From the CPJ Archives: (Re)Shaping the Development Discussion – Connecting Elected Officials and Resilience Experts in Coastal Louisiana

This week we’re sharing an article that originally appeared in Volume 43 of the Carolina Planning Journal back in 2018. The theme of that edition was Planning for Uncertainty, which seems fitting in the midst of Presidential Election primary season! In this Volume, articles covered diverse topics from gentrification to education to explore the myriad ways in which risk and uncertainty are ever present in planning. Traci Birch (PhD, AICP) and Jeff Carney (AIA, AICP) of the LSU Coastal Sustainability Studio focused on uncertainty in resilience planning specifically, presenting a range of creative planning methods for engaging communities in coastal restoration efforts.

Volume 43 and other back issues of the Journal can be found on our website at

By Traci Birch (PhD, AICP) and Jeff Carney (AIA, AICP)

Forty-seven percent of Louisiana’s population lives in the coastal zone, which is also a major locus of seafood, oil and gas, maritime, and petrochemical industries for the nation—what Laska et al. (2005) refer to as “immovable industries.” These people and economies reside in major cities, suburban communities, and linear villages along the region’s rivers and bayous. Threats to these communities are well-documented. Louisiana has lost nearly 1,900 square miles of coastal wetlands since the 1930s, and is currently experiencing a land loss rate of more than 16 square miles annually (CPRA 2012). As sea levels rise and shorelines erode, coastal communities face increased risks of flooding, storm surge, and inundation. However, the immovability of industry coupled with deep place attachment cultivated through intimate knowledge of the local environment, require adaptation for survival in the face of coastal disturbances (Burley et al. 2007). Louisiana coastal communities are not going away; instead, they are learning to live with risks and build more safely and resiliently through planning and improved community design. 

While the need for climate adaptation is widely recognized by academics and many public officials in at-risk communities, relatively few communities have begun to take action. Climate change and its impacts fall in the category of “wicked problems”: having no definite formulation and no clear resolution (Rittel and Webber 1973). Deitz and Stern (1998) note several reasons for the lack of action on the part of public officials, including the complex and multi-dimensional nature of the issues; uncertainty in the science and understanding of climate dynamics; the long-term nature of the problem and pressure to maintain the status quo; and challenges with coordinating stakeholders. In Louisiana, a lack of action may also be attributed to uncertainty surrounding potential impacts of large-scale restoration projects that promise to stabilize the coast, but provide few details about what restoration projects may mean for coastal communities. 

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but the impacts are experienced most acutely in place – to people’s homes, communities, resources, and wellbeing. It is in these places—big cities and small towns—that elected officials make a variety of policy decisions that have significant impact on local environmental conditions and resiliency (McBeth and Bennett 2001, Zwald et al. 2016, Lee and Koski 2012). To overcome obstacles to resilient community decision-making, there is a need to enhance resources and capacity for decision-makers. In particular, Beatley (2009: 71) emphasizes the importance of working with elected officials to nurture forward-looking leadership, noting “strong leaders have the potential to form coalitions, build bridges, and work to overcome the usual objections and political impediments that exist to thinking and acting.” There is a need, particularly at the local level where information is lacking, for processes that bring experts, decision-makers, and community members together in meaningful negotiations that incorporate scientific information, local knowledge, and relevant values and interests (Karl et al. 2007, NCR 2009). Further, there is a need to enhance adaptive capacity through building horizontal and vertical networks capable of addressing complex issues of risk and resilience (Adger 2003, Walker and Salt 2006). 

In light of these capacity needs, adaptation efforts require coordination and collaboration among national, state and local government agencies (including universities), and a variety of sectors (Susskind 2010, NCR 2009). To begin addressing these needs, the Louisiana State University (LSU) Coastal Sustainability Studio (CSS) developed the Louisiana Community Resilience Institute (LCRI), which brings researchers and students together with elected officials, and public and private sector experts to undertake project-based planning and urban design focused on building community resilience. The following provides an overview of the LCRI, how this work dovetails with other research and planning processes, and a concrete framework and recommendations to guide researchers and communities in cultivating similar efforts. 

