Richard Hindle, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning at the College of Environmental Design, published a paper in the latest issue of the Journal of Landscape Architecture on the history and geomorphology of the Mississippi River Delta. Titled “Prototyping the Mississippi Delta: Patents, Alternative Futures, and the Design of Complex Environmental Systems,” Hindle’s article considers the impact two unrealized site-specific interventions could have had on the future of the delta using patent documents archived in the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
The “bird foot” delta of the Mississippi River in Louisiana exists at the nexus of cultural and environmental forces: The historical attempts to build navigable channels through this dynamic deltaic landscape illustrate the tension between human necessity and transformation of river systems. Historically, each channel cut through the delta served the dual function of facilitating navigation to the Mississippi’s epic inland waterway, while simultaneously expediting the movement of valuable sediment to ever-deeper water, ultimately robbing the delta and its environs of life-sustaining substrata.
Technological innovation paralleled transformation of the delta, and as the navigable channels advanced, so too did the methods and devices used to rake, exhume, and define new paths for ships. The “modern” history of the Mississippi Delta is strikingly well preserved in the geomorphology of the river, as well as in the archives of the USPTO. A forensic look at patent documents for the period suggests that two unrealized site-specific inventions may have led to radically different futures for the delta through the engagement of fluvial processes and altered deposition of sediments.
Hindle goes on to explain the history of the innovation and creation of navigable channels through the Delta in the mid-19th century, highlighting the important relationship between these advancements and their transformative effect on the environment. In 2017, the impact of extensive levees and fixed navigation channels have shackled the river, broken its delta-building capacity, and threatened the river’s ability to continue building deltas.
“As we consider how to build the delta of the future, a recount of the past becomes increasingly valuable. Not only as a heuristic method for problem solving, but also as a precedent for innovation in complex environmental systems,” Hindle writes. “What becomes evident is that the delta of today came into being through the iterative process of innovation in the nineteenth century, and a failure of innovation in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Had the process of prototyping and testing continued, we might have discovered a system to delay subsidence of the delta, or found a method to build a productive habitat while constructing navigable channels.”
You can read Assistant Professor Hindle’s article in full here.