Finding Columbia's future

Revamp of area's best-known planned community can offer an example for the region

February 16, 2010|By Ned Tillman

Howard County has taken a big step toward the wholesale redevelopment of downtown Columbia, one of the best-known planned cities of the 20th Century. The County Council has passed new zoning, largely accepting the plans of the principal land owner and proposed developer, General Growth Properties.

This 45-year-old suburban development built around a mall will now become a true city -- and if the plans can be achieved, a "sustainable" city at that. Its progress should be closely watched by all the neighboring jurisdictions, because the approach in Columbia might prove to be an example for future development throughout much of Central Maryland -- and beyond.

Many of the issues faced by Columbia, including mixed-use communities, affordable housing, transportation, creation of a cultural district, and preservation and restoration of landmark open spaces, are similar to challenges faced by other communities. During the zoning process, some issues have gotten clearer definition; others have not. They won't be resolved to everyone's liking, but only time will tell whether the implementation and regulatory oversight will be adequate to meet the dreams of the community.

With the passing of the zoning milestone, there is now a lot of work to be done in committees, in partnerships and with new and existing nonprofits. There are environmental problems waiting to be fixed, a community to be energized, and yes, a city to be built. So it's time for the citizens of Howard County to take full advantage of this opportunity to repair the sins of the past and try to create a healthier and more sustainable city for the future.

From an environmental point of view, this is the time to restore some of the natural processes that we need to help us clean up our water, our air and our open spaces so our children, our citizens and our businesses are healthier. Columbia, like most of the watershed, was built with inadequate and now-outdated storm water management systems. Storm water runoff from parking lots and from all the impervious surfaces found in towns and suburbs like Columbia has damaged our streams and has been a major contributor to the collapse of the Chesapeake Bay. The way we manage our storm water is just one of the environmental fixes that can be accomplished with enlightened redevelopment.

From a social point of view, this is an opportunity to build a downtown not purely around a commercial mall but around a "central park" and a revitalized lakefront where people can come together and build a greater sense of community. Studies show that a daily walk through a natural environment results in happier, healthier, more creative and more productive children and employees. This close access and enjoyment of nature will lower family, business, and community health costs. Redevelopment is a time to build an infrastructure that incorporates a welcoming outdoor environment that encourages us all to get out of our cars and homes and build a stronger sense of community. A healthy outdoors is certainly one amenity well worth its cost to preserve, restore and enhance during redevelopment.

From an economic point of view, this is also the time to build our businesses of the future. The redevelopment process should support businesses that are truly sustainable and know the importance of balancing economic, social and environmental issues in a way that protects the future for all of us. Some of these may be green sector businesses, but all of them should be encouraged to be leaders in the sustainability movement and incorporate best environmental practices into everything that they do. We must build businesses that we can all be proud to support because they have the whole community's interest at heart.

The next 30 years will see many changes, and Columbia needs to create a stimulating environment that not only attracts the best and the brightest but also motivates the current residents and businesses of Columbia to be their best.

Is this going to be easy? Of course not. Restoring of our infrastructure, regenerating of our woods and streams and creating a setting for nourishing community and business is never easy. But today, in Columbia, we have a shot at it. The Sustainability Framework proposed by General Growth Properties (developed by Biohabitats) is a good one. Every town should be blessed with such a plan. It sets a vision for redevelopment that focuses on the importance of the environment, water quality, non-auto transportation, carbon neutrality, a diverse ecology, and reducing waste. I encourage everyone to read these goals (

Columbia is building a city that will outlast the carbon economy and everyone now living there. The goal should be to lay out an infrastructure that will last -- and more importantly, one that will help all of its residents create a more sustainable future.

Ned Tillman is the author of "The Chesapeake Watershed: A sense of place and a call to action" and chairman of the Howard County Environmental Sustainability Board. His e-mail is nedtillmanƒ

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