May 18, 2021

Voices from the Field: What Do Rural Communities Need from Design? And Some Amazing Skills They Bring to the Table

Evelyn Immonen
Local students working on a project in Spring Grove, MN. Photo courtesy Spring Grove Economic Development Authority

Reviewing applications is my favorite part of working as the project manager for Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design. It’s my favorite because I get to read through stories of challenges and triumphs and see the passion and love for rural communities and places, from the mountains of Utah to the farmlands of Alabama.

As a leadership initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) has partnered with the Housing Assistance Council the last two years to improve quality of life and economic vitality to rural America through planning and design assistance. Our partner To Be Done Studio brought decades of architecture and design experience throughout the process.

The 2021CIRD applications highlighted both the classic and contemporary challenges facing rural places. From Main Street redevelopment to COVID-19 economic recovery to natural disaster resiliency, the Housing Assistance Council as part of the CIRD team is excited to roll up our sleeves and work alongside 19exemplary rural organizations. (Click here to read the full press release).Following are some of my reflections on the voices from the field.

What types of communities are interested in design assistance?

There were 55 applications from roughly 30 different states. We received the greatest number of applications from Virginia, Texas, and Colorado. We also are excited to engage geographies CIRD has never worked in before, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Utah, Minnesota, and Alaska.

While we had a few applicants serving populations over 35,000, we also heard from towns with as few as 145 residents. The average rural community was under 10,000 and there were 11 communities serving fewer than 1,000 residents.

I was humbled by the overwhelming response we got this year. It was as amazing to hear from partners who came to us with a strong track record of success as those who were just getting started. It has always been the goal of the Housing Assistance Council to meet with rural communities where they are, and I hope we will live up to that through CIRD.

The Challenges Ahead

Across different communities, themes of Main Street revitalization and adaptive reuse of historic and dilapidated buildings repeatedly emerged. 2020 brought a number of challenges for rural communities hit hard by the coronavirus, and several applicant communities are still recovering from natural disasters. Yet there was ample opportunity for town planners and leaders to take a step back and think strategically about what could be done, proactive thinking that was reflected in the strength of the applications.

A number of communities were like Carrington Economic Development in North Dakota. Although traffic on the highway has increased, Main Street struggles to draw pedestrians and maintain aging properties. Through the chance to work with peer communities facing similar challenges, we hope Carrington is able to better preserve historic buildings, retain businesses, and showcase an emerging downtown.

One asset rural America has is its history, and while there are often historic preservation projects in the applicant pool, I was particularly excited to see more communities thinking about how to adapt old buildings into a new community asset. Take Chillicothe, Ohio, which has a historic armory building in the middle of their public park. Their vision to adapt this building into a multi-use community center reflects the kind of creativity evident in many communities.

Besides those towns looking at Main Street revitalization or adaptive reuse, rural and tribal communities are asking critical questions about neighborhood connectivity, using arts to enhance local identity, and improving pedestrian safety.  We believe design can be the answer to those needs.

Some Things to Celebrate

Rural places are teeming with activity. Changes in rural spaces are happening because leaders know that when you take pride in the aspects of your town that make it unique, it is good for businesses and for people.

“Rural and tribal communities are thinking creatively about their public spaces, vacant lots, and historic buildings,” says David Lipsetz, CEO of the Housing Assistance Council. “Some of these ideas have been sitting on the back burner for years, and we hope that the resources CIRD provides will catalyze action.”

Whether they are tackling new affordable housing development or putting an old manufacturing site to new use, our local CIRD partners are improving the quality of rural life and celebrating the things that make their communities unique.