Is Columbia, Md., really a spirit-enriching secular city?

I am not a huge fan of Utopian visions, but I have always had a fond place in my heart for the dreamers who have invested time and money in the movement known as New Urbanism. I love older neighborhoods that are close to shopping areas, especially those that have retained their old trees, wide sidewalks and other evidence that human life existed before automobiles.

So I read with great interest that recent news feature on the front page of the newspaper that lands in my front yard (here in a classic blue-collar community well inside the vast ring of Baltimore suburbs) that focused on the history of Columbia, Md. This sort-of community was born 50 years ago in burst of idealistic, truly liberal fervor and lots of money from founder James W. Rouse.

The goal, of course, was to built the perfect planned city in between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., one that would feature all the best elements of life while trying to avoid as much nasty stuff as possible.

The government planners and experts are still working on that, according to The Baltimore Sun. We need to start with the sentiment at the very beginning:

Ian Kennedy’s short walk to lunch from his office in Columbia’s Town Center takes him through shopping mall parking lots and a parking garage — or along a sidewalk where lampposts block the way.

It’s enough to make him feel that as a pedestrian in a car-centric community, he’s in an “alien environment. … A man on the moon, there are times you feel that way. Almost like you’re trespassing,” he said.

Perhaps that’s not what Columbia founder James W. Rouse had in mind in his quest to create a new breed of city to nurture the human spirit. Fifty years after Rouse announced that his company had bought 14,100 acres in Howard County and was going to build a planned community, the latest effort to fulfill that aspiration has just begun.

The long and the short of this story is that the dang shopping mall remains at the heart of the community, not real people living in real homes and working in a network of easily accessible jobs.

The quest for the perfect community, one built around the elements of life that bring people together and “nurture the human spirit” remains unfinished. Readers learn that a true city needs a true downtown and, alas, that downtown is still the “doughnut hole” in the middle of the community.

As I read the story, I kept trying to find a list of the essential elements that go into any New Urbanism project, any attempt to allow real communities of real people to flourish in real neighborhoods that are within range of walkers, cyclists, etc. There is no list of this kind in the story.

This raises an interesting question: To the idealists who planned this non-city city, what were the essential elements that went into the plan? What are the essential institutions that help create the ties that bind, that bring people together around matters of the spirit?

You can probably sense where I am going with this.

Right. Where do religious congregations fit into all of this idealism?

This is an especially crucial question in light of the follow passage in the Sun report. Rouse, you see, wanted to erase some of the lines that normally divide people in American life.

On Oct. 30, 1963, Rouse issued a four-page news release announcing that he was the man behind more than 140 farmland purchases made over the course of about nine months of frantic buying under straw company names: Farmingdale Inc., Potomac Estates Inc., Serenity Acres Inc., among others.

Rouse hoped to avoid alarming his audience, so he never used the word “city” in that release, or in his remarks to the three county commissioners, whom he had briefed in a public meeting the day before. He certainly never mentioned his dream of a racially integrated community, not while he was beginning the task of winning support for a project in a county still in the midst of public school desegregation.

He wrote in the release and told the commissioners that his purpose was to create a “community,” and he emphasized his intention to preserve natural features, create lakes, parks and “greenbelts that will separate and give identity, scale and protection to the developed areas.” …

Rouse, who had built the country’s second indoor shopping center in Anne Arundel County, made clear that he had no specific plan, but he soon assembled a team of 13 academics and planners to work on it. They came up with four goals: respect the land; create a place to encourage human growth; create a “whole city,” not just a suburb; and make a profit.

To make a long story short, the story never mentions churches or synagogues at all (the issue of Orthodox Judaism is always interesting, when one is talking about planned communities).

What I can’t figure out is whether this holy ghost in a story about idealistic, spirit-enriching community life is a result of blinders at the Sun or among the planners behind the ongoing Columbia project.