Theoretical Framework

Community resilience has become a ubiquitous term in urban planning and design related to enhancing capacity to cope with environmental change and disturbance. While a recent addition to this lexicon, it is not a new concept. Coming from the Latin root resilire, meaning to spring or bounce back, it was first used by physical scientists to describe the stability of non-living materials and resistance to external shocks. The concept was adapted by Holling (1973) as a descriptive ecological concept characterizing the capacity of ecosystems to absorb disturbance and persist without qualitative structural change. Since then, resilience has been redefined and extended to encompass ecological, socio-ecological, and economic systems (Folke 2006, Holling 2001, Walker and Salt 2006). From the planning and urban design perspective, resilience has become the new way of talking about hazard mitigation, emphasizing adaptation and developing underlying capacity (Beatley 2009: 6). While reconceptualization broadens the potential for resilience science and policy across disciplines, some argue clarity and practical relevance have suffered (Brand and Jax 2007, Cutter 2016a, Davoudi 2012). The intent and ecological foundation of resilience has given way to a blending of descriptive aspects that make definition, operationalization, and assessment difficult—what Markusen (2003) refers to as ”fuzzy conceptualization.” Cutter (2016b: 110) observes “such vagueness has its merits, especially in the policy world where the goals and motivations of proponents are highly variable and politicized.” However, Markusen (2003) points out that fuzzy conceptualization also makes implementation challenging. Matyas and Pelling (2014: S1) note the ambiguousness surrounding resilience means “it is a concept caught between the abstract and the operational.” Nevertheless, others note this malleability creates flexibility and opportunity to foster communication between science and planning practice (Brand and Jax 2007, Davoudi 2012). 

Communities, however, face a number of challenging economic, social, and environmental changes requiring attention. There is a growing need for effective ways to support adaptation-related decision making due to slow-onset and rapid environmental change. Government agencies, businesses, and individuals increasingly find themselves fundamentally unprepared for meeting the challenges of climate change. Typically, local decision making—such as infrastructure construction and the types of zoning and development regulations implemented—assume environmental stability. Yet there is increasing awareness of uncertainty and vulnerability associated with environmental change. Local governments also have core regulatory powers in the land use, transportation, and waste sectors critical to comprehensive climate change responses (Trisolini 2010). Building flexibility, adaptability, and durability into local decision making is key to building resilience (Beatley 2009, Godschalk 2003, Vale and Campanella 2005). In particular, there is a need to bring science to decision-makers, and distill it into usable information to guide policy. Researchers and academics can play an important role in linking scientific knowledge to action to encourage collaboration and enhance resilience and adaptive capacity (Ostrander and Portney 2007). Community-university partnerships can produce knowledge that is more relevant, legitimate, and useful for local decision-making (Maurasse 2001).  In the following we provide an overview of one such community-university partnership and illustrate efforts to build resilience capacity for Louisiana coastal communities. We explain key lessons learned about capacity- and network-building, and how others may apply these lessons. 

Case Study: Louisiana Community Resilience Institute

With landfall of Hurricane Gustav and Ike in September 2008, Louisiana suffered damage from two devastating storms. This came on the heels of the 2005 hurricane season, which saw two of the strongest and most damaging hurricanes in history hit the State. In response, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Louisiana Office of Community Development, Disaster Recovery Unit (OCD-DRU) designated $10 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding to enhance community resilience through innovative planning. The funds were allocated in 2010 to two programs: 1) the Community Resiliency Pilot Program (CRPP), and 2) the Louisiana Resiliency Assistance Program (LRAP). CRPP was a competitive grant program providing funding to communities in support of locally-driven measures addressing risk, mitigation, and sustainability. Thirty impacted communities received funding, which ranged from comprehensive planning and zoning, to housing strategies and water resource management. In addition, OCD-DRU awarded CSS funds through the same source to establish LRAP in support and assistance to the CRPP grantees for a period of two years. 

The Coastal Sustainability Studio is a trans-disciplinary institute bringing together scientists, engineers, designers, and planners to research and respond to issues of resettlement, coastal restoration, flood protection, and socio-economic sustainability. The impetus for LRAP was to reduce risk and develop strategies to guide local resilience planning and project implementation. LRAP is a statewide effort to collect, develop, and disseminate data and resources on planning and best practices to build more resilient networks in Louisiana. Developed in concert with CRPP, LRAP collected information on grantees’ planning efforts and provided open access through the program’s website. Funding was provided to develop resilience and adaptation webinars and workshops for government staff, practitioners, and researchers. Funding was also provided for focused research on local capacity for, and barriers to, resilience and adaptation. This research was primarily qualitative in nature, including literature reviews, local and regional conditions assessments, planning document analyses, and stakeholder observations and interviews. Priority needs and concerns of local communities were identified, as well as possible strategies for addressing those needs. Key issues identified include: disconnects between land use, hazard mitigation, and coastal restoration planning; a lack of tools, funds, and capacity to effectively implement resilience measures at the local level; federal and state policies, such as NFIP and the Biggert-Waters Act, pushing local elected officials away from nonstructural strategies (Manning-Broome et al. 2015); and, information overload stalling decision-making (Nelson et al. 2007). 

