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Land Use and Human Settlement

The environment of southern Louisiana has long facilitated a dynamic relationship between people and place, dictating human settlement and land use patterns. The isolated nature of the wetlands, estuaries, and bayous of the Deltaic and Chenier Plains has allowed for distinct cultures and ways of living to develop and survive over time. By the late 19th century hundreds of settlements were established south of New Orleans on land first occupied by Native Americans, along the Mississippi River, its distributary Bayou Lafourche, and westward along the Atchafalaya River and Bayou Teche. Native Americans were joined by settlers from places around the world, including France, Spain, Africa, Germany, England, Canada, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Italy, Ireland, China, Filipino, Croatia, and Vietnam, each contributing elements of their culture to develop unique ways of sustaining life on the coast. Oyster harvesting techniques were brought from Yugoslavia, sugar processing methods from the West Indies, building and construction from Spain, land tenure and mapping from France, shrimp drying from China, and vegetable growing, food preparation, and music from practically every continent.2

This Louisiana setting necessitated a way of living that became dependent upon the natural resources of the area. The fluidity of the landscape demanded unique systems of transportation, resource harvesting, and most notably, development patterns.2 The arpent, a French system of land division, has left a lasting mark on the landscape, which is still evident today. Measuring between 2 and 4 arpents wide and 40 to 60 arpents from bayou to marsh, this system facilitated a coexistence with a constantly fluctuating landscape.1, 3 (A single arpent is approximately 192 ft., and a square arpent, also known as an arpent, is approximately 0.84 acres.) Commonly referred to as a “long-lot”, the arpent granted residents access to the bayou for transportation purposes, natural high ground for building, areas for cultivation, and fishing within low lying marsh. The natural change in topography channeled water from high to low ground within each parcel. This system enabled and sustained a distinct lifestyle organized around a unique and increasingly fragile environment.2

In the early 1900s, the discovery of oil along the Gulf Coast corresponded with a shift in settlement from rural areas dependent on agriculture to urban centers. Within coastal communities, a relationship developed between oil extraction and fisheries that allowed residents to work offshore while maintaining traditional coastal occupations. Today, coastal communities have begun to develop outside of their traditional forms due to their dependence on flood protection, provided by a growing system of levees. The arpent system continues to confine development and ownership through its boundaries, but the arrangement within those boundaries has begun to shift. Residents’ role within what was a dynamic relationship between land and water has changed with an increased sense of security that accompanies the presence of flood-protection infrastructure. Nevertheless, the permanence of these structures and the configuration of newer development continue to be altered by hurricanes and other natural systems.2

References

1A Dictionary of the Cajun Language. Ville Platte: Swallow Publishing, Inc., 1984. Print.

2Gramling, Robert. “A Working Coast: People in the Louisiana Wetlands.” Journal of Coastal Research 26.01 (2010): 112-33. Print.

3“The Public Land Survey System (PLSS).” National Atlas of the United States. United States Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2013. <https://nationalmap.gov/small_scale/a_plss.html>.