A young couple stands under the double fountain for a selfie in downtown Columbia, while another couple sits on the steps of the fountain for their selfie. (Yacouba Tanou /For The Washington Post)

In an era when city living is virtually synonymous with cool, Columbia, Md., emanates suburban uncool. Located off U.S. Route 29 between Washington and Baltimore, Columbia is not a tight grid on the map, but a plate of spaghetti — a tangle of crooked parkways and cul-de-sacs. Cities reach for the sky, but Columbia hugs the ground, with shopping centers and man-made lakes passing for landmarks. In cities, 20-somethings get together at cafes for brunch; in Columbia, 40-somethings catch up while watching their kids at the pool or playground. Columbia’s version of a city hall is a nondescript building in an office park. The most colorful thing about the place is its twee street names, chosen from literature: Rivendell Lane, Marble Faun Lane, Rocksparkle Row.

Even residents agree that Columbia is, well, a little dull. “When we moved here, my boyfriend said, ‘The only thing you can really say about Columbia is that it’s convenient,’ ” notes Adrienne Neff, a 30-year-old resident who works at Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville. Van Doan, a 46-year-old lawyer who also lives in Columbia, recalls that, at first, “it struck me as a ‘Stepford Wives’ kind of place.”

Blandness is not usually associated with utopias. But while Columbia might appear bland on the surface, it was very much the product of idealism. The town’s developer, James Rouse, referred to it as “the next America.” When he set out to build the town in the 1960s, suburbs were already seen as soulless sprawl. Rouse’s vision was a response to that.

As a developer, he was attuned to the market. He chose the location based on research that predicted the Baltimore-Washington region would grow faster than anywhere else east of the Mississippi. And when it came to design, he observed that if architecture critics praised Columbia, it would be a flop — no one would buy the houses. (He was proved right when the country entered a recession in the mid-1970s and the houses kept selling, albeit slowly.) But Rouse was also ahead of his time in his pursuit of an ecologically sensitive, mixed-income and colorblind community in an era when redlining was common. And Columbia’s success on those fronts stands out next to most of the planned communities that came after it.

In 1980, Rouse shared a stage at a conference with the influential urbanist Jane Jacobs, who wrote “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” She detested the likes of Columbia as sterile experiments in social engineering. Real cities, she argued, develop an organic complexity and diversity over time, no thanks to overweening planners. At the conference, Rouse approvingly quoted the famous words of architect Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Jacobs responded: “Funny, big plans never stirred women’s blood. Women have always been willing to consider little plans.” She brought down the house.

According to current urbanist thinking, which grew out of Jacobs’s ideas, Columbia gets almost everything wrong. It is diffuse rather than dense and planned around cars. Streets dead-end instead of connect and offer little worth looking at. Public transportation is bare bones. The architecture is short on old rowhouses and even on the stylish glass walls and butterfly roofs of mid-century modernism, but long on brown brick and ’70s mock-chalets. And of course, it’s 15 whole miles from the nearest big city.

But as Columbia marks the 50th anniversary since the first residents moved in, it has become clear that Rouse got some important things right. As progressive urban planners have turned their attention to the suburbs, they’ve striven to achieve a lot of the same things Columbia already has. The unincorporated town of 100,000 is prosperous and more varied racially and economically than many revitalized urban neighborhoods in cities like New York, Washington and San Francisco, which have become islands of extreme wealth. It turns out that stable, diverse, flourishing communities can exist without short city blocks, warehouses-turned-lofts and beer gardens — and Columbia is the proof.

Former Rouse headquarters by Lake Kittamaqundi in downtown Columbia. (Yacouba Tanou/For The Washington Post )

When agents for Rouse began secretly buying big parcels of land in 1963, Howard County was a quiet patchwork of farms. Subdivisions had just begun to sprout among the rows of corn. Rouse, then in his late 40s, had found success pioneering an innovation of the previous decade, the shopping mall. Along the way, he had become deeply interested in fixing urban problems. Cities like Baltimore, where he then lived, were being hollowed out by white flight as hastily built tract suburbs multiplied on their outskirts. There had to be a better way, Rouse thought, a happy medium between metropolises that were dysfunctional and alienating, and sprawl that was ugly, inefficient and soulless. He was going to prove it by building it.

When Rouse unveiled his plan in late 1964, Howard County’s zoning code forbade townhouses and apartments, and lots could be no smaller than half an acre. Officials rejected the zoning amendment the Rouse Co. proposed. This put Rouse in the position of the underdog, and the public rallied behind him. (It didn’t hurt that he talked like the native Marylander he was, from Easton.) The county caved, and his special zoning was adopted. It was a make-or-break condition: Instead of carving up the land into single-use slices, with houses here, apartments there, and stores and workplaces farther away, the Columbia plan strategically combined them to create a “balanced community.”

