Obituary: James Rouse

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor