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.

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