If that seems sensible now, it was forward-looking then. Suburban development was a frenzied, tail-wags-the-dog affair in the ’60s. Usually a developer would buy a farm and put up a few hundred houses, while other developers did the same around him. Then, playing catch-up, local governments would scramble to build schools, places to shop and eat, and even basic infrastructure like paved roads and sewage lines. Thinking holistically or far ahead was impossible; concepts like cultural life and the public square went out the window.

“Our cities grow by sheer chance,” Rouse complained in a speech in 1966. “Bits and pieces of a city are splattered across the landscape. By this irrational process, non-communities are born — formless places without order, beauty or reason, places with no visible respect for people or the land.” Columbia would be different: It was modeled after New Towns — self-contained, comprehensively planned mini-cities that spread across Europe after World War II and were championed by intellectuals as an alternative to sprawl.

Visitors to the Columbia lakefront take advantage of the paddleboat rental to explore Lake Kittamaqundi. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)

Rouse was drawn to working at bird’s-eye scale. “People will rise to the big and dramatically good — they will yawn at the timid, the unconvincing,” he told Life magazine. But more important, he believed that the New Town approach would produce a humane environment in which people would thrive. Columbia would be “a garden for growing people,” he promised, where anyone with a yearning — whatever their race, wealth or religious beliefs — could reach their full potential.

To achieve that, Rouse had to confront the racial bias that by then was entrenched in the housing market. After World War II, the Federal Housing Administration subsidized white-only suburban developments like Levittown, N.Y., whose racial legacy loomed over its 50th anniversary celebration in 1997. When Rouse learned that a builder was steering white buyers away from cul-de-sacs with homes that had been sold to black families, he chose to stop selling lots to that builder.

Some of the early residents were attracted by Columbia’s progressive ideals. Charles and Barbara Russell, an interracial couple, had the first baby born in the town. George Clack was a junior State Department employee when he arrived with his wife, Susan, in 1974. “We were very much sold on what would nowadays be called the diversity of the city,” George told me.

The “Columbia concept” was innovative in a number of other ways. Instead of having churches or temples, religious denominations shared interfaith centers. (Rouse thought each denomination getting its own plot was a waste of land.) There was even a community health plan that was an early version of an HMO. To maintain open spaces and public facilities, Rouse established the Columbia Association, a nonprofit whose board is elected by residents. The association acts as a quasi-government for the unincorporated town, with hundreds of employees paid through resident dues.

The town was organized but diffuse. Six loosely formed villages, each with a small shopping center and high school, were arranged around the Town Center, whose nucleus was the mall. The village centers catered to residents’ everyday needs, with grocery stores, barber shops, dry cleaners and recreation facilities. Tall signs were forbidden, and power lines were buried to preserve the land’s bucolic appearance. Apartments and townhouses, which were uncommon in suburbs at the time, drew singles, young couples and people with lower incomes than their neighbors in the split-levels and ramblers, a conscious attempt to foster what Rouse and his team called “social mix.” And Columbia was not simply a bedroom community: Rouse Co. executives wooed employers such as General Electric to open offices there.

Not everything worked out perfectly: At one point, Rouse thought he could get corporate executives to move to Columbia alongside their workers, but they largely didn’t. And some of the experiments, such as a minibus system, pilot day-care centers and a women’s center, didn’t pan out. Rouse also fell short of his goal of 10 percent subsidized housing. Still, by 2011, Columbia, flaws and all, had managed to surge past another target of his: a population of 100,000.

Residents Jan Smith, left, and Fred Weaver at a June event for Columbia’s 50th anniversary celebration. Smith, a retired airline pilot, has lived in Columbia for 30 years. Weaver is a retired insurance agent who was among the first people to settle in Columbia. Around town, they’re known as “pioneers.” (Yacouba Tanou /For the Washington Post)

As Rouse expected, the Baltimore-Washington region has boomed, especially Howard County, which grew from a scant 40,000 people in the early ’60s to more than 300,000 today. Columbia’s original settlers, known around town as “pioneers,” marvel at how expensive things have gotten, but a median home price of just over $300,000 is more reasonable than in many places around Washington.

