Call for Ideas Lens: Environment

Thoughts on New Orleans and the Mississippi

By Jeff Carney


300 years ago the city of New Orleans tethered itself to a stable bend in the Mississippi River. Only 95 miles from the river’s end at the Gulf of Mexico, the city is a euphoric celebration capping off a 2300 mile trip through the North American continent. A flood of mud, sand, and turbid water the Mississippi River and New Orleans form a nexus between the delta ecosystem, global commerce, and a vibrant culture. Over 300 years the “big muddy” and the “sliver by the river” have grown up together, through an ongoing and oftentimes contentious negotiation.

However, the Mississippi River has never stayed still for long. It is believed that as recent as 500 years ago there were four active outlets to the Mississippi River stretching hundreds of miles across the Gulf. Explorer Hernando Desoto likely sailed through the “River of the Holy Spirit” near the current day outlet of the Atchafalaya River instead of the current Bird’s Foot Delta (Condrey, 2014). The writer John McPhee compares the river’s penchant for movement to a “pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions (McPhee, 1989).” The Mississippi has moved dramatically over the last 8000 years as it finds new routes to the Gulf of Mexico, constantly making and unmaking the fluid deltaic landscape around it. 


The last 300 years chronicles a triumphant domination of society and industry over the shifting Delta environment, however the present day is one increasingly confounded by the tradeoffs required for such control. Land subsidence from leveeing the river coupled with sea level rise has resulted in 1,900 square miles of land lost since 1932 and will take 1,750 more over the next 50 years if nothing is done (CPRA, 2017). As the dynamic interplay between the River and the Gulf increases, can New Orleans continue to thrive at its edge


Condrey R., Hoffman P., Evers D. (2014) The Last Naturally Active Delta Complexes of the Mississippi River (LNDM): Discovery and Implications. In: Day J., Kemp G., Freeman A., Muth D. (eds) Perspectives on the Restoration of the Mississippi Delta. Estuaries of the World. Springer, Dordrecht

CPRA. (2017). Louisiana's Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Retrieved from

McPhee, John A. (1987). The control of nature. Atchafalaya. New YorK :Farrar, Straus & Giroux,


Jeff Carney. Photograph courtesy of author.

Jeff Carney is an Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Director of the LSU Coastal Sustainability Studio at Louisiana State University.