Designing Rural Minnesota

(MPR photo/Nikki Tundel)

There are plenty of architecture and planning centers around fixing up urban landscapes. But when it comes to pushing for better design in small towns and rural areas, there is only one major outfit in the world: the Center for Rural Design at the University of Minnesota.

"It seems like there should have been something called rural design a long time ago," says Dewey Thorbeck, who founded the center in 1997. "Design professionals had ignored rural America."

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The center has gained cachet lately, due to growing enthusiasm for local foods and urbanites moving to the country to start hobby farms. Last January, the center hosted the first ever international symposium on rural design. It's about to start an online education and certification program. And Thorbeck has a book in the works.

"The more knowledgeable people are about their surroundings," he says, "the more likely they are to make the kind of decisions that reflect their own values."

He notes that rural Minnesota has seen a lot of change lately, related to new food production methods, the aging of the population, emerging health issues and even global warming. "A lot of our projects are to help citizens manage change and connect the dots," says Thorbeck, who was born in Bagley, in northern Minnesota.

In other words, the idea is to help rural communities survive and reinvent themselves, whether as tourist destinations, recreational havens, thriving agricultural areas or bedroom communities for larger cities. "Each small town has a unique role," Thorbeck says.

He encourages communities to look beyond city and county boundaries to forge useful partnerships, find efficiencies and discover common solutions.

Thorbeck hasn't worked in Todd County, but says, "If I were to go up there and meet with them, I would try to say, 'Maybe we should get Wadena, Little Falls, and Alexandria - some representatives from other counties - to sit in on a regional discussion.'"

Examining the county's geography, he adds, "Wadena and Staples, toward Little Falls along highway 10, they have much more in common with each other I would think than Staples does with Long Prairie."

Rural people tend to be an independent lot. So, Thorbeck treads lightly when consulting, letting ideas bubble up from the communities themselves.

"There is a spirit in America of property rights which is more prevalent in rural areas than in urban areas," he says. "We don't preach one thing or another. We try very hard to say that we aren't the U coming in to tell them how to live. Public engagement is critical. This is community based design."

Presently, the center is working with Minnesota dairy farmers to develop environmental and building standards that Thorbeck hopes will someday become law. "If you have 5,000 cows under one roof and have people in there milking and cleaning, there ought to be some guidelines and there just aren't."

Over the years, he's learned a few things about rural Minnesota. "There are a lot of smart people living in rural areas," Thorbeck says. "Maybe that's stupid to say. But they know a lot more than I do."

Also, he adds, "They are probably more conscious of their landscapes than urban people because the land is more open. You see the rivers and the forests. A lot of people living in Minneapolis probably have never gone along the Mississippi River bank. Almost every rural person has a pretty good sense of where they live."