The shockwave of Panama Canal expansion is reshaping cities throughout the Americas. We need to look through the lens of landscape, not logistics.

Panama Canal expansion
[Panama Canal Authority]

Over the past five hundred years, the Panamanian isthmus has been transformed by a succession of megaprojects: the first colonial European city on the Pacific Coast; the mule trains that moved the plundered silver of Bolivia and Peru to Atlantic ports; the first railroad to cross the continental divide; the failed project to construct a sea-level canal connecting the two oceans; and then the immense complex of locks, dams, artificial lakes, and engineered channels that constitute the Panama Canal, which opened in 1914.

Now the canal is being reconfigured by a $5.5 billion expansion project scheduled for completion early next year. 1 Approved by national referendum in 2006, the expansion effectively doubles the canal’s capacity by adding a new set of locks to accommodate larger container ships. Chambers with walls 50 feet thick are being grafted directly onto bedrock, like extensions of the isthmus itself. 2 But the construction — monumental as it is — is only a small part of the story. More important is how the Panama Canal expansion is altering logistical relationships and generating new infrastructures throughout the American Hemisphere.

Chambers with walls 50 feet thick are being grafted directly onto bedrock, like extensions of the isthmus itself.

Almost as soon as the referendum passed, port authorities from Miami to Lima began racing to complete their own expansion programs: dredging deeper shipping channels, installing larger gantry cranes, and building new container yards, in speculative efforts to compete for the ultra-large container ships that will transit the widened canal. An intense wave of anticipation ripples outward throughout the multi-continental network of waterways, ports, inspection stations, railroads, switching yards, highways, warehouses, and distribution centers that enable the global flow and movement of shipped materials. 3

The expansion will reconfigure trans-American shipping in three primary ways. 4 First, a higher volume of goods will move faster between the two oceans, decreasing transport costs and altering the delicate financial calculus that determines global shipping routes. Second, as canal traffic increases, there will be a corresponding rise in transshipment, where goods are transferred to smaller ships that service cities with shallower harbors. The canal’s three ports — Balboa, Colón, and Manzanillo — will link distribution centers like Shanghai with smaller hubs like Barranquilla, Colombia, thus increasing Panama’s importance to regional shipping networks. Third, the expansion will provide an attractive alternative for shipping agricultural products from the interior United States to East Asian markets, elevating the Mississippi River corridor relative to the currently dominant overland routes to Pacific ports.

Port of Oakland, California
Super-post-Panamax cranes at Pacific ports like Oakland, California, serve container ships much larger than the Panama Canal can currently accommodate. [Eddie Codel]

This massive reconfiguration of landscapes and infrastructures is organized primarily through the invisible hand of logistics, which seeks economic gain and functions through paradigms of efficiency and control. But these transformations should not be understood solely along economic and technical lines, for they are also cultural, social, political, material, and ecological. With its narrow focus on optimizing profit margins, wait times, and warehousing schedules, logistics is largely indifferent to the effects of canal expansion on societies and landscapes, and to the roles of people, corporations, and governments in shaping those effects. When we widen the lens to consider these broader dimensions, we find that logistics is not the neutral actor it may seem to be. Rather, it produces inefficiencies and excess at multiple scales, from the material surplus of the excavations to the speculative bubble of overbuilt infrastructure across the hemisphere.

The Panama Canal expansion reverberates throughout the Americas, in the form of deeper harbors, reconstructed islands, and redeveloped waterfronts.

Landscape provides a more useful analytic framework. Geographers, planners, architects, environmental designers, and others who take a landscape approach are fundamentally concerned with value systems that include the cultural, social, and material. J.B. Jackson famously argued that “a landscape is not a natural feature of the environment but a synthetic space, a [hu]man-made system of spaces functioning and evolving not according to natural laws but to serve a community.” 5 The key question is: Whose values are inscribed in the landscape? Which community’s needs are served?

Here we focus on one dimension of the Panama Canal expansion — the material — as it reverberates throughout the Americas, in the form of deeper harbors, reconstructed islands, restored wetlands, redeveloped waterfronts, and other new infrastructures. While our study is not comprehensive, it offers lessons that may prove useful across a range of social and environmental issues where similar dynamics are at work.

The Logistical Production of Space

Logistics is the design and management of the flow and distribution of goods. Although it is now often deployed in the service of global capitalism, 6 logistics originated in military science, as a set of strategies for organizing the distribution of materials and services within national territories and occupied lands. As such, it has always had a sociopolitical dimension: Who is positioned to distribute things to whom? By what methods? For whose benefit? At what expense?

