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The Rise of Rural Design

September 28, 2016

Impact Design Hub’s goal for the Rural vs Urban series is to take a deeper look at how rural and urban approaches to design address the most pressing social issues of our time, such as rampant urbanization, population explosion, food scarcity, and climate change. To lead this series, our editorial team is profiling Dewey Thorbeck, an architect from Minnesota who has championed rural design from its beginnings — a topic that is gaining traction and has the potential to change design practice, education, and society as we know them.

Dewey Thorbeck founded the Center for Rural Design at the University of Minnesota in the late 1990’s. The Center, which was jointly supported by the College of Design and the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences, initiates interdisciplinary processes of understanding change, defining rural issues, and creating solutions to resolve them. The core foci during the Center’s inception was that rural development necessitated a fundamentally different logic than urban approaches, that those differences were not being discussed, and that there was an opportunity to define a new field: rural design.

Thorbeck was well prepared to lead this effort. He grew up in the middle part of the twentieth century in a small northern Minnesota town, which engrained in him an inherent appreciation and a resident’s understanding for rural landscapes and the societies they supported. “The town I grew up in,” Thorbeck explains, “existed almost solely as a service to the agriculture communities surrounding it. The town was a place where farmers and those in even more rural locations would come to buy their groceries and send their kids to school. A lot of rural America ended up evolving like this.”

During the 1960’s, small town America began to transition. Until that point, rural areas had been maintaining a relatively slow pace of development — in Thorbeck’s youth some people were still using horses to get around. Then, migration from rural to urban began to accelerate, and many changes unfolded without the involvement of professional design services. “Of course, an architect from a city might come into a rural area and design, say, a school, but even that was approached from an urban perspective that didn’t always make sense for rural areas. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time — there simply wasn’t an alternative,” Thorbeck notes.

Questioning the Urban Perspective as Default

Thorbeck, who in the early sixties was a fellow at the American Academy of Rome, traces the development of the urban default to Europe. In the 19th century the longest standing design professions (architecture, landscape architecture, engineering) and their associated academies were becoming more formalized.  This was a historic moment heavily influenced by a Europe that was rapidly urbanizing. “If you look at some of the small towns and counties that developed in America around that time,” Thorbeck argues, “you’ll note their city halls and courthouses have very distinctly European, and thus urban, characteristics.”

AB-2 Diagram of rural design process0001 copy

After inspiring experiences in the hill towns of Italy, Thorbeck returned to the United States in 1965 and began teaching architectural design at the University of Minnesota. He encountered what, to him, was a frustrating realization as he embarked on his teaching career: “I began to notice how much architecture was imbued with an inherently urban perspective while the rural perspective was completely ignored.”

“While urban and rural perspectives ultimately need to be considered together, they’re still very different ways of thinking about architecture and design,” Thorbeck explains.  The problem he found with this myopic view was that urban and rural conditions are fundamentally inverted. The rural perspective engages agricultural and ecological systems in the form of small towns that are integrated into their surrounding landscapes — rural massing is based on objects perceived in an interconnected field. The urban, on the other hand, focuses inward on a central core, having more to do with buildings reacting to one another in a dense environment — natural landscapes are constrained and agriculture is absent.

The rural condition is a complex balance of social and ecological considerations. Many structures in the rural landscape, such as barns and windmills, operate in service to their surrounding context over internal program. There is a sensitive relationship between design and the landscape, which changes depending on the local biome. For Thorbeck, the rural is also a state of mind related closely to a sense of place: “These are issues that are not totally unique to rural, but they are different.”

“For example,” Thorbeck reasons, “if within a cluster of small towns (like Detroit Lakes, Minnesota and the eight or so smaller towns that surround it), each town tries to do education, health, recreation, housing, and economic enterprises independently like cities do, they won’t succeed. However, if they each have a function within a larger system, if it’s a collective and collaborative effort, they will.” This is a type of centralizing action where, for Thorbeck, applying an urban perspective to rural issues breaks down.


