January 31, 2018

The 21st Century Barn Raising: Case Studies on Community Building from Urban & Rural Minnesota

By James Arentson and Stephen Klimek

The Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship is cultivating a generation of architects committed to bringing the benefits of quality design to low-income communities. By partnering emerging designers with community developers, the fellowship provides socially-engaged designers with a career path in community development.

As part of the fellowship, Rose Fellows collaborate on projects that address national issues in community development and design. They identify topics of interest and engage in meaningful projects that share what they are learning on the ground through research, writing and creative projects.

Communities and neighborhood organizations today are contending with one of the most limited resource pools in recent decades, making it nearly impossible to fulfill their missions and basic social needs. In the face of shrinking federal and state government purviews, many communities are taking the lead on critical issues like climate change, and cultural inclusion related to immigration, healthcare, housing, and more. 

The burden of carrying societal values forward is now spread too thin and too far. In this context, how do communities leverage and develop their own resources for collective impact? Who does this work, and how can they do it when resources are so tight? 

No one person or organization will have the resources to address these structural problems. But together, we have everything we need. In early American life, the barn raising was a critical economic tool for the success of an agrarian society. Does this tradition have relevance for us today? 

In Minnesota, two communities that could not be more different — one rural, and one urban — are demonstrating what cooperative community action means in 21st century America. Through two efforts with vastly different goals — to renovate a 12,000 square foot defunct car dealership, and to create a 370 acre ecological and innovation district — Minnesota-based communities are demonstrating how to do more with less. Like the traditional barn raising, these projects have led to unlikely partnerships that will help to accomplish enormous goals that will benefit whole communities. These collaborations cut across property lines and unearth new, previously unrealized resources. 

James Arentson and Stephen Klimek, Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellows in these two distinct Minnesota communities are two of the central actors in these efforts and have come together to share a look under the hood of these projects and to unveil lessons on 21st century barn raising.

A Rural Approach

While beset with fiscal challenges, the renovation of the Rock County History Center, illustrates how community-based organizations can work together to do more with less. 
James Arentson, an architect with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, and the Rose Fellow on the project says, “since the Rock County Historical Society had limited funds for property acquisition, we needed additional capital for renovations. Community contributions, funding help from unlikely sources and a collaborative design-build process saved over $300,000 on the project.”

While the financial benefits of collective action mattered to the success of the project, deep community buy in was just as important. “Without this kind of community-based collaboration, the historical assets of Rock County, including a collection of over 2,500 nutcrackers (the largest collection in the Midwest) would not have made it into its new home,” says James. 

An Urban Approach

An hour-and-a-half hour drive away, Stephen Klimek, a Rose Fellow and community design coordinator of the Cornerstone Group is working to develop the Towerside Innovation District. Towerside raises the bar on what property owners can do for the ‘commons’ by developing shared resources like integrated stormwater management and district-scale energy that cut across property lines, and the project is attracting partners such as municipal agencies and philanthropic funders.

“As a developer in Towerside, you are committing to creating something different — something innovative that includes district-level thinking on issues from stormwater management and streetscapes to equity and diversity” says Stephen. “The developers and partners won’t stop here. They continue to think of bold innovative ideas for the park systems and even utilities and energy.”

Do you want to learn more about these projects and how communities leverage and develop their own resources for collective impact? Read the case studies.

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