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

Joshua A. Lewis, Henrik Ernstson

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We develop an analytical repertoire for understanding historical interrelationships between water infrastructure, regional environmental politics, and large-scale coastal ecosystems. In doing so, we scrutinize how notions of urban resilience, climate adaptation, and ecosystem-based infrastructure are influencing contemporary planning practice. Our account from New Orleans and the Mississippi River Delta traces several large-scale hydrological engineering projects with origins in the early 20th century, which aimed to restructure the landscape for more effective maritime transportation, flood protection, and urban drainage. The account then turns to a discussion of a massive and ongoing planning project, which aims to restore the historical dynamics of the Mississippi River Delta, diverting the river into nearby coastal wetlands to provide storm protection for vulnerable communities, most especially New Orleans. Our analysis shows how the development of water infrastructure systems in the region produced cleavages in the region's body politic and eco-hydrology, generating disputes that threaten to slow or obstruct the plan's implementation. The study shows how the forms and discourses of political contention in the present are deeply informed by past decisions regarding the placement, operation, and maintenance of water infrastructures in the region. The conflicts that emerge from these cleavages comprise the primary obstacle facing ecosystem-based strategies aimed at securing New Orleans and other major settlements in the region from storm surges. 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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-30
Number of pages30
JournalProgress in Planning
Issue numberApril
Early online date1 Dec 2017
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2019


  • Deltaic landscapes
  • Environmental politics
  • Expertise
  • New Orleans
  • Urban ecology


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