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Reimagining 'New Town' Columbia as a New City

I first addressed this question in 1989 in an article for Columbia magazine and tried again last week when I was invited to give a talk, "Becoming a City: Lessons for Downtown Columbia."

Conditions that shaped Rouse's vision and the Columbia plan in the 1960s have changed profoundly. The majority of American households are not nuclear families. Increasingly, people who once might have shunned cities and willingly mowed lawns appreciate urban amenities.

Rebuilding the Town Center could make tomorrow's Columbia more vibrant and more competitive with other communities as a place to live, work, and find cultural, social and entertainment opportunities.

Principles and practices of town planning and urban design also have evolved since the 1960s. We know that compact, mixed-use development helps improve the planet while yielding more attractive, walkable environments. With viable transportation alternatives, densely built neighborhoods can reduce automobile usage. Green design applied to cities as well as buildings saves energy, conserves natural resources, decreases carbon emissions, and reduces air and water pollution.

And we have rediscovered the social, cultural and aesthetic value of well-designed, interconnected streets, civic spaces and space-making architecture. We appreciate design that imparts a coherent sense of place, order and identity.

Thus, which choice makes the most sense: preserving the form and function of Columbia Town Center as originally envisioned in the 1960s or embracing a vision to create a vital downtown for the 21st century? Given today's circumstances and tomorrow's needs, the latter is the only sensible response.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.


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