Nevertheless, it’s a strange American community that is completely devoid of religion — like this story.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • David

    While I have never lived in Columbia, I have spent a fair amount of time there, as my parents lived there for around 25 years (after I had already left home). Yes, there are churches there (including a Jewish synagogue, if I recall correctly). The most annoying part of the town is that stores cannot display signs, other than on their building. When combined with the trees, it can be next to impossible to find anything there (except the mall).

    • tmatt

      So limits on church signs too?

  • Darren Blair

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints establishes boundaries for each individual congregation; everyone who lives within that boundary attends that congregation unless they have permission otherwise. This obligates individual members to worship with their neighbors, no matter how much they may want to avoid them.

    As part of this, every square inch of the planet is within the boundary of some LDS congregation somewhere. And according to the Meetinghouse Locator at, there *are* three LDS congregations that service the city of Columbia. The main family congregation and the “young single adult” congregation (18 – 30, not married) meet out of the chapel in Clarksville, while the Spanish-language congregation meets out of the chapel in Ellicott City.

    In that sense, Columbia isn’t “devoid of religion” as the article may suggest, but rather there appears to be a fairly decent Mormon populace in and around the city.

  • tmatt

    Very interesting note from a reader who did not want name to be used:

    When Columbia, MD was planned, the ideal was for all groups to get along. As such, interfaith worship centers to created. Multiple congregations of various faiths were to use these community-owned common spaces for worship. You can see the web sites for some at the following links and see all the “non-paleoorthodox” groups that share the spaces.

    Drive by these places. Very small references to any of the religious bodies meeting there. …

    One of the largest ghosts may be the fact that the town zoned out any religious edifices, wanting all to “worship together”,and as a result makes it impossible for any religious group that has not fully embraced the spirit of the age to worship within its boundaries.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Wouldn’t that be against the First Amendment? It seems to me that it would be, but it also seems as if there are all kinds of other issues that this kind of forced planning raises. Interesting that the paper ignored those.

      • wlinden

        Nowadays, it would surely bring a cause for a RLUIPA action… If that does not impinge on “land use”, what does?

    • hcat

      Irvine, California, “forgot” to include churches in its plan, but later on they set aside one street for the purpose.

      • hcat

        Seaside, Florida, also has one of those “interfaith” churches that no real religion would ever want to use. When will they learn that there is no such thing as “religion” only religions?

  • kmbold

    The planned “community” in Venice, California seems to be for young “singles” and married couples who have no children. No place for children to play, just space for self-centered overgrown children to drink lattes and beer, check their infernal iPhones, and, presumably, hook up. Churches? What are they?

    • hcat

      Playa Vista isn’t big like Irvine is.

  • K. R.

    I have a friend from Columbia who is Roman Catholic; when she was planning her wedding, she and the man she was marrying shopped around for another Roman Catholic church in the Baltimore area for the wedding for the simple reason that she didn’t want to be married in her home parish in Columbia, because it met in one of those interfaith centers and she found the physical environment uninspiring.

  • stevewe

    This makes me wonder about the opposite–what designs emerged from various faith groups’ attempts to build model communities. Are there any stories out there about how the community being built around Ave Maria University down in Florida? And what would a secular reporter make of it (I do recall some controversy a few years back about where the Catholic church was going).

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      There are actually stories about that. The Naples Daily News did a lot of stuff while the building of the town and school was going on and again when the last recession hit because of how it seriously decreased the number of people who were headed there, but I can’t easily find the links.

  • Charles Wingate

    No story of the utopianism that was Columbia is complete without talking about the largely failed interfaith center idea and Rouse’s own Episcopal faith. I believe he attended Christ Church, which is much, much older than anything else around (the parish goes back into the 1730s). In the early 1980s churches started building on the in-parcels around the fringes that the Rouse Company had failed to acquire, so that there is something of a ring of churches around the New Town area but no real signs of faith in its center. The primary Catholic parish, St. Louis in Clarksville on the western edge, has grown so much that they now have three church buildings on their property as well as a big primary school.