Landscape Architects Can Reduce the Pain of Climate Migration

Isle de Jean Charles
Satellite view of Isle de Jean Charles, / Google Earth

Climate change-driven migrations will occur more frequently. That was the message in a first-of-its kind session at reVISION ASLA 2020. Haley Blakeman, FASLA, a professor at Louisiana State University, said landscape architects can facilitate more successful migrations by acting as a conduit between scientists, planners, and the communities forced to migrate.

Blakeman explained her team’s efforts in helping to move the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribal community of Isle de Jean Charles, a small and increasingly submerged island in Terrebonne Parish, along the coast of Louisiana. The island has lost 98 percent of its landmass over the past 60 years.

“[Climate migration] is going to be happening in more and more places,” Blakeman said. Sea level rise is Isle de Jean Charles’ particular affliction. Elsewhere, drought, wildfires, and food insecurity will force movement.

Can landscape architects help lead these migration efforts? “Yes,” Blakeman said, but only by accepting their limitations and collaborating with migrating communities and a collective of multidisciplinary planning and design professionals.

In Blakeman’s case, this collective included geographer and resilience policy analyst Jessica Simms and sociologist Pamela Jenkins. Their expertise and knowledge of the Isle de Jean Charles community helped build a trusting relationship that has served the project well.

“It’s tricky business moving people from their home to another place,” Jenkins told attendees. “It is not an infrastructure project with a social component, but the other way around.”

Isle de Jean Charles is representative of many low-lying areas in Louisiana. The state thrives commercially on its proximity to the water. But between the oil and gas industry choking coastal wetlands and the incursion of the sea, Louisiana has lost over 1,900 square miles of coastal land in the last 90 years. Isle de Jean Charles has outpaced that trend, putting pressure on the islanders to secure their community’s future elsewhere.

sea level louisiana
Upwards of 7.8 million people in the Gulf may be affected by sea level rise / Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Dan Swenson

The tribe worked with the State of Louisiana to secure federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the move. The project is the United States’ first community-scale climate change-driven resettlement. 38 of 42 households on Isle de Jean Charles are participating, and 34 of those are moving together to a 500-acre site called “The New Isle,” according to Simms.

Simms and her team vetted about 20 potential locations in Terrebonne for re-establishing the islanders, only examining sites that were safely above sea level. 20 sites were narrowed to three, with five configurations. Site preference surveys made rounds in the community as members visited the sites.

Eventually, the community settled on a site favored by approximately 80 percent of its members, an hour’s drive from Isle de Jean Charles. Blakeman, Jenkins, and Simms liaised between the islanders and design team in order to tailor The New Isle to the community’s needs.

idjc rendering
A rendering of The New Isle community. / Waggonner & Ball, courtesy of The State of Louisiana.

While this suggests a tidy process, Simms reminded the audience that forced migration is inherently traumatic. “Their identities are wrapped up in the island that is going away,” Simms said.

Most tribal members were born and raised on the island and are well attuned to the place. In a departure from previous policies, which barred those migrating from retaining ownership of their existing land, the islanders were allowed to maintain ownership and access to their land and homes, though not allowed to live there. This policy change was critical to achieving community buy-in.

This buy-in is critical to the success of any forced migration effort, Jenkins explained. She quoted a figure from Anthony Oliver-Smith, an academic in the field of disasters and their social impacts, saying 90 percent of such migrations fail. Existing social fault lines, poor communications between the community and the professionals involved, and a lack of available funds often doom climate migrations.

community design session
Jenkins and Blakeman (far left) meet with community members to discuss issues related to their future home. / Haley Blakeman

And while the Isle de Jean Charles migration is heading towards success, all of the speakers emphasized that it does not represent a model. There are lessons to be learned from the effort, but each future migration undertaking must be community- and context-specific.

Construction on the homes of The New Isle began in May and will finish in 2021, according to Simms. The new community will sit 12 feet above sea level.

One thought on “Landscape Architects Can Reduce the Pain of Climate Migration

  1. Vince Takeuchi 11/19/2020 / 7:09 pm

    The Isle de Jean Charles relocation reminds me of habitat protection in Southern California, and the conflict between greedy developers and concerned citizens. Even without the component of an indigenous people, habitat preservation took a back seat to development until citizens and local government got involved. This relocation project is a reminder that collective efforts of professionals including Landscape Architects need to show the way to effectively save habitats and the people who live there.

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