A sense of place in Howard County? ctd.

In a recent post I questioned whether Howard County and Columbia had a true sense of place and, if not, whether there were anything that we as residents of Howard County could do about it. This post and the next contain my tentative answers. As I wrote before, there’s nothing profound here, it’s basically me thinking out loud in a blue sky-ish sort of way.

To answer the first question: I don’t think Howard County or even Columbia proper have a true sense of place. To some degree it’s the sort of question that if you have to ask it then you can be sure the answer is no. But, you might say, what about Jim Rouse’s vision? What about Columbia as a shining example of … a well-planned community, as Alan Klein recently put it?

The problem I have with that is that I don’t think it equates to a true sense of place. If I go to New York City, for example, I can appreciate its sense of place and even participate in it myself as a visitor or possible resident without having to have (figuratively or literally) sat at the feet of Fiorello La Guardia, Boss Tweed, or Peter Stuyvesant. But when it comes to Columbia it seems all too often that you just had to have been there, where there equals Wilde Lake, 1967, talking with Jim Rouse.

In my case I’ve thought about reading a biography of Jim Rouse or a history of Columbia’s history. But in the end I decided it was a waste of time. Howard County and Columbia are what they are, and if I can’t figure out the essence of them based on just my living here then that’s probably more their fault than mine.

So here’s my naïve take on the essence of Columbia, and by extension the essence of Howard County. (Sorry, those of you who live in western Howard or elsewhere and don’t like Columbia; you should just get over it. As far as anyone else is concerned Howard County is Columbia, at least to a first approximation.)

  • A better suburb. Stripped of all the high-flown rhetoric, the sales pitch for Columbia was simply that it was a better suburb, relative to other suburbs at the time. (A key point, to which I’ll return.) It offered the things people traditionally have valued in suburbs—a single-family home with a yard, freedom to drive and park where you wish, good schools, a safe refuge from the social ills of the city—in a professionally-designed master-planned package.
  • A more socially diverse and inclusive environment. Again, this was relative to other suburbs at the time; no one would confuse Columbia with (say) the East Village, either then or now.
  • A prosperous economy driven by steadily growing government spending. As I’ve previously noted, it was this that enabled Columbia to maintain a rare combination of relatively high household incomes and relatively low income inequality. This combination was not unique to Howard County (many DC-area jurisdictions have it as well), but it certainly helped support and reinforce Columbia’s self-image.

I believe the above factors are what truly distinguished Columbia, and that many of what people think of as unique and essential features of Columbia (the village centers, interfaith centers, and so on) are simply particular manifestations of how those factors played out in history.

That means that if we want to preserve what was seen as special about Columbia, and perhaps have a chance at building a true sense of place in Howard County, we need to look to the essentials and not the epiphenomena, and determine how those essentials might evolve and be sustained in the 21st century. My (off-the-cuff) thoughts on this topic in my next blog post.

10 thoughts on “A sense of place in Howard County? ctd.

  1. wildelakemike

    Good post. Gets one thinking early in the morning!

    One issue about which we may disagree was the original purpose for Columbia. Not wanting to invoke Jim Rouse’s intentions too often, Rouse was not building just a “better suburb.” He hoped to build a “New City.”

    What was a New City? Certainly, an entity supported by suburban living, exemplified in the villages of Columbia. But the core of Columbia, the Town Center, was always meant to be a denser amalgam of residences, businesses and retail.

    For example, Rouse built the American City Building and what is now the Columbia Association Building to give that sense of place you describe, and both were rather substantial high-rises for 1967. Additional high-rises were built during Jim Rouse’s tenure, and, no doubt, if the GE Appliance Park was not sold back to Rouse in 1988, downtown Columbia would have been built out long ago. And, it would have looked like a city, not like a suburb. Indeed, when I first leased office space in downtown Columbia in 1987, the leasing agent proudly proclaimed that there would be 15 additional high-rises built over the next several years, including some residential high-rises. In fact, only four of those 15 additional buildings were ever built due to Gateway.

    So, we were to be a city all along, at least in the core of Columbia. The post-Jim Rouse version of the Rouse Company changed all that when it developed Gateway. So, it’s now downtown Columbia’s turn to seek its own identity – the New City Jim Rouse always envisioned.

  2. hecker Post author

    wildelakemike: Thanks for your usual thoughtful comments. You make some good points here, and I don’t mean to deny Rouse’s interest in promoting city life in the context of Columbia. However I would counter as follows:

    First, Columbia’s city-like aspects, even if they’d been expanded, strike me as basically a suburban take on a city: higher density, yes, but at heart a tamed version of what an actual city would be like. (Note that I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, as I’ll discuss in my next post.) It’s similar I think to what Rouse’s “festival marketplaces” turned out to be, namely an urban concept reimagined to appeal to suburban sensibilities.

    Second, whatever Rouse’s original intentions regarding higher-density, they were not followed through on. From my point of view this indicates that creating a “new American city” was in the end not essential to the view of Columbia as it evolved in the minds of its developers and its residents. As we say in sales, it was a “nice to have”, not a “must have”.

  3. 0bject

    Nice writing, and I’m going to be thinking about it, Frank. Here’s a question that I’ve thought about in the past. Does it have to be a ‘sense’ of place, or can it simply be ‘place’ that something somewhere has?

    A similar question might be, can a person have ‘humor’, or only a ‘sense’ of humor?

    ‘Place’ is often associated with antiquity or history. Rivers have place. Ellicott City is a place made up of many historical places, many senses of place.

    One challenge would be, can we create new places that have senses of place?

  4. 0bject

    Further thinking about this, what are the variables that comprise a sense of place?

    Uniqueness & desirability — the latter of which is going to be different for different people. To some people, HoCo is too crowded; to others it’s too isolated.

    Natural, geological or ecological diversity, water, physical beauty including buildings & homes, transportation, etc. History, commerce, ethnicity & spirituality.

    Not particulary helpful, but Wikipedia has this to say about ‘placelessness’ …

    … Places that lack a “sense of place” are sometimes referred to as “placeless” or “inauthentic.” Placeless landscapes are those that have no special relationship to the places in which they are located—they could be anywhere. Roadside strip shopping malls, gas/petrol stations and convenience stores, fast food chains, and chain department stores are often cited as examples of placeless landscape elements. Even some historic sites or districts that have been heavily commercialized (commodious) for tourism and new housing estates are sometimes defined as having lost their sense of place. A classic description of such placeless places is Gertrude Stein’s “there is no there there” …


    1. hecker Post author

      0bject: Thanks for the comment, and also for the Wikipedia link. You’ve prompted me to think more closely about what I mean by “sense of place”. Rather than respond here I’ll probably make that the subject of my next blog post.

    1. hecker Post author

      SharonG: Rather than trying to do an off-the-cuff definition of “low income inequality” I’ll simply point you to a series of posts I wrote on how income inequality is measured and how Howard County rates compared to other jurisdictions.

  5. 0bject


    Nice meeting you tonight & @JessieX & @HocoBlogs at the Pure Wine Cafe. Many more good talks to come!


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