Driftless/Drifting: Community Design in Times of Rapid Adaptation

Before the COVID-19 crisis unfolded in the United States in March 2020, Design for Community Resilience (DCR) – a program I lead at the Center for Sustainable Building Research at the University of Minnesota – began work in January on a project with partners, UMN Extension’s Southeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, for the community of Lanesboro, a rural town in Southeastern Minnesota. The community is set in an amazing ‘driftless’ landscape, an unique geological landscape that is related to glacial movement in the region aeons ago. 

Any landscape has significant impact on humans and other species inhabiting the landscape. It imprints the culture in unique ways. A book I am reading ‘The Driftless Reader’ reveals a lot about the cultural implications of this special ecology. Driftless Ecology is the result of a region that escaped the flattening effects of glaciation during the last ice age and therefore characterized by steep, forested ridges, deeply carved river valleys, and geology characterized by spring-fed waterfalls and cold-water trout streams.

In the otherwise mostly flat landscape of Minnesota the undulating driftless landscape has been a source of great interest for nature and recreational experience for generations. This landscape crosses four states – adjacent areas of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois and southwest Wisconsin. Minnesota has a commitment to recreation and nature experiences being a state well endowed with natural resources and is at a unique intersection of three biomes. This has led to some remarkable infrastructure. In the driftless area the Root River Trail, a 60 mile paved trail connects towns in the region.

Our role as the design team from the University of Minnesota is to partner with the community and propose “human-powered” trails which allow for hiking and snowshoeing, etc. and connect people with the landscape in new ways where paved trails are the norm.

Speaking of resilience, due to the onset of the COVID-19 crisis and the fast-track adaptation and work happening at the University of Minnesota and in the communities across Minnesota, we have had to make fast-track plans to adapt our project as well. 

Previously, most of previous DCR projects were delivered in a combined, remote, and face-to-face format, gathering the community in person for town halls, meetings, with site walks and visits to familiarize ourselves with the built infrastructure and the landscape. We are now adapting our deliverables and processes to be purely remote for this project going forward.

This is a challenge and an opportunity. Due to the mass scale adaptation that society has had to undergo that has forced large numbers of people to develop increased comfort with online tools and technologies, we will envision a design practice for our rural communities that is mostly online rather than in-person. 

A purely remote format certainly poses issues for designers whose work requires them to connect intimately with the three-dimensional reality of landscapes, buildings and infrastructure. For a designer to not be able to walk in a landscape or around a building as part of their study, research and immersive work is a hardship. At the community end, rural communities often lack broadband access and cell coverage their urban counterparts can take for granted.

Yet, compared to the medical field where doctors already perform complex surgeries, remotely or electronically, a preliminary design process should be much easier to accomplish, in theory.  And as the shocks to global economies unfold in the wake of COVID-19 crisis, might a human powered trail in a rural town become one of the thousands projects of a COVID-19 New Deal that could help build the new local economy?Perhaps.

In the meantime the adaptation continues….and somehow in a time where all rules and norms are drifting I’m grateful to be working with colleagues and community on an ancient driftless landscape that suggests a quiet permanence in these uncertain times. 


The Driftless Reader, Curt Meine & Keefe Keeley 






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