Why do I advocate for diversity and inclusion? Two words come to mind: “Columbia’s Promise.” This also happens to be the title of a new documentary that examines the history of Columbia, Maryland, a planned community that was developed out of farmland 50 years ago as an “open city” during a time of segregation.
I had the good fortune to grow up in this inclusionary bubble of a place called Columbia. Even at a young age, I knew that Columbia was specifically designed to incorporate nature and to eradicate barriers between race, religion and socio-economic circumstances. From our community mailboxes to the interfaith centers, from our walking paths, neighborhood centers, libraries and pools, to our public schools and all levels of affordable housing, James Rouse, the famed developer, and his team conjured up a city that was focused on the betterment of the lives of all its residents. He did this because he understood that diversity and inclusion mattered.
*Image captured from Columbia’s Promise documentary 2019.
Columbia was founded in 1967. It’s hard for many Gen X’ers to recall that in our early years, states like Maryland and Virginia were still segregated, both in practice and in law. In 1964, the year my parents wed, their interracial marriage was illegal in the Commonwealth of Virginia – the Loving v. Virginia case would not be decided for another three years. Thus, it’s no surprise that when they relocated to Maryland from Rochester, NY in 1972 they found this new city located between Washington DC and Baltimore appealing and not just for the affordable housing options.
What started with an inclusive real estate development project created an overall inclusive mindset. In 1972, Columbia resident Mary Stuart garnered national attention when she sued for the right to vote and obtain a driver’s license under her maiden name. It wasn’t until college that I learned Columbia was one of the few areas in the US to provide youth soccer leagues for girls in the early 1970s following the adoption of Title IX. In 1976, Oprah Winfrey, then a correspondent at a Baltimore TV station, picked Columbia to live in “for the grass and trees,” according to biographer Kitty Kelley, but also noted the city’s goal to eliminate segregation of race, religion and income.
While not perfect – its meandering paths through the woods may not be safe by today’s standards, and it has much of the traffic congestion and growing inequities that plague all modern cities – yet, it still wins “best of” places to live and is a testament to the fact that commercial real estate and infrastructure matters. That real estate shapes and tells the story of a community. And investments in infrastructure reflects a communities values.
Columbia, Maryland is why I grew up believing that urban design and inclusivity were two deeply intertwined concepts. And why, over 30 years since I left, and 25 years in a career in an industry that often treated me like an outsider due to my gender, I am still trying to put those two concepts back together.
As a society, we desperately need inclusive and innovative thinking around affordable housing, transportation, infrastructure, and climate change. Zoning laws created 25, 50 and 100 years ago should not be the starting and ending point. NIMBYism and the status quo should not be the rule. Studies have shown that innovative problem-solving happens when diverse groups work together to build something new. We have serious problems with our built environment. We need new and innovative solutions and we need them now.
This is why I advocate for diversity and inclusion for women and other underrepresented populations in commercial real estate and urban development: I’m still trying to keep Columbia’s Promise.
Diane Danielson is the founder of the Future Proof Research Collaborative.