Bringing to environmental justice: Bayou restoration in Louisiana

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Bringing to environmental justice: Bayou restoration in Louisiana

Spanish moss in the Louisiana Bayou
ShutterstockPierre Jean Durieu
Spanish moss in the Louisiana Bayou

The following is excerpted from "Resilience for All: Striving for Equity Through Community-Driven Design," by Barbara Brown Wilson (Island Press, 2018).

Biloxi's urban fabric developed in response to successive environmental shocks. Perched on a peninsula between Biloxi Bay and the Mississippi sound, East Biloxi's low-lying topography and tidal marshlands make it extremely vulnerable to hurricane winds from the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes hit the area 52 times in the past 145 years, and Biloxi continues to be brushed or hit by increasingly intense storms every 2.79 years. Recent oil spills provide an additional, ongoing challenge to the health of the bayou-rich inlet. As is common for U.S. urban development patterns, the ecologically vulnerable areas were also subject to the effects of Jim Crow–era segregation that still compound to limit resource provision in East Biloxi today.

But the relationship between humans and their environment was not always so stressed in Biloxi. The first known inhabitants were a Sioux tribe that lived on the Pascagoula River, and the residents for which Biloxi is named. The Biloxi Sioux lived in relationship with the dynamic tidal landscape and were likely less affected by storm shock than our built world is today. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the U.S. government sent out Dr. William Flood to plant a U.S. flag. Dr. Flood found a peaceful place with a mix of French and Creole influence. He observed that the community was marked by kindness and a wealth of natural resources ripe for exploitation:

A more innocent and inoffensive people may not be found. They seem to desire only the simple necessities of life, and to be let alone in their tranquility. I am greatly impressed with the beauty and value of this coast. The high sandy lands, heavily timbered with pine, and the lovely bays and rivers, from Pearl River to Mobile will furnish New Orleans with a rich commerce, and with a delightful summer resort.

After Dr. Flood's visit, new residents began to join the community and a robust physical infrastructure was built. When the Hurricane of 1855 hit Biloxi, it decimated much of the area's burgeoning economy, including its four hotels, the piers and other fishing infrastructure recently set in place.

Of all the environmental challenges Biloxi faced in its history, Hurricane Katrina arguably made the biggest mark on the town. In the days just after the storm, funding was not available for any new construction. Early recovery efforts focused on clearing debris and identifying homes to rehabilitate or demolish. GCCDS spent considerable effort illustrating the post-disaster regulations the government proposed for Biloxi so that residents could understand their implications.

With insurance litigation, FEMA recovery coordination challenges and other onerous issues, the rebuilding of the Katrina-decimated waterfront at Biloxi proceeded very slowly. Many lower-income residents found themselves stuck in place — without enough home equity, insurance support or government assistance to buy housing elsewhere. Their only option was to rebuild their homes in place, but the new floodplains meant that new houses would need to be built above storm surge levels, as high as 10 feet off the ground.

During the housing recovery process, GCCDS built more than 300 homes and rehabilitated more than 100 others. Many green-building techniques and structural details that GCCDS used were consistent, but GCCDS felt strongly that unique floor plans and streetscapes would provide residents with a deeper emotional connection to this new home. [GCCDS director David] Perkes and his colleagues suggest that the extra few weeks of collaborative planning and design required to co-create unique elements gave residents an opportunity to reflect as they decided how to plan their community and rebuild their home. This process helped build the trust and knowledge required for GCCDS to facilitate meaningful recovery and ultimately engendered a more sustainable, healthy community filled with proud homeowners.

Perkes refers to the housing rebuilding efforts that marked his first five years in Biloxi as "buying time" until the community could craft a more sustainable long-term community plan. Many East Biloxi residents desperately needed to move out of toxic FEMA trailers, and although the new floodplains did not create ideal environments in which to rebuild resident homes, financial constraints often left them with no other viable options. GCCDS helped residents move into safe, high-quality housing so they could regain the emotional energy needed to think about bigger ecological issues facing the region collectively.

Being locally rooted, GCCDS could fully appreciate the dynamic web of challenges facing East Biloxi and sought to connect disparate issues and organizations to increase the community's adaptive capacity in a holistic fashion through the Bayou By You restoration project at Bayou Auguste. GCCDS sees their work as helping to connect seemingly disparate environmental and social assets, so that East Biloxi can become more resilient on their own terms.

Injustice along Biloxi's waterways

Urban decision makers in Biloxi historically understood the waterways as a resource to exploit and a force to control. The Biloxi Sioux who first inhabited the area used only what they needed to live and built thatched houses with reeds, rivercane and other natural materials. But by the time the United States planted its flag after the Louisiana Purchase, the new residents were already exploiting the natural amenities. Dune ridges became a major thoroughfare, and locals employed oysters as a paving material to create what become known as Shell Road along the coastline. After the 1909 and 1915 hurricanes, Biloxi successfully petitioned the state for erosion control. As a part of that effort, they built a 26-mile seawall and transformed the Shell Road into a graded and partially paved "highway." After the 1947 hurricane decimated many of the coastline areas, the government responded by building "the longest manmade beach in the world" — 700 acres of beach, spanning 300 feet wide and 26 miles long. Each intervention fundamentally compromised the functions of the Gulf Coast bayou and wetland natural infrastructure. This manmade beach became a major attraction for visitors and residents alike.

The prized beachfront was not accessible to all residents, however. Despite boasting 700 acres of beach, the recreational amenity did not allow people of color to enjoy most areas. Dr. Gilbert Mason, an accomplished African American physician, became a local civil rights leader in the effort to make the beaches fully accessible to all people. He reflects on his impetus for that work, having come back to Mississippi after living many years in the less segregated North:

From the time that I arrived in Biloxi in July of 1955, the thought that the twenty-six-mile-long Mississippi Gulf Coast beach was closed to me and my family because of skin color did not sit well with me at all. According to Harrison County and the City of Biloxi, my little son could not legally swim in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico that lapped the shore just a few blocks from our home. Local practice reserved God’s sunrises and sunsets over the glistening waters and white sands of Biloxi beach for the exclusive enjoyment of white folks. For a man who loved swimming and who had gloried in the free use of the parks in Chicago and Washington, D.C., the idea that a marvelous oak-lined public beach was forbidden territory was just too much to abide.

In the early 1960s, Dr. Mason and other East Biloxi advocates organized a series of wade-in protests around the segregated beachfront to protest inequitable access. In a 1960 wade-in, now known as Bloody Sunday, as well as similar protests in 1963, the horrifically violent backlash from racist community leaders and inappropriate arrests of the nonviolent protestors formed the basis for legal action contributing to national civil rights legislation related to public beach access.

Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination because of race, color, religion, or national origin in places of public accommodation, which includes public beaches. Fifty years later, equitable access to high-quality coastal waterways is still seen as a major environmental justice issue, as is made manifest in the local bayou restoration discourse.