Howard County and the 21st century suburb

10 minute read

In a recent post I opined that three things made Columbia (and by extension Howard County) the kind of place it was and (to a greater or lesser degree) still is:

  • It was a better suburb, relative to other suburbs.

  • It had a more socially diverse and inclusive environment, again relative to other suburbs.

  • It had a prosperous economy driven by steadily growing government spending.

No sooner had I done that post than the Columbia 2.0 blog quoted Jim Rouse on the first goal of Columbia: “To provide a real City – not just a better suburb … [emphasis added]. It was as if Rouse himself had risen from the grave to contradict me. (And wildelakemike further reinforced the point in his comment on my post.)

Well, far be it from me to do battle with the ghost of Jim Rouse and the very much alive wildelakemike, but I will stand by my comment in response to wildelakemike:

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. ... 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.

Whatever happens with town center redevelopment or development elsewhere in Howard County, Columbia is certainly not going to turn into a city like Baltimore. It’s not even clear that Columbia will or could become a city like Bethesda or Rockville. (Most notably, the prospects for a true mass transit system in Columbia are iffy to say the least.) And of course Howard County as a whole will almost certainly remain predominantly suburban in character, no matter what happens in Columbia proper.

But that’s OK. A lot of people like the suburbs, and even allowing for higher gas prices and other factors it’s likely that suburban life will continue to be attractive to many. The key for Howard County is to continue to be a better suburb: better than it is now, better than other Baltimore-Washington suburbs as they are today, and better than those other suburbs as they might evolve in future.

How might this be done? As will become apparent, I don’t know a lot about the fine points of suburban planning (although I may try to learn more if I stay interested in this subject), but here are some off-the-cuff ideas, offered not because I think they’re authoritative answers but more in the spirit of encouraging constructive dialogue:

Maintain relative advantages in the core suburban selling points. I see the two most important of these being security and education: Having a (perceived to be) safe environment in which to raise children, coupled with a taxpayer-supported school system to provide them a (perceived to be) good education. (I say perceived to be because perception and reality are not always in sync; see my comment below.) The main task here is to preserve these attributes in a time during which the county will likely come under increased fiscal pressure due to rising costs and an economy that will likely be relatively stagnant compared to past years.

This doesn’t mean blindly continuing business as usual in terms of funding and strategy. In the realm of education in particular there are going to be lots of things happening in the next 10-20 years that will shake things up, including the growth of online education as a major complement to in-classroom instruction. During times of stagnant government revenues we’ll need to look for ever more productive ways to leverage school and public safety funding.

I think it will be better if the county can do that from a position of fiscal strength, so that essential county services are preserved; if such services go downhill it will be very difficulty to reverse adverse perceptions on the part of individuals or businesses considering relocating to Howard County. (For a good example of this problem see the recent Urbanite article about trying to demonstrate to people that many Baltimore public schools are in reality pretty good.)

Provide more opportunities to work, shop, and play locally. Although Baltimore and DC haven’t moved in terms of actual distance, as a practical matter traffic congestion is causing them to recede further and further over the horizon as time goes on. This effect is particularly pronounced in the case of DC and its suburbs. Because of the nature of my job I travel all over the DC metro area, and it’s astonishing how travel times have lengthened, especially for return trips in the afternoon and evening; from where I live in Ellicott City I’m now over an hour away from Bethesda and the close-in Maryland suburbs, over an hour and a half away from downtown DC, and (at least for the return trip) over two hours away from Reston, Herndon, and other northern Virginia locations.

In my opinion that makes it all the more important to foster employment growth and commercial development within Columbia and Howard County, so that there’s a critical mass of opportunities to live, work, and spend leisure time nearby. Some people are concerned that the planned Columbia Town Center development and other initiatives will increase traffic congestion by both increasing the local population and attracting commuters from elsewhere. That may be true, but I think the alternative is worse: I’d rather deal with some localized congestion commuting to a job within Howard County than have to drive a ways out of the county and then have to deal with equivalent or worse local congestion at my destination.

Ruthlessly reimagine traditional features of Columbia and the county at large. A good example here is the set of village centers in Columbia. Whatever role they might have played in the original vision of Columbia, to an outsider coming into Columbia today they are simply strip shopping centers that are inconveniently located. For better or worse increased mobility on the part of Columbia’s residents has altered the basic economic equation for the village centers: the more village residents shop outside the village, the more the centers need to attract custom from non-village residents in order to survive.

