Monday, February 27, 2012

Rural Design: A New Design Discipline

By: Dewey Thorbeck, Director, University of Minnesota Center for Rural Design

Rural design and urban design both embrace "quality of life" as a primary goal. Rural design is, however, fundamentally different: It incorporates the unique characteristics of open landscapes and ecosystems. Buildings and towns are components of the larger landscape, rather than shaping community infrastructure and public space.

Rural regions in America and around the world are experiencing considerable stress in responding to global issues, changing demographics, changing agricultural practices, population growth, and urban expansion. However, the design schools and professions have generally ignored rural issues by concentrating on urban issues because that is where most people live. And, when involved in a rural issue, they generally bring an urban perspective to the endeavor.

To rectify this omission I founded the University of Minnesota Center for Rural Design in 1997 as a program jointly sponsored by the College of Design and the College of Foods, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences.

Design is a powerful tool for integrating knowledge and making connections across disciplines, and rural design brings the problem-solving process of design to rural issues. If urban design is one side of a coin then rural design is the other.

Community Design & Engagement

It is essential that urban and rural issues be considered together without concern for boundaries. The well understood notion of community design as a methodology for community engagement may be an effective vehicle to bridge the gap between urban and rural issues.

Community design is often considered as design involvement with a single urban community. However, the “community” can have many different definitions in rural regions, ranging from an agricultural production group in one region to a cluster of small towns working together for economic advantage in another. Rural design can use community design to resolve a rural (or regional) problem by seeking to connect the dots, cross borders, and create synergy.

An Example of Rural Design in Action

The City of Roseau, Minnesota, is located near the Canadian border on the large, flat geographical area formed by glacial Lake Agassiz 11,000 years ago. On June 8, 2002, fourteen inches of rain fell on the surrounding area. The flood damage to the city was enormous, with significant damage to 150 commercial buildings and over 50 homes destroyed.

Roseau, MN, during the flood of 2002.

The leadership in the city wanted to engage citizens in the reconstruction process. They called on the Center for Rural Design to help develop a community-based vision for the future. The vision plan was the result of a broad-based steering committee consisting of community leaders representing the city, county and township working closely with the Center for Rural Design. The power of community-based planning and citizen participation in identifying values and making choices as stakeholders in the planning process proved to be very successful.

Eight years after the flood, Todd Peterson, the Community Development Director, described what happened:

The City of Roseau could not have achieved success in reconstructing the community without having public buy-in of the vision plan prepared by the Center for Rural Design. The City did 100 years of building in 6 years because the plan had strong public support.

Symbolic of the reconstruction is the new Roseau City Center building
constructed on top of new levees adjacent to the river.
It replaced the destroyed city hall, county museum, and library,
along with a new ice arena.

An Emerging Design Field 

My book, Rural Design: A New Design Discipline, recently published by Routledge, is the first ever book on rural design as an emerging new design field. The book establishes the theoretical base for rural design and outlines ways that rural communities can work together to resolve issues and shape their future. The impact of rural design, however, is yet to be determined.

As defined in the book, the guiding ethic of rural design is not imposing a vision or solution on a community, but rather to:
  • Provide the tools, information, and support that rural communities need to address their problem;
  • Help rural citizens manage change caused by economic, cultural, or environmental reasons;
  • Assist in connecting the dots to create synergy for environmental wellbeing, rural prosperity, and quality of life;
  • Clearly envision and help citizens achieve the quality of rural future for their community that they deserve.
Rural design, as a new design discipline, can help rural communities manage change through the lens of spatial arrangement. In the process, it provides a link between science and society to improve rural quality of life.

The principles of rural design, as evolved by the Center for Rural Design and outlined in the book, can help in understanding, analyzing, and creating solutions for sustainable rural environments worldwide. These rural design principles include:
  • Social, cultural, artistic, and environmental diversity is rewarding for all people who live, work, and play in rural communities and their quality of life. The arts can become a vehicle for learning, social interaction, entertainment and inspiration and an integral aspect of economic development.
  • Empowering women to become community leaders is more likely to provide effective resolution of the complexity of rural issues.
  • Making connections between human, animal, and environmental health is crucial to understanding wellness. Keeping people, animals, and environments healthy is economically preferable to taking care of them when they are sick.
  • Sustainable rural development is directly connected to sustainable rural production. It is finding and enhancing the connections between them that will best impact social, economic and environmental issues.
  • Design of sustainable buildings and landscapes must reflect uniqueness of cultural and landscape character—form follows function, climate, and place.
  • Food, including its supply, production, distribution, and security, is an interdisciplinary rural design problem. Rural food systems can be mapped and their interactions studied to develop strategic plans and farming practices that are unique to place, helping to ensure safe and adequate food supplies in the future.
  • Economic and community viability is crucial for short-term as well as long-term rural design endeavors; however, long-term objectives must take precedence over short-term gain.
  • Renewable energy from solar, wind and biomass can be considered as an integral aspect of rural agriculture by “harvesting” the sun and wind. This includes using agriculture for carbon sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gases.
  • Improving rural quality of life is the primary goal of rural design.
The world is changing very rapidly, with most people living in cities that are expanding and adapting to global impacts. Likewise, rural regions are changing, with people who are passionate about rural life and their connections to the land. Managing change is critical to rural futures and the time is right for rural design to emerge as a new design discipline.

Do you see ways that rural design principles can be applied in your home community? Do you use arts to promote community participation in planning and visioning for the future?

Dewey Thorbeck founded the University of Minnesota Center for Rural Design. He has a new book out, which you can find here, if you want to learn more about rural design and its applications.

Visit the Rural Futures Lab home website here.

Photos and images provided by the author.

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