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Start Dreaming, Houston!

The board that architecture students from Mississippi State University created to gather feedback, with the workshop participants' ideas.
The board that architecture students from Mississippi State University created to gather feedback, with the workshop participants' ideas.

There is so much more to Mississippi than the well known assets of Southern hospitality and mouth watering local food. We got a taste of Houston’s creativity and energy during their Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design™ workshop, which focused on the future of the southern trailhead of the Tanglefoot Trail.

The Tanglefoot Trail in Northeast Mississippi, the longest fully-built rail-trail in the state at 43.6 miles, goes through seven small towns and three counties. The trail, which sports a 10 foot-wide asphalt surface with maintained shoulders throughout it’s length, lies close to the Natchez Trace Parkway- a 444 mile national parkway that commemorates the historic Old Natchez Trace, preserves sections of the original trail, and terminates in the heart of Houston.

Houston’s workshop, hosted by the Carl Small Town Center, brought local stakeholders and public officials together to discuss the possibilities to make the trail terminus in Houston a regional and local destination. The workshop explored how to transform the trailhead into a great community public space and create a stronger connection between the trail and Houston’s downtown. By improving pedestrian and bicycle access to the Trail and creating a phased action plan for its future trail development, the Tanglefoot Trail could truly transform into a cultural and economic asset for the community.

We had a strong resource team to engage the community and gather ideas for both potential connections to the Trail, and the design and programming of the trailhead. The resource team members included:

  • Heather Deutsch, Sustainable Transportation Planner at Toole Design Group

  • Keith Holt, Southeast Region Director of Wisconsin Bicycle Federation

  • Andress Barresi, Graphic Designer and Principal of Roll Barresi & Associates

  • Cynthia Nikitin, the Director of CIRD and Senior Vice President at Project for Public Spaces

  • Nidhi Gulati, Project Associate at Project for Public Spaces (PPS)

The resource team, experts in bicycle and pedestrian planning, wayfinding, and Placemaking, were joined by four enthusiastic architecture students from Mississippi State University, who not only helped pull the workshop together, but also introduced some innovative tools for community input. The skills of the resource team were matched by the vivacity that the residents of Houston and users of the Tanglefoot Trail brought to the workshop.

Community Blitz:

The Community Blitz served as a great pre-workshop kick-off event that opened with a speech by the Mayor of Houston, Stacey W. Parker. Mayor Parker played a remarkable triple-faceted role of a community leader, a conversation starter and an active participant, throughout the workshop.

Mayor Stacey W. Parker delivering his opening speech at Houston’s rural design workshop.
The event served two purposes--gathering input and ideas from the community, and creating excitement for the workshop. A last minute change in the agenda, courtesy the lone snow storm of the month, lead to an open indoor gathering with engagement stations with Executive Director of the Chickasaw Development Foundation, Joyce East’s famous chili. The Carl Small Town Center and the students of Mississippi State came up with innovative idea gathering tools including a variation of Candy Chang’s Before I Die board to solicit quick responses from the community about their vision and dreams for Houston.
Another great interactive exercise that the students lead was creating a ‘Connections’ map with the community. With the help of a big map of the trailhead and it’s surrounding areas, yarn in four colors (for color coding various travel modes) and thumb-tacks, the students were able to map out the current paths and desire lines for bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers to the trailhead.

And for the Blitz, the students set up a photo station with party favors and a board for the community to boast about their favorite thing in Houston-- yet another way of gathering input from the community.

The Workshop:

The core of the four day convening was the hands on workshop that started off on Monday, February 23rd with an opening address by CIRD Program Director, Cynthia Nikitin. The workshop participants ranged from residents, business owners, trail users, trail staff, a National Park Service employee, to a representative from the USDA. With close to 30 people in the room, Heather Deutsch made the first presentation of the morning on ‘Cycling Do’s and Don’ts of a Small Town’, followed by Andrew Barresi, who spoke about ‘Effective Wayfinding in Small Towns,’ and Keith Holt, who covered ‘Successful Trailhead Activities’. The brainstorming and working session of the afternoon ‘Heart and Soul Placemaking Charrette’ was shortened by icy rain and forecasts of snow, but that did not stop the resource team from synthesizing the input from the day at the Carl Small Town Center office.

Day 2 of the workshop discussed all things Placemaking including PPS’s signature ‘Place Game’, an evaluation and visioning exercise lead by Cynthia and Nidhi, which included a trip to the trailhead, and an active discussion session afterwards.

Pulling it all together

The final presentation to the public-- which included recommendations for local trail connections, activities, signage, concept plan, funding opportunities and much more-- received great support and enthusiasm from the community. The movers and shakers in the audience seemed all set to make things happen. There are few things that satisfy a Placemaker’s soul more than seeing the spark in the community, and Houston certainly had that.

Next Steps:

Some of the next steps identified by the workshop group included:

  • Bike routes to and from the trail

  • A historic loop to enhance tourism

  • Safe routes to school opportunities

  • Locations for signage

  • A combined action plan for the Carl Small Town Center and the community

In the months ahead, the Carl Small Town Center will be working with the information gathered from the community to distill it into a strategy and an implementation plan for the near future. With help from community groups, they will also be looking for funding opportunities for brick and mortar improvements. The Center, in collaboration with the Chickasaw Development Foundation, will also work directly with the residents of the African-American neighborhood that surrounds the trailhead to ensure that the entire community plays a part in planning for and will  reap the benefits from the improvements to this regional asset.

We are very hopeful for the future of the trailhead as a destination in downtown Houston-- which would not only serve the community as a great place, but also become an economic, regional and tourism asset. Houston will certainly be a place to keep our eyes on in the next decade!

The participants of Houston’s CIRD workshop, with their great Resource Team, and the staff of The Carl Small Town Center.