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Kara Schlichting

“The Nature of Urban Coastal Resiliency: Twentieth-Century Governance, Environmental Management, and Design”

Kara Schlichting

Queens College, CUNY, Mellon Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies, Spring 2016

Kara Schlichting is an assistant professor of history at Queens College, CUNY. She earned her PhD from Rutgers University in 2014. Her work in late-nineteenth and twentieth-century American history sits at the intersection of urban, environmental, and political history, with a particular focus on property regimes and regional planning in greater New York City. She is currently working on a project on tideland property development to investigate how legal theory, coastal resiliency planning, and land politics shape American waterfronts. As a Mellon Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies this spring, she is working on a her new project entitled “The Nature of Urban Coastal Resiliency: Twentieth-Century Governance, Environmental Management, and Design.”


Fellowship Report

Kara Schlichting Final Report Image
United States. Army. Corps of Engineers. New England Division, Hurricane Survey, Interim Report, Narragansett Bay Area : Rhode Island, Massachusetts (Boston : The Division, 1957).

While the coastal zone can be defined by landscape and its dynamic system of morphology and hydrography, it is also a construct, an idea imposed on a landscape to delineate governance powers. As a Mellon Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, I investigated how the concept of the coastal zone was first developed in federal legislation in the 1970s, framing the littoral as a public utility in need of management and the location of substantial economic investment in need of protection. Through my research I realized that to understand how governance intersected with the material nature of the littoral, it is necessary to reframe the chronology of the coastal zone. The 1930s-1950s underscores work in environmental studies and coastal engineering that 1970s governance initiatives overshadows: hurricanes and the Corps efforts to protect coasts from them. This history is defined not by legislation by but the environment. In studying hurricanes the Corps first conceptualized the particular vulnerabilities of southern New England’s coastal zone. As a result in 1957 the Corps embarked on an ambitious hurricane unique comprehensive survey of Narragansett Bay, R.I. My research led me to two realizations that will frame future work. First, the Corps 1930s-1950s work was frequently based a conceptual binary that problematically disconnected the littoral’s land water environments. Second, the different frameworks that developed around two definitions of coastal hazards: short-term, violent hazards (such as hurricanes) and long-term incremental hazards (such as sea level rise or beach erosion). Due to these differing evaluations government agencies saw different things as being at risk and inspired different modes of protection.