Strengthening Rural Communities by Design

The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) is a leadership initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Housing Assistance Council. Focusing on communities with populations of 50,000 or less, CIRD’s goal is to enhance the quality of life and economic vitality of rural America through planning, design, and creative placemaking.
Local historian David Butcher leads a tour of participants in the Mt. Zion Baptist Church workshop in Athens, OH. Photo by Lisbet Portman, courtesy To Be Done Studio

CIRD is intended to empower local citizens to capitalize on unique local and regional assets in order to guide the civic development and future design of their own communities. The CIRD program goals include:

Building design capacity in rural communities to plan comprehensive revitalization strategies;
Introducing creative placemaking, arts, culture, and design strategies as drivers of economic development in rural America;
Facilitating a network of rural communities for design idea exchanges and peer learning; and
Preparing communities to be ready and competitive for arts- and design-related state and federal funding opportunities.

How we work

CIRD provides access to the resources that communities need to convert their own good ideas into reality. The program offers competitive funding to small towns and rural and tribal communities to host a local design workshop. With support from a wide range of design, planning, and creative placemaking professionals, the workshops bring together local residents and local leaders from non-profits, community organizations, and government to develop actionable solutions to the community's pressing design challenges. The community receives additional support through webinars, web-based resources, and customized follow-up support after the workshop.
Workshop participants share ideas in Millinocket, ME. Photo by Malorrie Ann Photography.
Touring potential housing development sites in rural Tucker County, WV. Photo by Omar Hakeem.
CIRD also includes support for rural communities through the Design Learning Cohort. Leaders from selected communities are invited to engage in peer learning; training in design, planning, community engagement, and facilitation techniques; one-on-one technical assistance on their community design challenge; and support in navigating funding opportunities to make their vision a reality. Both parts of the CIRD program connect rural residents with resources and ideas for developing locally driven solutions to community design challenges.

What is Rural Design?

Well-designed rural communities are places where people want to live and invest in the future. As the character of many rural communities is threatened by out-migration, loss of an economic base, and urbanization, designing vibrant rural places is increasingly important. Good rural design goes beyond aesthetics; it fosters economic development and contributes to livability. Community cohesion and pride in place is often manifested in design.

CIRD is driven by the idea that design can be a powerful tool for rural communities to build upon existing assets and improve quality of life, economic vitality, and experience of place. We also believe that communities know their own needs best, and that the best ideas can come from community members and organizations. CIRD’s approach to rural design combines community-driven aspirations with the technical and design skills necessary to move from idea to reality.

Good rural design can take many different forms and show up at many different scales. From small projects like murals or pocket parks to larger initiatives like creating a downtown revitalization district, the community guides the notion of good design. CIRD local design workshops bring together participants from one or several communities in a geographic region to address specific local or regional challenges. With the guidance of architects, main street planners, landscape architects, and transportation planners, along with CIRD program staff, workshops introduce a wide range of rural design strategies that can help a community address their challenges. These design strategies include:  
Historic preservation and adaptive reuse of community buildings 
Designing quality affordable housing that supports livable, equitable communities; including housing and other amenities that support young people, families, and/or the elderly and aging in place   
Creating public or civic spaces that support and integrate cultural expression and local identity and/or play and active recreation 
Developing recreational trails for mobility, active transportation, and economic development  
Redesigning Main Street as a local street versus state highway/thruway 
Designing spaces and places that improve access to healthy food and local food systems
Leveraging Main Street or local businesses for economic development, branding, wayfinding, façade improvements, and streetscape design 
Integrating cultural identity into the built environment to drive heritage tourism


Established in 1991 by the National Endowment for the Arts as Your Town: the Citizens' Institute on Rural Design™, CIRD has supported more than 100 communities in all regions of the country, empowering residents to leverage local assets for the future in order to make better places to live, work, and play. CIRD was founded as a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the State University of New York (SUNY) at Syracuse. From 2012 to 2018, CIRD was managed in partnership with Project for Public Spaces, Inc., along with the Orton Family Foundation. Since 2019 the program has been hosted in partnership with the Housing Assistance Council.


CIRD works with a geographic cross section of communities that demonstrate community capacity and strong partnerships, a commitment to diverse participation and engagement of all the demographic groups present in their community, and the potential to achieve actionable results. Each of the communities that has hosted a CIRD workshop has identified design issues of immediate relevance not only to their town, but to other rural communities as well.