October 18, 2022

Design Learning Cohort 2021-2022 Reflections

Mackenzie Webb
Photo from Workshop in Keene, NH

The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) helps rural communities enhance their quality of life and economic vitality through design. CIRD’s Design Learning Cohort brings together rural community leaders from across the country to connect with each other to share and learn how design can address their particular community’s needs.  

Inaugurated in 2019, the Design Learning Cohort launched with a Rural Design Summit in Thomas and Elkins, West Virginia. Hosted virtually today, the cohort program includes a series of online peer engagement activities and interactive learning sessions that address a cohort community’s specific design challenge, offer core skills and ideas related to rural design, and introduce potential funding mechanisms to support community development projects. Whether improving quality of life, revitalizing Main Street, preserving historic buildings, or making a more walkable and welcoming streetscape, the Design Learning Cohort program can help transform a community's vision to reality.

The 2021-2022 Design Learning Cohort features 15 community groups from 16 states and the US Virgin Islands as well as four communities selected for more intensive Local Design Workshops. In small towns and rural places across the country, cohort members are already using what they’ve learned to address their communities’ needs. As we come to the end of this cohort cycle, here’s a snapshot of how a few cohort communities are doing just that:  

Skagway, AK

For every resident of Skagway, Alaska, more than 800 visitors pass through the town’s port every year. According to Kaitlyn Jared, Executive Director of Skagway Development Corporation, better sidewalks and bike paths are the key to making Skagway’s main street more inviting to guests. They would also keep the town’s children safe, many of whom regularly ride bikes on roads frequented by oil tanker trucks and large tour buses. Skagway Development Corporation joined the Design Learning Cohort to gain the skills they need to get their project off the ground: the cohort has helped them learn how to get community buy-in and work with local government. According to Kaitlyn, learning from the other cohort members has been especially valuable because she can use them as a resource to help problem solve and generate ideas based on their own successes.

Skagway Development Corporation is currently working to build partnerships and community support for their vision for safer sidewalks and streets. You can learn more on their website ( or Facebook page.

Carrington, ND

Carrington Economic Development is working to update the main street of Carrington, North Dakota, beginning with revitalizing a 5-acre Japanese garden complete with a new visitor and history center. Karlee Brown, former Carrington Economic Development Director hopes that investing in the town’s main street will help people realize that “we are special” while also making Carrington a more inviting place, “where all people feel welcome.” Recently, the town was awarded a planning grant from the State of North Dakota to get the project started. In addition to learning “how much support is out there for rural communities,” Karlee says that as a result of the Design Learning Cohort, “I have gained my voice.” The models of community engagement she’s learned have “helped with having conversations with stakeholders” and to engage the community in “planning for the future generations.”

You can learn more about Carrington Economic Development on their Facebook page.  

Skowhegan, ME

Since joining the CIRD Design Learning Cohort, Main Street Skowhegan’s riverfront revitalization project in Skowhegan, Maine, has “turned into far more than we could have imagined,” says Kristina Cannon. Main Street Skowhegan is working to support local businesses and to encourage more community members to spend time outside by developing a riverfront park along the Kennebec River Gorge. The main lesson Main Street Skowhegan learned from the cohort is “the need for real and powerful community engagement,” Kristina explains. For months, Main Street Skowhegan has been building partnerships and earning the buy-in of community members, local leaders, and even a United States Senator. This work helped the riverfront development project earn $2 million in direct federal funding. “We’re planning for big things!” Kristina concludes.

You can learn more about the Skowhegan riverfront revitalization project on Main Street Skowhegan’s website (

Navajo, NM

Navajo Townsite Community Development Corporation (CDC) envisions a future for Navajo, New Mexico, where a series of pocket parks, exercise trails, and community spaces help their neighbors become healthier while also connecting more closely with each other and the natural beauty around them. Navajo Townsite CDC already provides affordable housing to 40 households. Their design project would help make the town’s neighborhoods even better places to call home. “We want to put some of our culture and language” into built spaces, executive director Prestene Garnenez adds, explaining that the parks will feature installations to help children learn the Navajo language and designs inspired by traditional patterns used for basket weaving.  

As Prestene explains, being a part of the Design Learning Cohort not only helped Navajo Townsite CDC make connections with similar communities across the country, but also helped them engage more closely with their own community. Through a series of idea-sharing events, the organization has shaped their plans to match the vision of the community.  

You can learn more about Navajo Townsite CDC and their pocket parks plans on their website (  

Bluff, UT

Molly Schmidt first heard about the CIRD Design Learning Cohort while she was studying architecture at Boston Architectural College. Now, she has come to Bluff, Utah, to support Design Build Bluff’s efforts to make the town safer and more walkable. Bluff is split in half by a seasonal creek. With no walking paths over the creek, children living in the town’s east side must walk along a highway to reach their elementary school on the west side. The walking paths Design Build Bluff envisions would connect with a recently completed river trail. This helps ensure that the walking paths support local businesses and show off Bluff’s natural beauty while also improving safety. Molly mentions that being a part of the cohort has been particularly useful for “learning how to bring people along” and providing support when the community feels stuck on a particularly challenging step along the way.  

You can learn more about Design Build Bluff’s work on their Facebook page.

Patrick County, VA

The Patrick County Chamber of Commerce is using what it’s learned from the Design Learning Cohort to answer a difficult question: how do we convince more people to stop and enjoy Stuart, Virginia’s Main Street instead of just driving through? The community is moving rapidly toward answering that question. Thanks to a Keep Virginia Beautiful grant and a Community Development Block Grant, the chamber has revitalized a pocket park, participated in a barn quilt trail, supported local art projects, installed Wi-Fi at the local farmer’s market, and begun a feasibility study on revitalizing a historic theater. To Rebecca Adcock, Executive Director of the Patrick County Chamber of Commerce, the value of the cohort is more than just being able to “commiserate with peers.” The cohort is a national network of communities who share many similar challenges to Patrick County, each with their own solutions to learn from and resources to share.  

You can learn more about the Patrick County Chamber of Commerce’s work on their website ( and Facebook page.

Communities that have participated in the CIRD Learning Cohort and the Local Design Workshop

As you can see, the Design Learning Cohort program has provided resources and connections in a variety of ways for participating communities. As this second cohort wraps up their time together, the CIRD team is preparing for another third round. A request for applications will be posted in Spring 2023. Sign up for the CIRD newsletter to be notified when the application is available.