The Battle for Donoughe Hill and the future of Columbia’s Open Space

The battle for Donoughe Hill was not fought on the hill itself, but rather, as with most suburban skirmishes, at a community meeting and over email.

The first signs of conflict surfaced in 2012, when the Columbia Association sought to re-forest grassy areas of open space in Oakland Mills — including Donoghue Hill and nearby Woodblock Commons — as part of an effort to cut back on mowing. Following a contentious community meeting, these plans were scuttled.

But a year later, Donoghue Hill’s future was again imperiled — this time to make way for a stormwater pond at its base. The second fight started with a series of emails but soon escalated into phone calls and eventually on-site conclaves.

Once it became clear to all that Donoghue Hill served higher purposes than catching runoff from a new outdoor exercise pavilion, CA’s representatives re-drew pool plans and the hill was saved, to the great, if unknown, joy of the children of Stevens Forest, many of whom make pilgrimages to Donoghue Hill as soon as enough snow has fallen to cover (most of) the grass.

Yes, Donoghue Hill is one of the most sacred spaces in suburbia: a sledding hill.

Of course, even if you live in Columbia, you’ve never heard of Donoghue Hill or Woodblock Commons.

Because I made those names up.

Woodblock Commons

Columbia’s expansive network of open space — more than 3,600 acres, a third of the city’s total area — is one of its most cherished assets. This network includes more than 100 miles of pathways, numerous scenic stream corridors, tot lots, community facilities, and of course, sledding hills.

The importance of open space to the city, its residents, and our collective identity is hard to overstate — these acres connect us to nature and each other and are the literal embodiment of Jim Rouse’s plan to build a city that would be a “garden for growing people.”

With a few notable exceptions, Columbia’s open space is a vast, nameless, and unidentifiable monolith of acreage, at least formally. Informally, however, it is a collection of distinct spaces that frame neighborhoods and underlie the relationships and interactions that define our community.

Formality comes with both costs and benefits, but relying only on the informal designations for important spaces allows unintended but well-meaning actions to imperil them.

Donoughe Hill, after all, was threatened twice, not through intent, but as an oversight.

If you look at a map, an overhead image, or even if you visit the hill during regular working hours, it looks like a patch of grass behind a pool, a few acres of open space in a city that is rich with such spaces. What difference, then, does it make if it stays grassy or becomes a stormwater pond?

This is not an indictment of CA staff or leadership. As noted, when presented with reasons why the hill should stay, representatives at all levels of the organization responded to the concerns and changed plans accordingly. They were helpful and reasonable beyond expectations.

(I’m compelled to note that I wrestled with my own NIMBY-ism on this, since the hill is literally in my backyard. While I think I reasonably held the community’s interests above my own, I’m open to criticism that I, an avid snow lover, was acting out of self-interest.)

It’s impossible to expect that every piece of open space with some community value would be formally accounted for, but as Columbia celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it’s a good time to reflect on our relationship with our most cherished asset and ways in which we can strengthen these connections.

In the past few years, CA has steadily made open space more accessible and welcoming to residents — adding signage and widening pathways in popular areas, for instance.

But with concerns mounting about social isolation and kids not spending enough time outside, we should consider whether Columbia’s open space can be enhanced in ways previously not considered; if it can provide a better foundation for residents to engage with nature and each other; and if its use can be expanded in ways that are compatible with our larger goals for our environment and community.

And I’d propose that naming some of the most important spaces is a first step toward this new “open space ethic.”

Imagine a future where you look at a map of Columbia and you see the familiar pathways, pools, schools, neighborhood centers, and lakes, but on top of that you see things like sledding hills, fields for free play, streams with names, spots of interesting scenery or ecological features –like the awesome stand of old beech trees in Long Reach or a boulder-strewn stream in Swansfield that feels like it belongs in the mountains of western Maryland or an isolated rock outcrop overlooking the Middle Patuxent River.

Swansfield of Swanton?

Naming spaces, however, is just one element of what should be a larger conversation.

After all, the possibilities for our open space are limited only by our imaginations. We regularly hear of plans to reduce the number of tot lots or cut down on mowing, and these are done for various reasons, largely to streamline the operations of the Columbia Association.

But a new open space ethic should be more than this; it should be about strengthening the ecosystem that encompasses both our natural and our human communities. Maybe this means replacing tot lots with something different — rock-scapes for climbing and free play, treehouses to highlight views, art installations that encourage exploration and discovery, or stormwater management projects that help reduce or clean runoff but while also enhancing the neighborhood aesthetic.

Columbia’s open space has clearly worked, and if we left it alone it would likely still work just fine. But when has “just fine” ever been good enough for this community? A new, comprehensive vision for open space would not replace what has worked; it would build off this success.

Maybe this new open space ethic is achievable, maybe not. But once, we could’ve said the same thing about the imaginary city of Columbia.