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Good Design Sparks Rural Community Development

Photo Credit:  Michelle Benoit, March 2014 Epicenter Frontier Fellow, Used with permission
Photo Credit: Michelle Benoit, March 2014 Epicenter Frontier Fellow, Used with permission

Instead of focusing on developing products and services, now more than ever, architects, industrial designers, graphic artists, landscape architects, and other creative professionals are turning their attention to community development—working to solve bigger and messier problems. Just look at Human Centered Design from IDEO.org, a method for using good design to help people living in extreme poverty around the world.Association for Community Design, has supported community-based design and planning for more than three decades. Public Interest Design chronicles the growth of the community design movement in a cool infographic

While this trend toward good design is exciting, it’s harder to find in rural community development. Many small towns aren’t bursting at the seams with graphic designers or architects. 

Creative professionals are trained with an eye toward innovative and context-sensitive solutions to complex challenges.  Without designers at our disposal we may fail to see all the great options for growing a village center, establishing welcoming public spaces or revitalizing downtown.

How might we encourage a greater emphasis on design in rural community development? Here are a few ideas from the forefront of rural design:

1.  Introduce Elected Officials to the Principles of Good Design

Design Cents teaches public officials and community partners how to promote and implement good design to improve the quality of life in their communities. The workshop is offered by the Carl Small Town Center at Mississippi State University in Oktibbeha County (pop. 47,671).

2.  Attract Creative People

Frontier Fellowship is a four-week program for creative professionals run by Epicenter in Green River, Utah (pop. 953). Fellows split their time between working on personal projects and contributing to a community improvement project.

3.  Offer Pro Bono Design Services

By providing design services in the community decision-making process, Energize Clinton County in Wilmington, Ohio (pop. 12,448) aids conversations about local development proposals. Past projects include plans for a micro-brewery to catalyze business growth, design support for redeveloping historic buildings, and informational visualizations incommunity plan documents.

4.  Design AND Build

Auburn University’s Rural Studio in Newbern, Alabama (pop. 181) emphasizes hands-on education. That’s why they didn’t stop at the blueprints when they designed a well-built, affordable housing alternative to the mobile home.  The Rural Studio program designed and built 12 versions of the 20K House and is now exploring reproducing and designing on a large scale. 

5.  Community Education Through Design

Combining storytelling and story gathering with graphic narratives, the Beehive Collective in Machias, Maine (pop. 2,353) creates illustrations that are used for education—and conversation—starters around complex community issues.   

While not a rural example (this one comes from New York City), we can’t resist mentioning the Center for Urban Pedagogy’s Envisioning Development toolkits. Using objects and plain language, participants learn about planning issues like affordable housing and zoning. 

6.  Balance Local Knowledge and Professional Expertise

The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design™ (CIRD) offers annual competitive funding to as many as four small towns or rural communities to host community design workshops. The workshops bring together local leaders and national experts to develop actionable solutions to pressing design challenges.

CIRD has convened more than 70 workshops in all regions of the country. Follow the CIRD blog to keep up on the 2014 workshop communities. 

7.  Engage Youth in Community Design

When Project H founders Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller wanted to bring design to a rural town, they started in an unlikely place: the poorest county in North Carolina. Bertie County had no licensed architect and more than one unfortunate statistic—24 percent of residents dropped out of high school and 65 percent of youth were unemployed. 

Using education as a vehicle, the Project H team incorporated good design in improvements to the school computer lab and playground.  The team’s next step was to rethink shop class, teaching design with construction and fabrication skills focused on building a farmers’ market. Project H then facilitated a summer youth employment program, paying students to build the 2,000-square-foot building, making the market a reality.

Watch the video below to hear Emily talk about the project, then head to the Project H website for a toolbox to bring design thinking into any classroom. 

On Wednesday, August 20, Emily Pilloton of Project H and Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert of Energize Clinton County join CommunityMatters® and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design™ for an hour-long webinar on design in rural community development. They’ll highlight additional examples of how community design has catalyzed rural economies, with thoughts about introducing decision makers to design principles and the role of experts and outsiders in community-led design projects. Space is limited, so register early

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