Obituary: James Rouse

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The Independent Online
James Rouse was a visionary of urban renewal who developed the world's first shopping mall in Baltimore, built new towns in the US countryside and used the profits to help generate housing for the poor. An anomaly among developers, he passionately believed in the social benefit of his projects and his innovations forced the reappraisal of suburban growth and inner city organisation.

His most famous development was Columbia, a new town built on 14,000 acres of farmland outside Baltimore in the late Sixties. Based on the concept of racial and economic diversity and intended as a response to the chaotic post-war development of American cities, it was built as a self- contained community organised around nine small "villages", each containing several hundred houses and its own small shopping area. It now has 80,000 residents.

"It's not an attempt at a perfect city or Utopia, but rather an effort to simply develop a better city, an alternative to the mindlessness, the irrationality, the unnecessity of sprawl and clutter as a way of accommodating growth of the American city," he said in 1982.

He made it clear that aesthetics were never the driving force in his design and it was his near-obsessive observation of social patterns which led to many of his innovations. He would watch people walk on the streets, and shop and socialise in public places, and attempted to fashion his designs to promote rather than discourage interaction.

The son of a prosperous canned-foods broker, Rouse was taught to work hard, rising at dawn to tend the family vegetable garden. In 1930 his father died leaving the family of five children with so many debts that the family house had to be sold.

He attended the University of Virginia until 1933 when the Great Depression forced him to work full-time and continue his degree in law by studying at night.

His first job was parking cars in a downtown Baltimore garage. He began his career in 1936 at a branch of Maryland mortgage office which he ran until 1939 before leaving to start his own firm, Moss-Rouse Company, financing single family homes. After the Second World War, which he served out as a lieutenant-commander in the Naval Air Reserve in the Pacific, he expanded his business to finance shopping centres.

By the late 1950s, Rouse was using his profits to develop the nation's first enclosed shopping centre - Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore - coining the term "shopping mall", and thus created the multi-storey mall and food court.

In the 1970s, Rouse, described as an easy-going man with a rumpled appearance, who lived in a house overlooking one of Columbia's man-made lakes, turned his attention to the inner cities which had been largely written off for commercial potential by developers.

He envisioned the marriage of the suburban mall with the more vibrant life of a city street in self-contained areas he termed "festival marketplaces". The first, the Faneuil Hall area in Boston, proved to be exactly what tourists and shoppers craved - a comforting ideal of a town square in the centre of an unfamiliar city.

Though critics charged that the development was too cut off from city life, Fanueil was credited with the renewal of Boston's waterfront, which soon led to the development of similar projects from Baltimore, Philadelphia and the South Street Seaport in New York to Sydney, Australia.

Throughout his career as head of the Rouse Company, one of America's most successful property development companies, he sought not just to make profits but to improve the quality of civic life.

After retirement in 1979 he began what he called "by far the most important work" of his life. The Enterprise Foundation he established sought to provide people with low incomes with good, affordable housing and the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty into the mainstream of American life.

By 1994 the foundation had granted $1.7bn in loans and grants to develop more than 61,000 homes for low-income people and had expanded its charter to organise training programmes, crime-prevention efforts and health-care. He held that helping neighbourhoods recover from years of neglect was not only a moral imperative but cheaper in the long run. "It's not enough to provide housing," Rouse said in 1991. "It's necessary to transform the neighbourhoods themselves."

In presenting Rouse with the nation's highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, last year President Bill Clinton hailed him as an American hero who helped "heal the torn-out heart" of America's cities. "James Rouse's life has been defined by faith in the American spirit," he said.

James Wilson Rouse, property developer: born Easton, Maryland 26 April 1914; married 1941 Elizabeth Winstead (one daughter, two sons), 1974 Patricia Traugott; died Columbia, Maryland 9 April 1996.