Bringing Good Design to Rural Places

By Jennifer Hughes, Acting Director of Design and Creative Placemaking

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Teens at table next to school bus with posters on it.

Residents view the preliminary MacIntyre Park master plan vision and student projects during a tailgate event for the 2016 Thomasville, Georgia CIRD Workshop. Photo by Angela Moreno-Long, Project for Public Spaces 

I grew up in the city of Philadelphia, and yet I find myself at the NEA managing a rural program—the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD). CIRD, a little-known National Endowment for the Arts program executed in partnership with Project for Public Spaces and the Orton Family Foundation, was founded in 1991 to deliver design assistance to rural communities via two-day public workshops. These workshops bring together community members, local leaders, and rural design experts to develop a future vision for the town. In short, the program is a resource to help guide residents in defining improvements for their community. Every two years, CIRD invites rural communities to apply to the program and communities are selected via a competitive process. Since its inception, CIRD has hosted more than 80 rural design workshops in communities with populations of less than 50,000 on topics such as the redesign of streetscapes, establishing new park or trail systems, activating public spaces, and enlivening Main Streets with arts and cultural activities.

Remarkably, there are incredible parallels between the neighborhood where I grew up and many of the rural communities that have hosted the CIRD program. My father owned and operated a family restaurant in our neighborhood. He worked tirelessly as the head of the Lawndale Business Association to attract residents and visitors to the businesses in the main area of the neighborhood. He partnered with residents, nearby churches, local government, and other businesses to enliven Rising Sun Avenue via community arts festivals, a redesign of the avenue’s streetscape, way finding, improvements to transit, and enhancements to the nearby public spaces where residents often gathered. In the same way, rural communities are often led by dedicated residents and business owners who are striving to build on their local assets and create places where people want to be.

Rural communities have looked to the CIRD program to access a broad range of expertise, from architects to historic preservationists, and rural designers to transportation planners. CIRD workshops are sessions for the local community to ask questions of experts that work across the nation and to learn about innovative ideas from other rural towns.

CIRD has an open call for applications with a deadline of February 16. This year the program will help deliver a customized two-day workshop on one of three key topic areas that are of importance to rural communities:

  • Multimodal Transportation: Examples of design challenges include improving bike/pedestrian access in your community, retrofitting commercial strips to accommodate pedestrians, the development of recreational trails for mobility and economic development, mobility for the elderly and aging in place, context sensitive rural highways and byways, and integration of arts/culture/design to improve transportation or pedestrian experience.
  • Healthy Living by Design: Examples of design challenges include creating public space that supports play and active recreation; improving access to healthy food and local food eco-systems; enhancing access for walking, biking, and active transportation/recreation; and building social cohesion and opportunities for social interaction via creative placemaking.
  • Main Streets: Examples of design challenges include leveraging Main Street for economic development, redesigning Main Street as a local street versus state highway/thruway, cultivating/enhancing public space on Main Street via design or creative placemaking, branding and design along Main Street, historic preservation and adaptive reuse of Main Street buildings, and maximizing the role that arts and culture can play as an economic driver for local and regional economies.

CIRD’s website hosts a wealth of online resources for rural communities. You can browse summaries of past CIRD workshops in places from Akwesasne, New York, to Limon, Colorado, to Thomasville, Georgia. America’s rural communities are incredibly special places, and CIRD is a resource that helps to celebrate their special character and drive a vision that enables them to thrive in the future.