Climate change is bringing with it a number of growing threats to vulnerable urban areas around the globe, and cities in coastal, deltaic areas are facing both acute and chronic impacts. With global migration trends seeing people moving towards these densely populated coastal zones, those impacts are threatening a growing number of people and properties. This trend appears in the United States, with the Gulf Coast region in particular representing the fastest growing region in the country from 2000 to 2017 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Location on coastlines vulnerable to sea-level rise, combined with growing frequency and intensity of tropical storm events, more intense seasonal storms, and more frequent high-river events, leaves these urban areas increasingly vulnerable to climate change-related damages. Combined, these represent major threats to current water management systems and practices in cities. New Orleans, Louisiana, in the United States Gulf Coast region was chosen as a case study for this research due to its history of catastrophic flooding events, vulnerability to climate change, extensive subsidence, predominant social inequities, and its heavy reliance on hard infrastructure solutions to water management. This paper seeks to uncover the most important factors causing institutional inertia in the water management sector, a socio-institutional phenomenon that is backed by academic research. Additionally, this paper seeks to illuminate the phenomenon of critical junctures in the period of study for New Orleans (1893-present) to understand their causes, results, and path-dependent legacies. Incremental changes to systems, structures, and institutions are increasingly attributed to institutional inertia in the water management sector; critical junctures are brief moments in time that are capable of breaking inertia, providing opportunities for institutional change. Desk research of both primary and secondary sources, as well as semi-structured interviews, were conducted for data collection and analysis. The main findings of the case study research were that all contributing factors identified through a thorough a literature review (costs, uncertainty, path dependence, power/legitimacy, and complexity) did in fact promote institutional inertia in the New Orleans water management sector. Further, a process tracing historical analysis of the period of interest illuminated critical junctures that largely have failed to break the flood resistance paradigm that has dominated New Orleans water management since the system’s inception.

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Gianoli, A. (Alberto) Dr.
Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies

Olsonoski, A. (Allison). (2022, October 3). Institutional inertia and critical junctures in water management. Retrieved from