As an expanding set of ideologies, practices, and protocols, 7 logistics now exceeds its original meaning as a pragmatic “science of distribution.” Seeking nothing less than the total “monetization of space and time,” it has emerged as a dominant force in “the cold calculation of cost at the center of the production of space.” 8 This is particularly true of maritime landscapes like the Panama Canal, where the goals of logistics and commerce have essentially converged. 9

Since World War II, logistics has advanced via technologies such as containerized shipping, upgrades in data management, and complex trade agreements. And yet its objectives remain deceptively simple: efficiency and reliability. In commercial shipping, logistics seeks “the management of demand and supply to avoid surpluses and shortfalls, the full utilization of resources, minimization of losses in transportation, cost reduction in transportation and storage, meeting customer needs in order fulfillment and improving customer service and customer communication.” 10 And these are not merely tabs in a financial analyst’s spreadsheet, because logistics always has a spatial component. It enacts “geographies of rationalization and optimization” while constructing “new lived relations of space–time” for those within its network. 11

Map of Panama Canal expansion projects
The decade-long Panama Canal expansion involves cutting new access channels, enlarging existing channels, and installing new locks at both ends. [Map by the authors]

This spatial dimension is necessarily material. Logistical geographies depend on the connective tissue of regulations, shipping schedules, and profit calculations, but they are rendered in matter, labor, and machines. The sheer material bulk of the Panama Canal expansion refutes a purely economic understanding of the project. On the Pacific side, new access channels have been carved through basalt, sandstone, shales, and siltstone; meanwhile, oceanic channels on both sides have been deepened and widened. 12 Inland work includes dredging of the long underwater channel through Gatún Lake and the Culebra Cut. Then there is the massive earthmoving required for the new locks. All told, workers will blast, dredge, and excavate around 150 million cubic meters of earth, more than half as much as the original canal construction. 13

Workers will blast, dredge, and excavate around 150 million cubic meters of earth, more than half as much as the original canal construction.

The isthmus teems with the tools of infrastructural expansion. Container ships, freighters, and tankers share waterways with various types of dredges (hopper, dipper, hydraulic backhoe, cutter-suction, and rock cutter-suction) as well as support vessels and devices, including anchor barges, submersible barges, dump scows, tugboats, and survey launches. And all that dredged material has to go somewhere. Snaking chains of pipes, held aloft by pontoons, convey slurry away from excavation sites. It is discharged underwater with the help of push boats, or on land with the help of tractors and yet more pipes. Particularly obstinate underwater rock formations are blasted and drilled by specialized vessels called drill-boats. On land, squadrons of excavators, trucks, tractors, and drills are blasting, cutting, digging, hauling, dumping, and crushing rock, sand, and soil. 14

This earthmoving takes an army of people. The Panama Canal Authority (Autoridad del Canal de Panamá, or ACP) claims that the canal expansion has created 30,000 new jobs, with approximately 7,000 tied directly to construction. 15 The largest contract is held by Grupo Unidos por el Canal (GUPC), an international engineering and construction consortium which won a competitive bid at $3.12 billion, or more than half the total cost of the project. GUPC held job fairs to recruit and train Panamanians in a range of civil and industrial engineering specializations, working alongside foreign experts. Canal workers are organized largely through the SUNTRACS union, whose members make up 85 percent of the workforce. Qualified workers now earn nearly $5 per hour, a rate which has increased substantially since the beginning of the project, after labor negotiations and strikes. 16

Panama Canal expansion
Panama Canal expansion. [Gerardo Pesantez / World Bank]

All this activity is in the service of one main goal: enabling larger container ships to transit the canal via a new set of locks that will operate in parallel to two older sets. 17 The locks raise and lower ships to the elevation of Gatún Lake, 87 feet above sea level, and they are the primary factor limiting the size of vessels on the canal. Ships that reach the maximum dimensions of the old locks — 110 feet wide, 1050 feet long — are known as Panamax. For decades this was the most common size for large commercial vessels, but lately global shipping has being overtaken by post-Panamax ships that are too large to transit the current canal. By 2009, nearly 40 percent of oceanic container shipping was classified as post-Panamax. 18 This shift has accelerated the development of other routes and undermined Panama’s central role in transoceanic shipping.