The Neglected Perspective

Throughout his teaching and private practice, Thorbeck continued to seek out projects in the rural space. As the years passed, rural America began to undergo significant changes and the towns of Thorbeck’s youth began to struggle to survive and remain relevant as many of their essential functions were being outsourced to the nearest city. Yet, little changed in terms of the one-sided academic discourse and he became more and more troubled. “Some of the small towns I worked in were losing their schools and grocery stores because there wasn’t enough money to keep them going, especially after corporate, big business entities came in. That resulted in people having to drive 25 miles to a city just to get groceries,” Thorbeck remembers.

By 1997, Thorbeck had become disillusioned and considered leaving teaching altogether. “As a last ditch effort,” Thorbeck says, “I pushed two of the deans of the College of Agriculture and the College of Design at the University [of Minnesota] to let me open a Center for Rural Design.” Thanks partly to good timing and unexpected funding, Thorbeck was successful.

The goal of the Center was to bring design thinking and the problem-solving process of design to rural issues. It was the first academic institution of its kind to introduce rural design as its own discipline and became involved in research projects focused on a wide range of rural communities and agricultural groups throughout Minnesota. Thorbeck and his students sought to demonstrate that projects like these were not only needed, but that their outcomes could have big impacts.

One example is a project the Center did in Roseau, Minnesota. The town had experienced a severe flood that left much of downtown under two feet of water and the city hall completely inundated. The Center redeveloped a plan focused on how the town could be rebuilt in a way that utilized the city hall as a catalyst for connecting to the surrounding areas and that connected the core to the outskirts. The project demonstrates a remarkable efficiency of a relatively small program to have the power to organize a population spread over a great area. Buy-in of the small town’s citizens was critical to success of the project and the Center’s team kept them engaged throughout the process.

Gradually, the Center built a foundation of work that brought rural design into focus as a serious and necessary discipline. The Center’s portfolio of projects covers a wide range of topics, such as recreation, wildlife management, ground water, and foodsheds. Their work has included redesigning small town main streets, developing regional planning guidelines, and creating rural design manuals. These projects have navigated local and state politics, researched new economic models, and introduced new technological tools to rural communities.


Rural Design in the Future

Thorbeck believes that if we want a sustainable future, we need to invest in a strong rural culture and society that connects back to the city.  “It is critical that urban and rural futures be linked together to resolve issues of climate change, food security, water resources, renewable energy, and human, animal, and environmental wellness. In fact, I think that this urban and rural blending has already begun in some ways,” says Thorbeck. “The proliferation of urban agriculture that we’re seeing everywhere in the form of green roofs, urban gardens, and the like, are a great example of this blending, this dual consideration.”

Moving forward, Thorbeck hopes that “over time, rural design will become a regular academic course in design schools and universities around the globe,” and he has many reasons to be encouraged. The incredible evolutionary pressures at work in urban areas, specifically in rapidly developing economies, have triggered an intense interest in engaging, studying, and working in rural areas. This spike goes far beyond architecture, encompassing various design disciplines and making itself apparent in related professional fields.

In a recent speech in Australia, Professor Kerry Arabena, an Aboriginal public health professor with the University of Melbourne, described in similar terms how society’s relationship with the planet must begin to shift:

“We need a long term and inclusive view, we then need to purposefully craft a new story around that view and use that story to build new ways of living, new ways of being, and new ways of having relationship with and between each other and our country – not as a nation state, but country as landscapes of which we are an integral part, deserved of our stewardship, our custodianship and with whom we have to reconcile. To care for country is all our business; it is the necessary and transformative element of a reconciliation agenda in Australia, and the world.”

This shift in thinking is urgent. It’s estimated that there will be an extra 2.5 billion people on the planet by 2050. As the population grows, rural design can help shape the human relationship to the landscape in such a way that we can preserve food and water, help mitigate climate change, retain biodiversity, and ensure food security.

“In order to accommodate all of these extra people, cities will of course expand, but rural design can help devise ways for cities to expand without threatening to destroy the farmland that we all rely on for survival,” states Thorbeck. “You can’t just feed 10 billion people by growing food in any old way — we have to use rural design to not just think about how to increase food production on a large, worldwide scale, but also to craft for just and equitable futures for all, both urban and rural.”

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