In partnership with Louisiana Sea Grant, Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), and the Kresge Foundation, CSS expanded LRAP in 2014 to further address these issues. From the start, CSS recognized the need to work with elected officials to tackle community-specific problems through the lens of resilience. Few elected officials of small- to medium-sized communities in Louisiana are career public servants. Rather, they come into office with business acumen, lifelong connections, and a strong desire to “do right” by their community. They have a deep understanding of the vulnerability and risk their constituents and economies face, but less knowledge of what resilience and adaptation planning means, or how tools such as planning or zoning might make their communities safer. To meet this need, CSS built upon LRAP to develop and implement the Louisiana Community Resilience Institute (LCRI). Modeled on the format for the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, LCRI is a three-part program focused on translating planning and design into improved community resilience. CSS works closely with elected officials and staff to identify issues and opportunities, develop projects, and provide resources before, during, and after an intensive workshop. This carefully constructed agenda is intended to apply resilience thinking to community challenges, operationalize resilience locally, build networks of local officials and professionals, and engage university students in community-based learning.

The LCRI team included academics, government officials, and practitioners. In addition to CSS faculty and students, participants included elected officials (i.e. mayor or parish president) from each community engaged, municipal staff (e.g. planners and floodplain managers), subject matter experts (SMEs), and CPRA coastal scientists. LCRI was supported by the CSS 2015 Summer Internship Program, which employed full-time graduate students from across the country. The interns compiled demographic and planning profiles for all small- to medium-sized coastal communities. Communities were chosen based on the following criteria: 1) a 2010 population of 2,500 or more to avoid skewing toward very small communities who rely on other government agencies to make development decisions (Berke and French 1994); and, 2) large cities such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge were excluded because they have significant capacity and may serve as SMEs for smaller communities. This resulted in approximately thirty coastal cities and towns, and twenty parishes (counties) as potential participants. In addition to US Census data, interns examined adopted planning documents, and current and proposed 2012 Louisiana Coastal Master Plan projects to determine how regional coastal restoration may be considered within the local planning framework. Interns also developed political snapshots, including governing structure and election cycles, to better understand community capacity and when participation may yield the most success. 

LCRI Phase I started in December 2015 with faculty and graduate students engaging six Louisiana communities. Initially, CSS faculty worked closely with elected officials and staff to discuss pressing issues, priorities, and decide on a project-based challenge to present at the workshop. Projects generally fell into some combination of three categories: corridor redevelopment, waterfront redevelopment, and/or retrofitting for mitigation and adaptation. For example, one project looked at a one-mile section of a state highway where several large vacant properties (i.e. car dealerships and warehouses) have both reduced the potential for new investment and caused localized flooding. Another corridor project examined the need for increased stormwater management, pedestrian and bicycle access, and design overlays encouraging redevelopment of big box retail sites before they become nuisance properties. In this case, the community recognized the need to encourage high-quality investment in a “new downtown,” as the historic waterfront downtown is threatened by short- and long-term climate change. Projects developed were varied, but resonated with all elected officials because they face similar challenges. To prepare elected officials and SMEs for the workshop, each received a briefing book with demographic, SWOT, and project-specific information in advance to familiarize and generate questions and ideas. 

Phase II consisted of an intensive two-day workshop, held in Baton Rouge in April 2016, providing elected officials access to six nationally-recognized SMEs for candid discussions on their identified projects. SMEs represented fields such as applied ecology, land conservation, sustainable urban design, green real estate development, disaster recovery planning, and hazard mitigation. The workshop was divided into six distinct sessions, each starting with a SME presentation about their work (e.g. green infrastructure, blight reduction, creative placemaking) relevant to the proposed project. Then each elected official was given twenty minutes to present their challenge, before the group began an abbreviated charrette process. The group brainstormed community issues (both specific and general), with SMEs and political peers sharing ideas for problem-solving and building community resilience. Discussions and conceptual designs focused on specific risks facing the site, the community, and the region, and reflected ecosystem limitations as well as local and state political dynamics. CSS faculty led the discussion and recorded all oral, written, and visual aspects of the work for synopsis. After the workshop, the mayors returned home with a repertoire of ideas and implementation recommendations tailored to their community challenges. In the weeks following the event, CSS produced a final report with specific project details, best practices, and practical examples for each participant. 

