Contesting the Coast: Ecosystems as Infrastructure in the Mississippi River Delta

Authors: Joshua Lewis*, Tulane University, Henrik Ernstson, Manchester University, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, University of Cape Town
Topics: Historical Geography, Hazards, Risks, and Disasters, Planning Geography
Keywords: Flooding, urban ecology, resilience, environmental justice, New Orleans, Louisiana, Mississippi River
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 1:20 PM / 3:00 PM
Room: Napoleon B3, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In this article we develop an analytical repertoire for understanding historical interrelationships between water infrastructure, regional environmental politics, coastal ecosystems, and urban flooding. In doing so, we scrutinize how notions of urban resilience, climate adaptation, and ecosystem-based infrastructure are influencing contemporary planning practice, as a remedy for urban flooding in particular. Our account from New Orleans and the Mississippi River Delta traces the production of uneven flood risk through strategic infrastructural investments by the city’s elite. These initiatives concentrated storm surge flood risks along the city’s eastern periphery. This systematic displacement of risk eastward has major implications for contemporary efforts to restore Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, which can act as buffers during hurricane events. While elite interests and many urban residents view efforts to use river diversions to build coastal wetlands as vital for the survival of the region, some communities on the city’s eastern periphery have staged a challenge to their use. As we demonstrate, this controversy has its roots in 20th century land use politics, and the production of what we call socioecological cleavages, persistent divisions in both eco-hydrology and body politic that expose the limitations of today’s dominant decision- making and planning paradigms. This raises fundamental challenges for planning practice, which are explored here through a discussion of situational dissensus, conflicting rationalities, and pathways for democratic institutional innovation.

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