We know at least a few of the reasons why rural communities go into decline. In eastern Washington, technology has radically improved agricultural efficiency at the cost of manual labor jobs. Technology, in the form of trucks and automobiles, has also replaced the railroad that once connected the dots of towns in a web of mutual trade and support. When the on-farm jobs disappeared, the commercial support base in small communities did, too. Banks, cafes, repair shops closed, leaving town after town with decrepit central cores. Brain drain takes young people to urban areas in search of employment—and the vicious cycle becomes a death spiral.

That’s the part we understand—but what can be done to revive rural communities? For Bob Krikrac and Kathleen Ryan, interior design faculty members in the Washington State University School of Design and Construction, the answer is, Send in the designers.

Design solves problems. Design is not about the decorative surface of the thing or matching the rugs with the drapes, but about how the thing works, how it serves its users, and how it can be made to function well in perpetuity. The “thing” can be a webpage, a truck, a house, a park—or an entire town.

That’s why Rural Communities Design Initiative teams are composed of students from landscape architecture, interior design, architecture, construction management, civil engineering and even the social sciences. Using “design interventions in the physical environment,” RCDI teams aim “to enhance the social, cultural, economic, and natural capital of unique rural places.”

By engaging community members in a design charette—an intensive brainstorming and planning meeting where a vision for development is hashed out—RCDI teams make community members the co-authors of the plans, creating buy-in and enthusiasm for the work of raising capital to move plans from paper to implementation.

After a quick orientation to their process, an RCDI team asks the attending community members to break up into small groups. As locals talk through their ideas, the students capture them in a series of quick sketches.

“You are initially a sounding board for different ideas,” says Lucas Vannice, ’14. Now a landscape architect with the Watershed Company in Seattle, Vannice worked on RCDI projects in Uniontown and Kettle Falls.

“A lot of the issues rural communities face are very much design challenges,” Vannice says. “And our job is to listen and help people visualize possibilities.”

In Uniontown, Vannice worked on a site plan for the Dahmen Barn, a facility for artisans to create and vend their work, as well as for the public to take art classes and attend musical performances. For Kettle Falls, he worked on a design for a community garden, which serves to bring people together for the shared cause of growing food.

RCDI projects are spread out all over the state. Some are quite small, like the little free libraries in Palouse, Rosalia, and Tekoa. Others are much more ambitious.

Less than an hour west of Pullman is the tiny farming town of LaCrosse. For just about everybody driving east on Highway 26, it’s just a sign. Make the turn, though, and drive the additional two miles, and you’ll step back in time to find a group of townspeople wrestling with the future.

LaCrosse is popular as a photo safari stop. “People come to take pictures by the van and busload,” Kathleen Parker, a local, says. One of the reasons is the stone buildings.

Built of local basalt in the 1930s by blacksmith Clint Dobson, the stone buildings were just declared a “Most Endangered Place” by the Washington Trust for Historic Places.

They’re endangered because they’re falling apart, says Peggy Bryan, president of LaCross Community Pride. “Locals drive by them everyday and stop ‘seeing’ them or they take them for granted.”

Several houses, bunkhouses, and a service station are all clustered near LaCrosse’s downtown. When RCDI held a charette in LaCrosse, tons of ideas were generated. One idea is to build a Missoula Floods Museum that would tie together the basalt buildings with the regional scablands geology. Or maybe they could be restored as a bed and breakfast and used to house tourists—or scientists.

Scientists working on the camera system for the next Mars Rover mission visited the scablands recently. Mars, theory has it, was once carved up by massive floods, just like eastern Washington.

Economic redevelopment doesn’t have to be all about tourism. In Ritzville, a tiny town west of Spokane in wheat-growing country, RCDI helped the town envision a center where craftspeople from around the world can come learn historic trades. One of the demands for restoring historic buildings and landmarks is skilled craftspeople versed in the techniques used in days gone by.

In communities as far-flung as Mattawa and Pateros, RCDI teams are helping community members find ways to bring tourists—whether wine tasters or bike-path adventurers—off the highway and on to the byways of eastern Washington.