Finally, Phase III, which is ongoing, provides opportunities for CSS to build strategic partnerships with individual communities to assist with implementing projects developed and vetted at the workshop. These opportunities include providing additional research through project support or design studios, and seeking financial support through grant funding or gifts. For example, CSS landscape architecture faculty engaged third-year studio students in a site planning effort that built on an LCRI project. The class worked closely with the mayor and staff to understand the needs and priorities of the community, presenting their final design projects at the end of the semester. This work was augmented with policy and funding recommendations provided by faculty experts. Another partnership between CSS and a community has led to the award of an EPA STAR grant that will begin in the spring of 2017. This grant will enable CSS faculty and students to work with the Mayor and city staff to consider ecosystem services in the design of community infrastructure. These efforts have improved local planning capacity and provided a unique community-based learning opportunity for students in architecture and landscape architecture.


The intent of the LCRI was fourfold, to: 1) enhance resources and capacity for building resilience in Louisiana’s threatened coastal communities; 2) enhance adaptive capacity through building both horizontal and vertical networks; 3) create a workable model for university-community partnerships, and 4) provide community-based learning opportunities for LSU students. In each case, university and community partners were pleased with the results, based on feedback from LCRI participants. However, LCRI was not without its challenges, which are shaping future efforts. The following focuses on three key challenges, and provides recommendations for this and similar efforts. 

Invest time in relationship building: Collaborative community initiatives of any type require relationship building as part of planning and implementation—and relationship building takes time. In this case, building relationships and trust were required before elected officials showed willingness to participate. Building on pre-existing relationships was helpful, but face-to-face meetings and reassurances that peers were also participating was necessary. Further, including communities often overlooked due to geography or size helped build trust in the inclusiveness of the process and secure commitments. Our challenge was knowing 1) what kind of relationship building was necessary for varied communities, and 2) how long it would take to build relationships focused on capacity building. It helped that there was a specific challenge for discussion, but strict timelines meant there was less time than desired for relationship-building and project development before the workshop. Including this step into the process is critical for building rapport and place-specific knowledge for faculty, and ownership in the process for elected officials. 

Explicit goals and objectives: Funders and administrators require clear evidence that funds are being used effectively to accomplish explicit goals. From the onset, university goals and objectives were well-defined. Less well-defined were explicit goals, objectives, and expectations for each partner community. While ambiguity made way for clarity over time, clearly documenting specific goals at the beginning is essential. This helps to build trust and measure success throughout the process. It also helps identify well-suited SMEs early in the process. Further, clear goals are important for Phase III implementation, when responsibilities may shift from the core team to other faculty and/or result in time lags related to external funding requests. 

Incrementalism versus paradigm shifting: Two primary goals of this project were to enhance resources and capacity for community resilience, and to create networks of similarly versed elected officials and experts. We worked with each community to operationalize the concept of resilience that will be useful in future development decision-making. The small scale was manageable for students, officials, SMEs, and the overall workshop format. However, the scale and condensed timeframe meant that the work can be better described as incremental rather than paradigm-altering. The process planted a seed for some, or watered an already rooted concept. Establishing community-university partnerships opened lines of communication and negotiation crucial to any planning process. More collaboration and relationship-building is necessary to develop goals and objectives that enhance resilience policy and adaptive capacity. Universities have a unique opportunity to take the long-range view a process like this requires, to establish relationships, and to distill science into usable information. 


By many accounts, this inaugural effort was successful and provided opportunities for CSS to engage with coastal communities in new ways. One particularly valuable aspect (identified by the mayors themselves) was the opportunity for mayors to meet and have candid discussions, sharing ideas and experiences—and CSS continues to work to foster these connections. Moving forward, CSS is preparing for the second LCRI, which will focus on Louisiana communities impacted by riverine flooding in 2016. For the next iteration, CSS is partnering with FEMA and OCD-DRU to provide additional resources to mayors and staff to build relationships and adaptive capacity in the wake of disaster. Scaling up this type of work depends heavily on the continuity CSS can provide, and the availability of funding to support communities and nascent resilience networks. Undertaking this type of community-university partnership is not without its challenges. However, overcoming roadblocks and establishing community-university partnerships can help at-risk communities begin to adapt to climate change. 


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About the Author: Traci Birch (PhD, AICP) is an Assistant Professor and Managing Director of the Coastal Sustainability Studio at Louisiana State University. Traci’s research and work focuses on strengthening coastal and inland communities through coordinated land use and environmental planning. Jeff Carney (AIA, AICP) is an Associate Professor at the University of Florida School of Architecture and the Associate Director of the Florida Institute for Built Environment Resilience. Previously, he served as the Director of the Coastal Sustainability Studio.

Featured Image: This image of the Icelandic countryside, taken by recent DCRP grad Karla Jimenez-Magdalena, was the cover of the 43rd print edition of the Carolina Planning Journal.