Ruth Murphy started the Community Design Center of Minneapolis. She was a person that seemed to know the truth before anyone else. The grain of that knowledge often brings pain, but finding ways to create lasting change takes the edge off. Ruth began as a community organizer in the late 1960s. She liked “community design ideas” and turned one of them into a ‘food and fiber’ ecology and women’s empowerment program in the 1980s. Her presentation about this idea begins with an idyllic yet accurate vision of rich Minnesota farmland, bountiful in its variety of fresh produce once sold across the state in small-town markets several times and places each year.

The exchange enriched the social confidence and wealth wherever it happened. Murphy then concludes to describe one change. Supermarket replacement of this bounty with shelves of canned goods, with ‘instant or frozen foods’ on the inner isles and stale produce on the outside. She would then call out to her audience and say, “Why are we eating this crap?” In just five minutes, her listeners immediately grasp the complexity of a thing, if not yet lost, then far too easily replaced. Ruth Murphy’s idea saw celebrating the design of a people’s market as an opportunity to invent a new kind of economics. She defined a sustainable community as one where people know how the food got to the table and the clothes on their backs.

The design was clear, community gardens in urban areas of Minneapolis and small towns of the state should build stronger relationships beginning with regional farmers and for lots of other reasons. One example was that the trucks used to bring food to a supermarket left empty. However, the trucks were “backloaded” with traded goods from the community gardens and farmer’s markets. “That uses the fuel both ways,” she said with a knowing smile. A designer can strengthen the economics of a place. It only requires making visible and celebrating an essential thing, like food and fiber, as a social and cultural source of vitality.


The Minnesota Design Center (MDC) engages in system design in Minnesota and the upper Midwest to design physical systems such as infrastructure and open space and non-physical systems such as public health or service delivery. Today the CDC’s people, projects, academic programs, and publications will be found (here) at the Minnesota Design Center in Ralph Rapson Hall on the campus of the University of Minnesota, where the design work for sustainable agriculture remains.

Community Design Center of Minnesota

Ruth Murphy, the Director, had offices at 370 Selby Avenue (Suite 301) and Minneapolis, MN 55102. The following is a record of “what was” in knowing the legacy of the design center remains.

The Community Design Center (CDC) has a long history of helping people in urban, suburban, and rural communities through community-based organizations. The Center encourages low- and moderate-income people to plan for the community and implement business development. Belief in the ideas of people who live and often work in a community is the best resource for defining and solving many problems. Community-based development requires people to set goals, develop strategies, mobilize financial resources, and initiate projects.

The CDC is designed to:

  • Identify and assess community and economic development issues that affect the social, economic, ecological, and physical well-being,
  • Build capacity to develop strategies for effective action around these issues and
  • Educate the public on community development and its role in society today.

CDC’s focus has been on assisting low- and moderate-income people and communities by:

  • Developing practical and holistic approaches to community and economic development and commercial revitalization
  • Providing action research services designed to produce practical recommendations
  • Facilitate internal organizational development and strategic planning
  • Conduct leadership training for neighborhood and community volunteers 

One registered architect staffed the CDC’s architecture program until the late 80s. While the Center occasionally contracts with an architect, most of its current work focuses on developing the communities rather than the physical structures. Several joint ventures established good relationships with local private firms. The Community Development Assistance (CDA) program became staffed by a Director and an Education/ Training Coordinator.

The Center assists residents t in three ways:

  1. Technical Assistance.
  2. Education and Training, and
  3. The advocacy needed to create the resources for the neighborhood development movement.

The Center focuses on the capacity of CBOs (board and staff) to address development issues. Components include; Community assessment and planning, research, and organizational development (training, workshops, and seminars).

Grants from local foundations and corporations provide general operating support, funding of specific program areas, and project work (80% of the budget). CDC also receives some fees for services paid by local groups (20% of the budget).

Annual Budget (1995) $200,000  
Total Full-Time Staff:  
Average Number of Clients:  
Year Formed 1969  
Type of Organization: Community and Economic Development 
Purpose: Empowerment of community to engage in economic development  Community organizing, organizational development, planning, training, research aimed at action, expanding a group’s resources, public education 
Publication(s)/Cost (Includes postage) A Community Development Handbook $18.00 
 Rural Culture and Values $4 
 Rural France: New Alliances with Old Allies $3.50 
Fee for Services Policy: Contract with private firms with preliminary program/design analysis. Direct low- and moderate-income benefit or project is within a geographic area that meets low- and moderate-income criteria. All architectural work is primarily with other nonprofit organizations that serve low- and moderate-income people. Will do work with individuals and businesses through local organizations or where the benefit is direct.  The State of Minnesota, the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, but the CDC has conducted research and led workshops in several parts of the U.S., Mexico, and France. 
Area(s) Served: 

Also published are two papers on children in inner-city neighborhoods: “Kids, Like Adults, Need a Sense of Place“, and “Rebuilding Civic Life Through Children’s Activities. Three reports: Ministry Opportunities in Twin Cities, Strategies for housing/Economic Development for Asians in the Inner City, and Neighborhood Empowerment for the City of St. Paul.

The Community Design Center of Minnesota also maintains offices at: Southeast Minnesota Office Route 1, Box 71, Lounsbury, MN 55949.

The Report is always interested in updates on community design services related to the service of low- and moderate-income communities, and people in every city of the nation. (Contact)