Columbia has very low unemployment, and half of its families earn six-figure incomes. Howard County’s renowned schools are a big draw. The town has not only remained diverse, it has gotten more so: Today it’s 56 percent white, 25 percent black, 11 percent Asian and 8 percent Latino. Columbia’s extensive system of woodland trails is beloved and well used by kids tooling around on their bikes, dog walkers and residents walking to work. In retrospect, Rouse was decades ahead of his time in his concern for ecology and his intuitive grasp of “mixed-use development,” now the bedrock principle of city building.

The town still lacks the fine-grained architecture of Jacobs’s beloved Greenwich Village. But does that matter? Greenwich Village has become an exclusive enclave — Jacobs’s former home sold for $3.3 million in 2009 — and the “sidewalk ballet” that she famously described, with its spontaneous choreography of shopkeepers and schoolchildren, long ago gave way to the strut of the hyper-affluent. Suburbs get a bad rap for homogeneity, but today, Columbia is more racially and economically diverse than Greenwich Village and most wards in Washington.

To be sure, though the stratification of San Francisco or New York feels a long way off, there are still threats to the “social mix” in the form of economic segregation. The original villages near downtown (such as Oakland Mills and Long Reach) have become less affluent compared with the newer outer villages. Of the 12 schools in Howard County that receive Title I funding for low-income students, nine are in Columbia, and they are clustered mainly to the east of Town Center. This concentration of less-affluent neighborhoods has exposed economic and racial fault lines in Columbia and in Howard County.

Officials hope development in Columbia’s downtown will rejuvenate these areas. The developer that owns most of Columbia Town Center, the Howard Hughes Corp., plans 14 million square feet of construction. (For perspective, that’s about two Pentagons’ worth of new real estate.) This “urban village” will include more than 6,000 apartments and condos, as well as office buildings, stores and hotels. There will also be a central library, transit center and fire station, all of them integrating reduced-rent housing units.

When the doughnut hole of its downtown fills in, Columbia will be more like the new White Flint or Tysons Corner. And even Columbia residents aren’t immune to the siren call of urban cool. Michael McCall, president of the Inner Arbor Trust, the nonprofit that built the Chrysalis — an acid-green, avant-garde community band shell next to Merriweather Post Pavilion — says the whole idea of the new facility is to shout loudly and clearly, “We’re not that suburb anymore.”

Photographer Jeffrey Totaro listens to a symphony concerto at the Chrysalis next to Merriweather Post Pavilion. (Yacouba Tanou /For The Washington Post)

A statue of Jim Rouse, right, and brother Bill at Lake Kittamaqundi. During a recent concert, someone decorated the statues with a birthday hat. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)

The injection of urbanism has raised concerns about affordability and ceding Rouse’s ideals to a private developer (which Rouse was too, of course). But a true downtown isn’t a rejection of the original Columbia plan, and in fact was anticipated by it. The semi-dense Town Center and village centers provide a framework for future growth, something that suburbs built higgledy-piggledy lack. Whether Columbia can tame that growth to avoid runaway gentrification isn’t clear. An affordable-housing deal brokered with Howard Hughes was an early effort to fend it off.

On a smaller scale, Rouse and his planners intuited that they could foster a sense of neighborliness through playgrounds and pools, and they were right. Their undeniably child-centric vision forces us to ask why so many cities today sideline kids. You sense just how much the planners thought about family life by sifting through Columbia’s archives: One memo notes it would be good to have families of different races living side by side, “so that kids using the play-ground might feel welcome at that house as they would at other houses abutting that play-ground.” In other words, the humble tot lot was seen as an engine of social progress.

That same earnest mentality pervades the town’s landmarks like “The People Tree,” a sculpture representing a diverse populace reaching skyward together, rooted in the same ground. In the village of Harper’s Choice, a plaque to a community activist intones: “Thoroughness. Fairmindedness. Reasonableness. Leadership.” No wonder Life magazine in 1971 referred to Columbia as “lively, wholesome — and square.”

The sense of collective identity that Rouse hoped for can still be seen today in the lectures,concerts, art fairs and walking tours that make up Columbia’s months-long civic 50th birthday party, which started in March. Gail Holliday, hired by Rouse’s firm in 1967 as an artist-in-residence for the city, is back to retouch metal panels displaying her original posters depicting a hippyish promised land. The posters will be staked around Lake Kittamaqundi downtown. Prints have long been prized by residents, who display them above their mantels.

Together, these signifiers of Columbia pride announce: This place didn’t just happen. We made it. In the end, Rouse’s valuing of nature and of the humane over the hip allowed Columbia to succeed where the recent urbanist revival has stumbled. Columbia is no utopia, yet its failure to meet an impossible standard shouldn’t obscure its real successes. Big plans often founder, but here they worked.

Amanda Kolson Hurley is a writer in Silver Spring, Md.

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