maintained in Columbia, including the large Middle Patuxent Environmental Area in the western part of the city between Harper's Choice and River Hill villages, protecting much of the river valley from development.


As of the census of 2000, there were 88,254 people, 34,199 households, and 23,118 families residing in the CDP. The population density was 3,202.0 people per square mile (1,236.4/km²). There were 35,281 housing units at an average density of 1,280.0/sq mi (494.3/km²). The racial makeup of the CDP was 66.52% White, 21.47% Black or African American, 0.26% Native American, 7.30% Asian, 0.05% Pacific Islander, 1.63% from other races, and 2.76% from two or more races. 4.12% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.

There were 34,199 households out of which 35.9% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 53.4% were married couples living together, 11.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 32.4% were non-families. 25.6% of all households were made up of individuals and 5.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.54 and the average family size was 3.09.

In the CDP the population was spread out with 26.3% under the age of 18, 6.7% from 18 to 24, 34.1% from 25 to 44, 25.5% from 45 to 64, and 7.5% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females there were 93.1 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 88.7 males.

According to a 2006 estimate, the median income for a household in the CDP was $88,307, and the median income for a family was $103,313. Males had a median income of $60,498 versus $41,501 for females. The per capita income for the CDP was $32,833. About 3.4% of families and 5.4% of the population were below the poverty line, including 5.7% of those under age 18 and 11.0% of those age 65 or over.

Sister cities

Columbia is a sister city to the planned cities of Cergy-Pontoise, France and Tres Cantos, Spain. Columbia Association organizes a summer exchange program for French and Spanish students enrolled in Howard County Public Schools.

Famous Columbians


Further reading

  • Joseph Rocco Mitchell and David L. Stebenne, New City Upon A Hill: A History of Columbia, Maryland (The History Press, 2007)

External links

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