June 26, 2024

Protecting a Swamp, Preserving a Hangar, on the Edge of the Mississippi Delta

Stephen Sugg
Local harpist plays for workshop participants during a tour of the Lee Tartt Nature Preserve. Photo by Rory Doyle.

Grenada, Mississippi’s CIRD local design challenge could better be described as design challenges, with the plural reflecting ambitious plans to engage the community toward a permanent open-air facility in the Lee Tartt Nature Preserve (aka The Swamp) along with taking on the preservation of a WWII-era airplane hangar at Grenada’s airport.

Grenada’s CIRD experience elevates important rural design questions: Should a community’s design challenge be narrow in scope and focused on a singular space, building, or neighborhood? Or should technical assistance entities like CIRD meet communities where they are, accepting a challenge such as Grenada’s involving a swamp, an enormous airplane hangar + airport operations, and more, even if these elements lack obvious connectivity?

An Artist in the Swamp

Robin Whitfield had enjoyed creating art in the swamp largely undisturbed for more than a decade—it was an ever-changing canvas and vibrant in all seasons. Working in the swamp complemented Robin’s artistic endeavors at her storefront painting studio in downtown Grenada, less than a mile away. Grenada’s locals largely avoided the swamp, aside from a few bird watchers, the occasional canoeist, or those using the swamp as a dumping ground.

CIRD workshop site visit in the Chakchiuma Swamp. Photo by Rory Doyle.

When Grenada’s elected leaders offered the swamp’s cypress trees for clear cutting to the highest bidder in 2016, Robin went from artist to activist in creating and leading the Friends of Chakchiuma Swamp, a position she still holds. Robin and a small team of volunteers managed to save the swamp, but the work was just getting started.  

Today, the swamp, officially the Lee Tartt Nature Preserve, teems with activity--much of it centered on youth programming, with preservation, conservation and environmental education paramount. Summer Swamp Discovery camps, a Spring Wings Festival, ongoing kayak excursions, and Swampy Halloween Trail are a sampling of what happens at the swamp.  Introducing the next generation to the swamp’s wonders is the best way to protect it, Robin emphasized over dozens of conversations with CIRD’s team. Partnerships with nearby schools and teachers that link students and their curriculum with the nature preserve are a core activity for Friends of Chakchiuma Swamp.

The Swamp and CIRD

In applying for the CIRD Local Design Workshop, Friends of  Chakchiuma Swamp shared an ambitious proposed scope for their design challenge. They wanted the community’s input toward an outdoor pavilion or equivalent as a community gathering place and staging area for recreation, environmental education, and more in the swamp. A new open-air facility would anchor their long term planning.

Gathering for the CIRD workshop in March 2024. Photo by Rory Doyle.

But Friends of the Chakchiuma’s application for a CIRD Local Design Workshop went beyond the swamp. The proposed design challenge sought to take on preservation and re-purposing of the nearby historic hangar at Grenada’s airport, a unique structure and one of only a handful that remain across the U.S. Perhaps that salvaged wood from the hangar’s recent roof collapse could become part of a new structure at the swamp, the application offered.

CIRD’s selection panel awarded Grenada a local design workshop slot, with panelists lauding connections to art and placemaking, evidence of local capacity, and engagement from local leaders. CIRD’s design team approached their November 2023 site visit with an open mind coupled with reservations about the connectivity between the swamp and the hangar. Perhaps these were separate design challenges and they ought to narrow the scope?

Grenada residents participated in hands-on design activities throughout the Local Design Workshop. Photo by Rory Doyle.

William Faulkner’s words (written from Oxford, MS—only an hour away) rang true to CIRD’s design team upon setting foot in Grenada.

“The past is not dead. It's not even past.”

Securing local support for the swamp required Whitfield and the Friends team to build local alliances. And the past weighed heavily on such alliances, whether in seeking funding from the business community, gaining support from the airport’s stakeholders, or opening doors with the town’s elected officials. Securing support for the swamp required a broader understanding of community needs as seen by many interests in a town of 12,000 where Dr. King joined allies during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

In visiting Grenada and meeting with citizens across generational, racial, and economic spectrums, CIRD’s design opened to the scope of Grenada’s proposed design challenge. Local enthusiasm and engagement made it easier. Several months after the CIRD team’s site visit, CIRD’s designers presented the community with possibilities for the hangar along with renderings of a new facility in the swamp, both built on local feedback.

Lessons from Grenada

“CIRD’s design team first and foremost listens to the community,” said Omar Hakeem with TBD Studio, CIRD’s design partner. “In Grenada, it was ambitious to take on projects in the swamp and at the airport. It stretched our design team thin. But visiting Grenada made us understand the deep connections between people, places and institutions in Grenada, crossing generational and racial lines. The design scope made sense for Grenada.” Hakeem added that working with three Mississippi-based design firms on the project was essential, noting that deep understanding of local context undergirds any good rural design project.

Materials used throughout the Local Design Workshop in Grenada, MS. Photo by Rory Doyle

CIRD will watch closely as the design process in Grenada continues to unfold. CIRD seeks to be catalytic, cognizant that the rural design projects started in a local design workshop go far beyond CIRD's programmatic funding cycles. In the future, a visitor to Grenada will enjoy a picnic in a pavilion shaded by cypress trees in the Lee Tartt Nature Preserve, followed by a kayak trip that brings from the water a view of a repurposed airplane hangar teeming with activity. When that happens, such will represent a victory for Grenada and a broader design lesson around local nuance when considering the scope of rural design projects.

Learn more about the CIRD Local Design Workshop in Grenada.