NEA Arts Magazine

Being Small and Thinking Big

Citizens' Institute on Rural Design

1Architect Jim Leggitt of Drawing Short Cuts created live sketches and plans of Main Street throughout the workshop (Valentine, NE). Photo Credit P&W Photography.jpg

An architect draws

Architect Jim Leggitt created live sketches and plans of Valentine, Nebraska’s, Main Street throughout the town’s CIRD workshop. Photo by P&W Photography

Like their urban counterparts, rural communities are distinct from one another, with their own assets, challenges, histories, and visions for a better future. As such, their community design—and design challenges—are equally diverse, with solutions taking shape in vast and varied ways. 

The National Endowment for the Arts’ initiative Citizens’ Institute for Rural Design™ (CIRD) honors these differences by empowering residents to leverage local assets to build better places to live, work, and play. A partnership among the Arts Endowment, the Housing Assistance Council, and buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, CIRD accomplishes this by offering competitive funding to small towns and rural and tribal communities to host multiday community design workshops. The goal is to provide communities with populations of 50,000 or less with the resources and expertise needed to convert their own good ideas into reality. 

“CIRD awardees share a commitment to make change happen while preserving their quality of life and small town charm,” said Cynthia Nikitin, the senior vice president of Project for Public Spaces, which along with the Orton Family Foundation, was a CIRD partner from 2012-2018. “They have a team of devoted individuals eager to engage with the NEA and the CIRD staff to produce a workshop that will move them forward in meeting the design challenge they’ve identified, and they have clearly articulated goals and know what success looks like.”

CIRD is just one aspect of the Arts Endowment’s longstanding commitment to providing access to the arts for Americans in rural areas. Nearly 300 agency grants, totaling approximately $8 million, are awarded for activities in rural communities on average; often, these grants are the only arts funding available. The Arts Endowment has also initiated or supported research reports such as Rural Prosperity through the Arts and Creative Sector: A Rural Action Guide for Governors and States and Rural Arts, Design, and Innovation in America, which give the field a better understanding of how the arts can impact rural areas. 

A young boy crouches by a riverside

A young boy enjoys the Gallinas River in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The town’s CIRD workshop focused on restoring the river’s watershed, and designing a new Gallinas River Park. Photo courtesy of Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance

This impact is made tangible through CIRD, which can transform the very fabric of a community. “To even apply for the [CIRD] award, a community needs to come together beforehand to assemble a competent team, clearly articulate a design challenge, demonstrate a commitment to broad outreach, and make space for all voices at the table,” Nikitin said. Once a grant is awarded and a project is underway, communities continue to work together and grow.

Since the program launched in 1991, CIRD has convened more than 80 workshops in all regions of the country, bringing together local residents with teams of design, economic development, creative placemaking, and other arts and culture professionals. Together, they develop solutions and strategies that will guide the future development of their community. 

“Rural design relies on many of the same principles as urban design,” said Nikitin. “However, the scale is vastly different; geography is a huge factor, the availability of broadband is as important as fresh air and clean water, and the primary industries (agriculture, logging, mining) continue to define most local economies and account for much of the built landscape.” 

A CELEBRATION OF A RIVER AND ITS COMMUNITY 

Sixty-five miles east of Santa Fe is the former railroad town of Las Vegas, New Mexico, with a population of about 13,000. The town is bisected by the Gallinas River that early in the area’s history was the physical division between the well-to-do Anglo Americans on one side and the less-advantaged Hispanic population on the other. 

The Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance is a local, environmental nonprofit specializing in watershed restoration. The Alliance hosted a CIRD workshop in October 2018 to develop a design for a new Gallinas River Park. The park is intended to showcase a restored river, reflect the diverse ethnic backgrounds of all its residents, and build bonds among the town’s different communities and between the people and their river.

People's hands toy with arts and crafts objects on a long table

Las Vegas, New Mexico’s CIRD workshop included hands-on activities for participants as they visualized the future of a new Gallinas River Park. Photo by Laura Torchio, Project for Public Spaces

Elizabeth Juarros is the education director of the Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance. For her, one of the key benefits of the workshop was the communication and connection that it sparked. “The workshop gave us an opportunity to get ideas about how to best engage people,” said Juarros. The resource team assembled for the Las Vegas workshop “were just amazing at knowing how to make a conversation that is two-way.” As a result, “We can refer to the workshop as the time when the community came together and started this process clearly of making a community-designed place.” 

The resource team for Las Vegas included experts in plants native to the area, river health, and green infrastructure, in addition to skills in community engagement. Workshop activities included creative visioning, hearing from local experts, learning about creative placemaking, and creating a conceptual design plan for the park. That design has since been the lodestar, guiding post-workshop conversations and decisions. 

New Mexico Senator Peter Campos was able to work with the state legislature and have funds designated to the project, which together with funds from San Miguel County, totaled $100,000. In addition, the project has received support from many community organizations that have made donations for the park. 

Juarros notes that, “The key is that I haven’t observed many projects where the whole community, including the surrounding areas, the county, and the state all have the same vision, the same focus.” 

A HIGHWAY RUNS THROUGH IT 

Running north/south, Highway 83 extends from North Texas to North Dakota. It passes through the town of Valentine, Nebraska, which means that Main Street is a major state highway. The challenge that Valentine addressed during its October 2018 CIRD workshop was how to balance downtown economic revitalization with an imminent state-led reconstruction of the road to meet requirements for traffic safety and efficiency. Finding solutions would entail navigating relationships between municipal leadership, current and prospective downtown business owners, and the Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT), as well as coming up with different scenarios for before, during, and after road construction, which is scheduled to begin in 2022. 

Valentine’s leadership wanted to take advantage of this necessary but disruptive highway work to benefit main street businesses and residents. They sought to create a more cohesive sense of place as traffic moves along the road and people hopefully stop for a visit.

Two woman look at a wall covered with photos and ideas involving the redesign of a town's Main Street

A scene from the Valentine, Nebraska, CIRD workshop. Photo by P&W Photography

Kyle Arganbright is the mayor of Valentine. He was and is deeply involved in the CIRD project and the town’s development. He noted, “This project was interesting because the city was inserting ourselves a little more forcefully into a conversation that typically happens at the state [level], because this is a state highway.” 

The resource team included experts on surviving Main Street road construction and how a community can meld residents’ interests, traffic engineering, and good streetscape and landscape design. “The resources were outstanding. The people were phenomenal, their experience, the way they thought about it,” said Arganbright. “They thought about systems. We would not have found those people if it were not for the CIRD process.” 

Valentine’s CIRD workshop made clear to NDOT that the town was serious about doing quality redevelopment. “Number one, this [CIRD workshop] really helped us develop credibility with the state that we were taking it seriously,” Arganbright said. 

As a result, the town has developed a strong relationship with NDOT headquarters’ staff in addition to the district engineer. In fact, the community engagement that happened through CIRD has become a model for NDOT, as it works with other communities in the state. 

EMPOWERING RURAL COMMUNITIES 

Every CIRD workshop works in a different location with very different circumstances and issues to resolve, but all of them leave behind the same result: an empowered rural community. And that is why the National Endowment for the Arts is committed to bringing design expertise to rural America: helping local communities find solutions to their specific design challenges makes them better communities to live in. Through CIRD, all residents are given a voice in the planning process, and every community has the opportunity to prove to themselves—and others—that they have the capacity to effect their own change. 

Victoria Hutter is assistant director in the Office of Public Affairs at the National Endowment for the Arts.