Six members of Work Group, left to right: Nelson Foote, unidentified, Robert Crawford, James W. Rouse, Willard Rouse, and Antonia Handler Chayes, about 1964. (Courtesy of Columbia Maryland Archives, Photograph Collection, PC-PE-0085.)

At a September 1963 conference on The Metropolitan Future at UC Berkeley, James W. Rouse, the esteemed Columbia developer, delivered a paper titled: “It Can Happen Here,” outlining his thoughts on developing cities of the future. The conference was geared toward the population explosion that was anticipated over the next 20 years. Rouse believed that developers and city planners should play a role in creating new cities that avoid rampant societal ills stemming from urban sprawl and rising population growth. He said:

“In our American cities today, we do not have prepared or in process plans that will account for the orderly growth of our population over the next 20 years. If we did have the plans, we would lack the powers to enforce them. If we had the plans and the powers, we would lack architects and urban designers with the sensitive concern – the people-centered attitude – required to fulfill their hope.” He went on to conclude that, “We can’t plan effectively for the future growth of American communities unless we start at the beginning – and that beginning is people.” 

He noted, “The biggest hole in the (urban) planning process in America today is right at the beginning of it.” Rouse offered the audience a series of questions he felt should be asked from the outset of community design and planning to focus the design on the real needs of people. 

Unbeknownst to his audience, Rouse was already acquiring farmland in Howard County, Maryland; and he was hiring his team of urban designers and planners to develop the very type of community he believed was needed to grow people who were “creative, tolerant, and caring,” according to “The City of Hope,” a Baltimore Magazine piece that appeared on-line on the 50th birthday of Columbia. 

Morton Hoppenfeld, an early hire who joined Rouse in April of 1963, said that to his knowledge, this was the first ever “people first” policy of city planning. Hoppenfeld proposed getting as complete a statement as possible about non-physical objectives from a group of consultants in the behavioral sciences. Rouse and his team identified experts from social science fields to help center the planning of Columbia on people. 

The experts were asked one question: What would Columbia need to enhance the lives of every person living there in every aspect of life? 

The experts, known as the Work Group, met to discuss the psycho-social-spiritual needs of people in general to create a thriving community that could grow better than cities of the day that faced urban blight, poverty, sprawl, smog, and unequal access to opportunity for well-being and personal progress and growth.  

Rouse’s idea that building a city and leaving it without some key drivers of success of the individual was not a just exercise; that what was needed was for cities to incorporate individual well-being into the way cities were planned and built. 

He put those ideas and drivers of success into the planning of Columbia, turning his ideas about growing communities and people into reality.

Unless otherwise specified, information about J.W. Rouse was gleaned from information courtesy of Columbia MD Archives.

Angie Latham Kozlowski writes about local history and Howard County. She is also a staff writer for Voices of Laurel. Contact her at [email protected].