Isle de jean charles via sanders

Don’t Label Them Climate Change Refugees, Says a Louisiana Planner, They’re Pioneers

In Louisiana, real estate is a commodity. According to the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, more than 1,900 square miles have been lost since the 1930s, and an additional 4,120 square miles could be lost over the next 50 years. For many who call Louisiana home, these statistics roll off the tongue, publicized for decades in terms of lost acreage, square miles, football fields per minute, and a variety of other measurements used to articulate the problem of the ever-shrinking state.


Strike up a conversation with long-term residents of Louisiana’s coastal communities and it’s only a matter of time before certain names come up: Betsy,  Camille, Juan, Danny, Andrew, Georges, Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike. In another context, such names could be mistaken for long-lost friends and relatives. In coastal Louisiana, the names track a tragic chronology of disasters—each taking its toll and most marking a point in time when friends, family and neighbors decided they could no longer endure the repetitive hardship of living along the coast. For those who have endured, these names don’t just represent storms or signal a changing environment, they represent a slow destruction of the rich cultural tapestry to which Louisiana owes its unique personality.


Isle de Jean Charles, a remote island community along the furthest stretches of southeastern Terrebonne Parish, has been ravaged over time by the combined corrosive impacts of ongoing land loss and severe disaster events. On days when the sun shines and the winds remain calm, it’s a place often described as idyllic—an ideal locale to lose yourself behind an afternoon fishing pole, a landscape Henry David Thoreau might have favorably compared to his own Walden Pond. Yet, for all of the Island’s inherent beauty, it offers a striking visualization of land loss that no statistic can fully capture.


Island Road in Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. The island’s connection to land is rapidly disappearing. Photograph by Tracey Kranitz, via Job One For Humanity.


There is only one road to and from Isle de Jean Charles, the aptly named Island Road. The beginning of Island Road doubles as the border of the Morganza to the Gulf structural risk reduction system—a massive labyrinth of levees, pumps, locks and floodgates designed, when fully constructed, to reduce surge flood risk for wide swaths of Terrebonne Parish—but not for Isle de Jean Charles. Island Road is only navigable by car when not submerged under open water, which only two generations ago was marshland on either side of the narrow causeway.


The Island itself is at the end of the road, marked by an 8-foot ring levee outlining its boundaries; for context, the base flood elevation in this area is 16-feet. The community itself is composed of a collection of dwellings—many blighted from several significant weather events and barely providing shelter to a smattering of permanent residents—and, tellingly, a handful of abandoned shells once home to those former residents who fled upland.


This is the setting of the first federally funded, climate-change induced community resettlement project—a $48.3 million effort to create a model for managed retreat at a scale not previously attempted. The Island is disappearing and this federal investment will ultimately determine whether the Island community disappears along with it, or whether it can experience a rebirth in a higher, drier, upland location.


The Island community has been exhaustively featured in media outlets large and small, local and global. Its residents have been referred to as “America’s first climate change refugees.” The resettlement project team, working to bring life to a newly imagined Isle de Jean Charles community 40 miles to the north, does not refer to the Island’s residents as refugees. They’re not refugees. They are pioneers who have willingly volunteered to take a proactive approach in the face of the sobering reality that the Island—their Island—will not withstand the impacts of future storms yet to come.


More importantly, many of the Island’s residents are leaning in by collaborating with a project team of state officials, planners, engineers and architects to plan the look, feel, function and composition of the new community, but also to outline an appropriate and dignified “long goodbye” for their Island. Self-determination is one of the project’s prevailing themes. It’s a theme underlined by an extreme level of dedication from both Islanders and the project team. For the team, that means long days spent trekking to and from the Island, actively engaging with Islanders on their porches and in their living rooms. For the Islanders, it’s a significant time commitment devoted to public meetings, design workshops and steering committee meetings—not to mention time spent catering to the stream of interview requests pouring in from journalists around the world.


There are no shortcuts in placemaking—especially if the place is designed for a community beset by a deteriorating landscape and beleaguered by long-term population loss and its resulting breakdown of cultural and social cohesion. 


There are no shortcuts in placemaking—especially if the place is designed for a community beset by a deteriorating landscape and beleaguered by long-term population loss and its resulting breakdown of cultural and social cohesion. There are no homogeneous communities, and Isle de Jean Charles is no different. The process of emphasizing self-determination in planning for a new community is laborious and tedious, often requiring both the consideration and balancing of competing desires.


The development of a new community for Isle de Jean Charles invites several promising questions that if answered affirmatively, will have far-reaching implications. If successful, it will provide a model for resettlement at a community scale, providing an alternative to the existing individual relocation model—an approach historically plagued by buyout offers that are often inadequate to provide replacement housing. Even when accepted, such programs leave behind pockmarked development patterns of alternating greenspace and occupied units, to speak nothing of lost community values and connections. In contrast to existing relocation models, a new Isle de Jean Charles community is envisioned as a mixed-use development. If its commercial corridor yields revenue, its development model could be scaled and replicated as a public-private partnership, driving down costs in subsequent resettlements and potentially providing a new mechanism for affordable housing development.


In addition, it is also a process providing invaluable opportunities—and implications—for organizations devoted to planning, architecture and policy development. Isle de Jean Charles is not isolated in its fate. It is just one of many coastal communities likely to face the choice of resettlement or disappearance. Over an extended timeline, the continued viability of larger urban environments such as New Orleans, Miami, Melbourne, New York and Shanghai, to name just a few, could conceivably be called into question. Akin to past pioneers who led the development of the world’s great places, climate pioneers are poised to lead the development of the world’s next generation of villages, towns, cities and perhaps megacities.


These kinds of opportunities, while borne of disaster, should provide creative inspiration—and ultimately innovation—as planners, architects and everyone in the placemaking community envisions the settlements of tomorrow. It starts with the people living in at-risk coastal communities, and in Louisiana, it starts with the pioneers of Isle de Jean Charles.


To hear more about Mathew Sanders’ work in coastal Louisiana, click here and listen to the Curry Stone Foundation’s Social Design Insights podcast, hosted by Eric Cesal. Featured image: Isle De Jean Charles, Louisiana.




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