In 1933, British author James Hilton published Lost Horizon, a novel about a mysterious, fictional utopia named Shangri-La. Over time, the term became synonymous with idyllic but isolated places. In 1962, Shangri-La became the code name for a secret proposal to build a 15,000 acre community in rural Howard County; Columbia, MD.

The creator of that secret proposal was James W. Rouse, a Maryland native who dreamed that Columbia would be “a garden for the growing of people.”

At once a real estate developer, philanthropist, and pioneer, Rouse was a staunch believer in the possibilities of positive social impact resulting from the responsible and ethical development of cities. Rouse wished for people to engage with the built environment in such a way as to promote unity and community, believing that the design of a space should never alienate anyone from its use. It was not Rouse’s intention to build an improved version of the suburb, but rather to build a self-sustaining city. His goals in developing Columbia were to create a place where residents could live and work, to respect the land, to create an environment that would foster the growth of its people, and to turn a profit.

Developing Columbia became a social planning and urban planning experiment, unlike anything that had been achieved before. Rouse sought to create a culturally diverse city, where anyone who worked in Columbia could afford to live in Columbia. In many ways, his dream was successful. Columbia is a city in which boasts social and economic diversity, apartments, subsidized housing, and single-family homes share the same neighborhood, landscaping and parks offer residents an escape to nature, businesses have grown, and people live on streets whimsically-named after works of literature.

James Rouse died in 1996 as a result of Lou Gehrig’s disease at 81 years old. His singular legacy as a visionary city-planner can be seen in the lasting success of Columbia and its proud residents.

Columbia’s 50th Celebration

Prior to their 50th Anniversary year in 2017, Preservation Maryland organized a bus tour through Columbia in June of 2016, led by the Columbia Archives. Special thanks to Ellen Bushong, research intern, for her assistance in preparing for this tour and Rachel Rettaliata, communications intern, for organizing our Preservation Month posts. Learn more about our intern program here: