Columbia, Md., has made headlines twice in just a few weeks — and for good reason.
The fairly new locale in terms of American history (in fact, a census-designated place in Howard County), established in 1967, recently topped the 2022 list of “Best Place to Live” in Maryland, as well as ranked No. 6 as “Best Places to Live” in the United States in “Money” magazine. It was also named the ”Safest City in America” in a recent WalletHub study.
The “Money” magazine list ranked 1,370 places in the country based on nine metrics, including diversity, cost of living and quality of life, with the WalletHub study doing the same with 180-plus cities across 42 different criteria.
Of the categories in the WalletHub study, Columbia ranked as having the smallest number of traffic fatalities; the lowest hurricane storm-surge risk level and wildfire risk; and the smallest presence of terrorist attacks in the area with a 0% rate. The city also ranked third in the number of residents currently vaccinated against COVID-19; a whopping 89.13% having gotten the vaccine.
Previously, Columbia was ranked the 15th “Best Place to Live” in America by livability.com and has consistently appeared in “Money” magazine’s yearly ranking. (Full disclosure: It is also the home of the new offices of the “Baltimore Jewish Times.”)
“Columbia, while it’s very diverse, is still basically a middle-class culture,” said Darla Strouse, a representative of the Columbia-based Oakland Mills Interfaith Center who has lived in the city with her husband for 50 years. “I think that’s very special. Not to say that everyone here is in the same economic category, but I think that people who live here have respect for the community and its residents.”
‘A positive impact on the community’
The history of Columbia’s beginnings is rather noteworthy, a story in itself. Founded in 1967 by real estate developer James W. Rouse, Columbia was proposed as a planned city made up of 10 village-like neighborhoods. Each village was built around community necessities such as schools, shopping centers and places of worship, and makes use of nature by incorporating walking trails and parks.
Rouse’s Community Research and Development, Inc. bought more than 14,000 unoccupied acres in Howard County with the intent of building a city there. In a few years’ time, the area transformed from rural field lands into a populated place.
“I think the founding ethos of Columbia has absolutely made a positive impact on the community throughout the years, and it continues to this day,” said Joel Frankel, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County. “James Rouse’s vision to create a community that emphasizes socioeconomic and racial equity permeates through everything that happens in Columbia — from prioritizing public education to investing in public spaces such as the parks and the trail system in the area.”
‘Interfaith concept is unique’
Situated between the hubs of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Columbia also makes it convenient for residents who work in or want to travel to either major urban area.
“It’s a small city with a much larger feeling,” stated Strouse. “It’s got the best of both areas. If I want to go to museums [for example], I can just drive down to Washington.”
Strouse also cited Columbia’s overall diversity.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau as of 2021, the population is 50% white, 27% Black, 13% Asian and 9% Hispanic or Latino.
The religious diversity is further worth noting. Four of Columbia’s villages have interfaith centers that consist of multiple congregations of different religions, which works to encourage cooperation among denominations.
“The interfaith concept is somewhat unique; I really don’t know if there’s something like it elsewhere,” said Strouse, a member of Bet Aviv in the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center. “It’s a really nice opportunity for people to learn about other faiths and work together to help the populations in need here.”
Of the area’s Jewish population, Frankel pointed out that “the most attractive part of the Jewish community in Columbia and Howard County is how welcoming people are. Our Jewish community here is gracious, thoughtful and willing to step up to ensure that people can be Jewish in the ways they choose to be.”