To me this sounds the death knell for the idea promoted by Alan Klein and others that certain services, such as a basic grocery store be considered required elements in a Columbia village center. A basic grocery is worse than useless in attracting outside business; far better in my opinion to provide a non-traditional grocery store that can attract significant outside business while still serving village residents. Other ways to differentiate village centers might include one-of-a-kind restaurants, boutiques, and other services, live/work spaces or coworking spaces.

I have no idea whether any of these might be sufficient to keep the village centers viable for the long term, especially the older and more inconveniently located ones. For at least some village centers it might be better to wipe the slate clean and start over rather than keep them on life support. And if preserving village centers as they were is truly important to preserving the vision of Columbia then CA or the county can consider subsidizing some of them or even buying them out to be used for public purposes. Maybe if all else fails they can even turn Wilde Lake Village Center into a living museum of Columbia, complete with Jim Rouse impersonator and interpretive guides.

Create attractive starter neighborhoods for families of modest means looking to move up into Howard County. There’s been a lot of discussion about having affordable housing as part of the new Columbia Town Center development, as opposed to having it be limited to the supposed wealthy few. I won’t quibble with the sentiment behind this, but the practicality of it is another matter. To the extent that Columbia in general, and Town Center in particular, become more attractive places to live, they will also be more expensive places to live, as market demand combined with relatively limited supply drives up prices. This convergence of people willing to spend serious money is exactly what makes it attractive to developers like GGP to make a bet on Columbia and Howard County; to quote Jim Rouse again, profit … was our primary objective, and nothing has changed in that regard.

Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t the Route 1 corridor a better place for truly affordable housing? I don’t mean this in a let’s put those folks out of sight across I-95 sort of way. I’m talking about fully integrating the Route 1 corridor as part of Howard County, including having as full a range of housing, shopping, and employment opportunities as elsewhere in the county, just more affordable. In sum, we want the neighborhoods along Route 1 to be the sort of places where families of modest means can aspire to live, places that partake in all the positive features that make Howard County a better suburb.

Upgrade the architecture a bit. One of the things that goes into a sense of place is the built environment of a community, both at the macro-scale (large architectural icons that brand a locale, like the Empire State Building in New York) and at the micro-scale (the street-level mix of office, retail, and residential buildings). Unfortunately Columbia had the misfortune to be built during the 60s and 70s, an era not known for architectural excellence. It’s pretty sad when your major claim to architectural distinction is a bit of Frank Gehry apprentice work. We can and should do better.

Unfortunately in practice Columbia and Howard County have very little chance of emulating Columbus, Indiana, and being home to world-class architecture in a suburban context. Howard County lacks the combination of truly wealthy philanthropists and status-seeking private-sector employers that has driven showcase architecture in Columbus and elsewhere, and given fiscal constraints governments cannot take up their mantle as architectural patrons (as they have done in Europe, for example). Things are even more bleak on the residential side, since both home buyers and home builders are notoriously conservative when it comes to architectural innovation.

Beyond continuing to press developers to be just a tad more adventurous, perhaps the best approach might simply be to limit the extent to which any one architectural vision and design scheme is carried out, whether in Columbia Town Center or elsewhere. This is the secret to many cities, for example: There’s enough variety that on any few blocks there’s a good chance of finding one or two architectural gems (relatively speaking), and whatever clunkers exist aren’t big enough to ruin the whole area.

Foster a few extras that are unique to Columbia and Howard County. In a comment to a previous post of mine Columbia 20something mentioned wanting to have some aspects of Howard County that were truly special and one of a kind:

There need to be unique traits that really make the town come alive. ... concepts like uniformity and replicable have no place in creating a destination. ... Columbia needs to shift away from being simply a better suburb to being a unique destination and a unique home.

Such a sense of uniqueness could be associated with particular places, particular events, or other features of county living.

Being one of a kind, these are the sort of things that can make a significant contribution to creating a true sense of place. However they’re also the hardest things to plan or predict in advance. As Columbia 20something noted, stereotypical planning can kill the very uniqueness it seeks to foster. (This is also the crux of the argument against Richard Florida-style creative class economic development strategies.)

In the end, unless it’s blessed with extraordinary geographic features the sense of uniqueness about a place arises mostly from how it’s evolved through its own unique and idiosyncratic history, and that is in large part of function of the unique and idiosyncratic people who lived there and made it what it was and is. So if we want one-of-a-kind attractions perhaps the only way to get there is to attract and be welcoming to one-of-a-kind people and then step back and see what happens.

That’s a good lead-in to the next article planned for this series, which will address how to translate into the 21st century the values of social tolerance, diversity, and inclusiveness that formed part of the founding vision of Columbia.