May 28, 2020

Take-Aways from Webinar II: CIRD in the Time of COVID-19

Stephen Sugg

Partners of Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) across rural America wanted an opportunity to hear from their peers at the intersection of rural planning, design, and ultimately, resilience. CIRD’s team wanted the same, especially as it works with communities in Maine, Ohio, and New Mexico to create safe, relevant, and engaging CIRD Local Workshops. The “CIRD in the Time of COVID” webinar sought to provide that very opportunity.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), launched the discussion with an endorsement of arts, placemaking, and design as drivers of rural opportunity, citing both her 50 years of experiences living in rural Maine along with her role as Co-Chair of the Congressional Arts Caucus. Pingree helped to secure $75 million in the CARES ACT, allowing the National Endowment for the Arts to boost local arts organizations trying to stay afloat, calling the arts a “vital industry that is suffering.”  Pingree also noted the power and potential when CIRD combines experts in design and planning with local know-how during visioning processes, calling such work more important than ever.

Webinar panelists Manuel Ochoa of Ochoa Urban Collaborative (but he does rural, too!), Margie Reese of the Wichita Falls, TX Alliance for the Arts and Culture, and Megan Lautenshlager of Strengthen North Dakota responded to the below in framing their remarks:

Design for rural areas often plans to bring people together in place and drive economic development for communities, What is the role of design when stay-at-home orders change the environment we live in? How can organizations who work in design respond to economic distress head-on?

Panelists were quick to note that new challenges lead to new opportunities for collaboration and smarter use of resources, both within organizations and within communities and regions. They were sober in recognizing the vast immediate needs of those facing job loss and even the collapse of entire industries. But design, with food systems as one example, out to play an immediate role in helping to meet needs. Visual examples from Ochoa punctuated this discussion.

Key Takeaways:

  • Funders in rural communities are “partners” not funders; involve them as early as possible
  • Old fashioned engagement techniques can still work. Signs on telephone poles and community billboards, anyone?
  • Immediate needs of struggling citizens must be addressed. But design and planning are intertwined with meeting these needs, including access to food.
  • Most Main Street businesses lack an internet presence. And many small businesses will close. Those are facts.
  • Using the language of artists and designers does not work with lay folk. “Use language that’s familiar to our neighbors,” Margie Reese suggested.
  • Small ideas can grow—think about signage, for starters.
  • Designers need to help local businesses think of the customer experience from within a store; it is not about storefronts and streetscapes if we want Main Street to rise again.
  • Engage the creatives in the healing process!

Ultimately, the webinar, thanks to the panelists and participants, accomplished the impossible: acknowledging widespread suffering and unprecedented challenge alongside real-time examples of hope, progress, and togetherness.

Megan Laudenschlager closed the webinar out with some helpful words of wisdom. (Photo credit: Strengthen ND)