Charismatic infrastructure for climate change adaptation in the US


Faculty: Assistant Professor, Dr Rebecca Elliott, LSE Department of Sociology
Phelan US Centre Research Assistant: Emily Douglas, Department of Geography and Environment

Emily

Author

Emily Douglas

Department of Geography and Environment

It is no doubt that I have come out of this project feeling enriched from the experience of contributing research and making a difference at such a fantastic institution, especially on work that is so pertinent to current landscape in the US.

Over the past academic year, I have worked with Dr Rebecca Elliott to investigate charismatic climate change infrastructure in the US, with a focus on projects that seek to address the risk of flooding and sea level rise. Following the announcement of Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which plans to invest $2 trillion into infrastructure, infrastructure will undoubtedly be a key tool that will affect the climate change strategy of the US. By beginning to interrogate the current risk mitigation strategies taking place in the US, Dr Elliott and I have begun to construct the current paradigm of adaptation strategies, which reveal various intricacies around local and national climate politics.  

The first major section of my research involved constructing a census of current infrastructure projects that are seeking to reduce the risk of flooding, storm surges and rising sea levels. This included a mixture of projects that are currently underway, or in their proposed planning stages. This was intended to give us a wide scope of current projects, and key information, such as their form, status, location, involved stakeholders and financing method. This allowed us to consider infrastructure as more than just construction, but as the confluence of varied interests in some of the biggest cities in the US. Additionally, we collated summaries of each coastal state’s policies on flood adaptation, protection, and mitigation, which allowed us to gain comprehensive understanding of flooding strategy in the US. By analysing individual projects and states, a much more nuanced view emerged on how some states were becoming increasingly defensive and fortified, and how others are becoming increasingly open to methods such as managed retreat.  

Following the census, we then selected a number of projects to look at more closely, with the goal to produce more detailed memos. This included a background study into the area, including their geographic and geological vulnerability, a summary of their demographic characteristics, the current land use patterns, the environmental scope, other projects occurring simultaneously or recently, and analysis of popular media coverage of the projects. Additionally, I also compiled a wider bibliography of the cities these projects were in, to assist Dr Elliott with the eventual outcome of this project. These extended memos involved thorough research into individual projects. It allowed us to address issues and questions such as why these projects were chosen specifically, why certain areas are prioritised for protection over others, and how they fit within the local environmental and socio-economic landscape. These will eventually form the basis of case studies that will be researched more in-depth as the project progresses beyond my involvement.  

Methods

Given the early stages of the overarching project, my methodology has been researching secondary literature. The bulk of this came from planning and government documents; my work often involved extrapolating and organising data from a social science perspective, from otherwise technical documents. For the census, this involved a stricter coding and categorisation based on what Dr Elliott and I had outlined, although we were reflexive. For the research for the memos, there was more freedom to elaborate and research what were the most important debates and discussion points for each individual project. Furthermore, it also involved watching, and in some cases attending, public meetings on the infrastructure projects. I found this to be especially useful, as it revealed the key debates from residents and business owners, allowing a much more intimate understanding of both the positive and negative impacts these infrastructure projects will entail. Finally, when conducting memos, I also carried out a media discourse analysis of dominant themes in local coverage. This involved collating coverage from several local and national sources, openly coding for recurring themes, before writing up the analysis.  

While the research project was by no means an end goal, Dr Elliott and I not only gained a more comprehensive understanding of the current landscape of coastal protective infrastructure projects in the US, but also several patterns and themes. Firstly, when conducting the census, we found clustering of similar styles of projects. For example, in New York and New Jersey, six projects funded by the Research by Design programme are the frontier of infrastructural protection. These projects are being built as a response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and are much more integrative of green infrastructure elements, and tend to have more civil involvement. Additionally, the projects are typically on a smaller scale, aligning more closely to the nature of individual neighbourhoods. By contrast, across the rest of the East Coast, a number of potential projects are being supported by the Army Corps of Engineers, and represent more typical ‘grey infrastructure’, and are less adapted to individual neighbourhoods. Furthermore, along the Gulf Coast, there is more willingness towards methods of retreat given the geological characteristics of the shoreline, while potential funding for a lot of the projects derives from compensation schemes from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. When analysing projects more closely, there are often concerns about placemaking, effectiveness, financing, climate complacency and competition with other US cities for funding. Dr Elliott and I have also been particularly interested in how cities decide which areas are considered ‘worthy’ of protection, and the mechanisms involved in making these decisions. 

One of my favourite parts about the project has been the relevancy of the work being done. Firstly, climate change remains one of the most pressing threats for the US, including the risk of flooding, storm surges and sea level rise – and there is a tremendous amount of real estate at risk. Additionally, following Biden’s election to the presidency, and his subsequent proposed infrastructure plans, it is likely that funding will be made available for projects, and new ones will be proposed. Our research aims to develop the idea that infrastructure is not simply about environmental protection, but also highlights how it is reflective of dominant political and social discourses. We hope that the research we conducted will influence how politicians, planners, engineers and other stakeholders consider infrastructure, and what the projects themselves embody for society.  

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