01 September 2006

Columbia Compass - Explained

Columbia Compass – Explained

It would seem that in the world of logos and “emblematics” that a visual image should be at once recognizable and easy to interpret. However, there are times when an explanation needs to be provided. Two examples I can think of are the United States Presidential Seal (What’s up with the arrows and olive branches? I think we all know the answer, but we probably needed an explanation before we got it.) and the “33” on the back of each Rolling Rock beer bottle (it is the number of words on the back of the bottle). So maybe some discussion is a good idea.

I created the Columbia Compass because I believe we, as Columbians, may have become somewhat “lost” in our New Town social experiment. We need to navigate back onto the path that James Rouse had marked 40 years ago, and one of the best tools for navigation is a compass.

The compass I have designed is not exactly like a traditional magnetic compass. At the center of the compass is the People Tree, the icon of our community. The compass directions have been replaced by four compass points which I believe are the principles upon which Columbians live. These compass points are as follows: Diversity, Community, Environment and Discovery.


When people speak of Columbia, one of the first words that often comes up is diversity. We are fortunate to live in a community of great racial, ethnic, religious, economic, social, and age diversity. Without diversity, and the intermixing of different peoples through all ten Villages, Columbia would not be a special place.


The word community is another word that frequently comes up in the discussion of Columbia. Columbia is a “planned community.” Because Columbia is not a municipality, it is often referred to in terms of a ‘community’ (e.g. “Columbia is the largest community in Howard County.”), as if calling it a town or city would violate some rule of etiquette.

For the purpose of the compass, community speaks to two things:

1) given the detail of planning put into Columbia, community refers to the built environment. The villages and neighborhoods, the street (and interrelated) path system, and the “organic” (as opposed to natural) amenities such as the green space and lakes.

2) The practice of community. Community is often used to describe many different places, but I believe in Columbia community is practiced. Communities are not just neighborhoods, or Villages, community is the gathering of people for purpose. Within this built environment, Columbians participate within the community at levels that are not seen in most communities. It is my belief that this participation is initially born of necessity. Most new residents in our community need help (as we did when we first arrived) navigating through daily life in this town. As the new arrivals master the daily rhythms, they learn more about other residents and this in turn fosters shared interests. As these shared interests grow, greater participation is achieved. As participation increases, the scope increases to the point at which this once shared interest has become a community interest.


One of the founding principles upon which Columbia was founded was a respect for nature. In this vein, Columbia was designed with open space as a key component. To be clear, some of the open space in Columbia is parking lots, elementary schools, and golf courses; not exactly what an environmentalist would call kind applications to the environment, but on balance, there is substantial green space in Columbia. Over the years, Columbians have taken environmentalism to heart and expanded on the original “respect nature” theme. Many have raised recycling in their homes to almost a religious act.. Although our past is not perfect, we strive to become evermore environmentally sensitive.


One of the things that Columbia shares with few other places in the world is how the resident population interacts with the built environment. I have been told that one of the principals that worked on Columbia, Mort Hoppenfeld had written a paper that said that the Columbian built environment was created on the ideas of discovery and surprise. When I heard this, it instantly clicked in my head what he was talking about. It seems in this town, sometimes while driving, but most often on foot or bicycle, we are in a continual state of discovery. Most amenities in Columbia are not right next to the road, they need to be “discovered” in order to be used. Every time I have ever trekked out onto a path in Columbia, it was never a given what lie ahead. It had to be “discovered.”

One of the related experiences with discovery is the experience of learning. It seems to me that when discovering things, that which is discovered is learned, and this experiential learning becomes ingrained in each Columbian’s life outlook. I would also go so far as to say (in my lay opinion) that the experiential learning that occurs lays the groundwork for cognitive and higher learning. I think this may be the most important aspect of Columbia; because continual learning over a lifetime enriches the community at every level.

Please join me in embracing these principles as we move through this time of change in the city we all love.


Anonymous said...

You have a fabulous perspective -- what a wonderful introduction to what I am sure will be a lively discussion forum.

Evan said...

Still my heart. I think you capture a lot of the Columbia "thing".

Though I must say on the community thing I have always thought community was about how people interact, which is something I find particularly strong in Columbia. I think Columbia has a very strong sense of identity and common bond that its decide has produced. Rouse's work is really quite incredible in how successful it is. Sadly I think it is under attack by people who have lost or don't get your four compass points. I see a lot of talk by those who are in power of current planning that declares these things and are not lived up to in action or detail.

As for your mention of the words town and city: I have always used the word city to refer to Columbia because that has always been my vision from the time I grew up here (that was how I understood Rouse's vision for Columbia), but a city can be done in a way that is true to all of your compass points. The fight of our time here locally is to make sure that the details achieve this staying true to the compass points. I look forward to working towards that goal and getting the details right with you.

Anonymous said...

Bill, you are spot on in your characterization of the Discovery aspect of Columbia. This is something I have always admired about this place, that after 26 years, I'm still finding new nooks and crannies to be explored.

So I'm glad to discover this blog, another expression of the wonder and passion sparked by this unique place.

And I too feel that there is a threat to this aspect, and it comes through both the dagers of stagnation and the lures of convienience that plague so much development rhetoric.

Community is a key concept in all of this, and I agree with the previous commentator in saying that Community is more about how people interact than what specific ends they have in mind.

Relationship over purpose. (Although not necessarily excluding purpose)

To me, a community, as opposed to a town, city, development, or other physical-geographical entity is subjectivly experienced as a sort of end-in-itself relational quality. People doing things together simply for the sake of their being together.

There has been some talk of environment causing or fostering community.

Physical structure and environment may play a role in encouraging community, but I think what is far more the case is: land use, architecture, economic development, property rights and zoning laws being used as tools in power struggles between groups of people with divergent interests.

The questions always must be: Who is this for? Who is doing this? Who is it being done too? Who gains? Who suffers? How is this justified? How do I feel about this? What am I going to do about it?

Discovery, Environment, Communuty, Diversity... who benefits from such ideals, and who would want to see otherwise?

I think in Columbia's case, however, there is far less malevolence at play, and far more simple misunderstanding.
The distain many of the urban planners displayed for our established community symbols, patterns, and places might simply be a case of poor visability.

Who then must be responcible for communicating the worldviews and perpectives of our communities? How are we to establish community relations with our mistaken corperate and professional and governmental bretheren? Most probably through some degree of civility and compromise. But let us never forget that we the people of Columbia are the "deciders", and they the developers and governers and planners compromise with us, not the other way around. Because its our home, our lives, our city or town or village or "census designated place".

Whomever is elected to the positions of significance in the upcoming elections, it is and will be us, the "communiteers" who will deepen and enrich the quality of our place.

Bruce Godfrey said...

Greetings and congratulations from another Maryland blogger! My name is Bruce Godfrey and I am blog-quainted with some of your fellow Howard County bloggers. Feel free to drop my Maryland-wide blog if/as/when the mood strikes you.

Bruce Godfrey