Community-driven Design for Small Towns and Rural Communities
Smart growth doesn’t just help cities to flourish—some of our most important urban planning work has been done in small towns and rural areas. In place of dusty residential streets with no sidewalks, we’ve created tree-lined avenues along which people can bike, walk, or play. Where boarded-up buildings used to stand, we’ve envisioned main streets where people can shop, eat, and play, and we’ve turned a former lumberyard into a mixed-use district with shade trees over bicycle trails and attractive affordable apartments. Throughout all of these projects, we’ve worked with residents to design stronger, smarter, and more sustainable communities that truly address their needs.
Rural areas can be just as healthy and well planned as urban areas. People in small towns should have the same access to beautiful public spaces and the same opportunities for walkable, livable neighborhoods as people in large cities. We don’t see the size of these places as impediments. Instead, we believe that these projects will create a vision for these communities as thriving places that are “small enough” to be successful.
Since 2003, Opticos has worked to help revitalize historic downtowns, improve pedestrian access, and increase community livability in some of the neediest areas of rural California. In partnership with the Local Government Commission, a Sacramento-based nonprofit, we have in particular worked throughout California’s Central Valley, in towns that range in size from populations of 1,400 to more than 50,000—all with a vision of helping these communities create positive, livable places that will thrive.
Thus far, we have been involved in twenty-two projects throughout the region. Our overall approach for every project is to capitalize on community engagement to find practical and implementable solutions that can be achieved with limited resources. Central to this process are multi-day design charrettes that bring the community to the table. Each stage of the charrette—from initial workshop to mapping exercises to review sessions—is open to the public, and local residents are invited to help establish planning needs and review suggested designs.
We create custom approaches tailored for the cultural, social, and physical needs of each place; issues that we have addressed include revival of downtown areas, encouragement of social equity and environmental quality, creating smart patterns for future town expansion, and facilitation of economic growth through better planning. As part of the overall process, we educate community members and leaders about placemaking so that they are able to move forward on their own and develop community-led options in the future. Our involvement with each town spans a year or more, and we have a long-term investment in making these places work.
From tiny towns to larger municipal zones, we have worked with a wide variety of rural areas and created a range of solutions based on each community’s specific needs. Examples of our work include building bicycle and pedestrian trails to promote self-sufficiency and access in a small, unincorporated area, revitalization of a medium-sized downtown, and designing an overall framework for a large town that promotes balanced growth of both the old and new parts of the community.
Rural communities throughout California are facing pressing planning issues that receive little attention or resources, despite the fact that roughly a third of all Californians live in small towns or rural areas. These places face aging populations, declining local infrastructure, and limited access to amenities and economic opportunities. The result is often small towns that are uniquely vulnerable to a loss of history, economic sustainability, and social vitality—and are ill equipped to accommodate long-term growth or change.
California’s Central Valley is particularly sensitive to these issues. This area is one comprised of small, dispersed agricultural communities with a high percentage of immigrants and farmworkers. The nine counties of the San Joaquin Valley are responsible for 12% of the world’s agricultural output—while also having some of the highest poverty rates in the nation, with 15% living at or below the poverty line. At the same time, the area suffers from poor air and water quality, exacerbated by development patterns that encourage car dependence and increase endemic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, and obesity. The recent economic downturn has had a devastating impact on these communities, shrinking or eradicating any existing planning resources or funding.