Meanwhile, the rising volume of global commerce has turned the vital shortcut of the Panama Canal into a clogged bottleneck. Ships often endure long waits of a day or more in the anchorage areas offshore. Even as the canal operates nearly round the clock at full capacity, it cannot meet demand. 20 Shippers bid hundreds of thousands of dollars, on top of regular canal fees, to jump ahead in the queues. 21 The expansion aims to release this pressure, drawing an enormous volume of additional traffic through the canal. The ACP projects that by 2025 total tonnage will double and container traffic will triple, and that the Panama Canal will regain its logistical advantage over the Suez Canal and overland routes. 22

Panamax and New Panamax specifications
Scale comparison of Panamax and New Panamax specifications. [Diagram by Julia Gold and the authors]

The new locks enable the designation of a New Panamax specification: 160 feet wide, 1200 feet long, 49 feet deep. 23 Longer, wider, and with a deeper draft, New Panamax container ships will carry more than twice as much cargo. 24 Naturally, every major port wants to accommodate them, so the new standard has led to channel deepening projects up and down the East Coast of the United States. Even before the expansion project broke ground, analysts were speculating about how this logistical realignment would affect the global choreography of material shipments. With each construction milestone reached, the predictions become more elaborate. 25

The dynamic interplay between logistics and infrastructures is now an established area of research. 26 However, the tendency in such studies is to accept the logisticians’ claim to rational efficiency. Few observers have attended to the ways in which the landscapes operationalized by these logic systems exceed the mandates that create them. We must remember that logistical calculations are prone to error. They are jeopardized by the indeterminacy of landscape processes, not to mention self-serving distortions in the calculations themselves. While logistics can account for a certain degree of uncertainty, it relies too heavily on mathematical abstractions that exclude, externalize, or otherwise bracket out material, social, and ecological concerns.

A Landscape Approach

Here we make a distinction between hard and soft infrastructures. The former category includes the fixed products of construction and excavation, like locks, levees, and shipping channels. Yet we must not overlook the infrastructural value of softer aggregations of people, landscapes, systems of organization, and social instruments. 27 Throughout the history of the Panama Canal, soft infrastructures such as forestry techniques, land management regimes, and international treaties have been applied to the persistent problem of supplying water to the locks. 28 But “soft” does not mean imaginary or weak. We need to recognize these infrastructures as real if we are to comprehend how infrastructural expansions affect people, ways of life, and ecosystems.

Map of Panama Canal watershed
Panama Canal watershed. [Map by the authors]

Anthropologist Ashley Carse has studied the sociopolitical and ecological effects of the Panama Canal’s growing need for water. When the canal first opened, each transit required 52 million gallons. To ensure an adequate supply, the Chagres River was dammed to create Gatún Lake, which reached capacity in 1914, covering 164 square miles. At the time it was the largest engineered reservoir in the world. Even then, it was clear that more water would be needed as canal traffic increased, and in 1924 the United States began building a second dam, which created the 22-square-mile Alajuela Lake. Together, the two reservoirs displaced thousands of Panamanians and West Indians whose homes were submerged. The United States exploited provisions within the 1903 Panama Canal Treaty which authorized it “to expropriate more territory as needed for the ‘construction, maintenance, operation, sanitation, and protection’ of the canal.” 29

Beginning in the 1970s, hydro strategies shifted from dam creation to watershed management. As Carse explains, this was a reaction to policies of the Panamanian government, which in the 1950s and ’60s had promoted the development and modernization of rural agriculture. The United States saw rastrojo agriculture as a threat to the canal’s water infrastructure, since it accelerated overland runoff (thus reducing water supply for the locks during times of drought) and increased sedimentation in the canal’s reservoirs (thus reducing capacity). Under the guidance and coercion of U.S. forestry and watershed management experts, the Panamanian government reversed its policies and discouraged agricultural development along the canal.

A landscape approach foregrounds the fact that certain values or uses are chosen over others, one way of life over many other possibilities.

Farmers were thus conscripted in an extraordinary acquisition of new infrastructural territory that encompassed virtually the entire canal watershed. Decisions made decades earlier by American engineers produced effects that were displaced in both space and time. This history shows how a broad range of values — economic, environmental, cultural, and material — are inscribed in the land through the flexible and ongoing process of landscape-making. This process often occurs within political relationships that are asymmetrical. Unlike logistics, a landscape approach is at least able to recognize this asymmetry, if not remedy it.

As Carse tells the story, local farmers were offered an education in resource management. Some were hired as forest guards and charged with enforcing new limitations on land-clearing, which protected any secondary growth more than five years old. This new policy interacted with the cultural practices of the local Panamanians, often through conflict and violence, to produce an infrastructural space that is more than a technocratic solution to the problem of water provision. It is a cultural landscape, where competing values and requirements are negotiated over time.

Whereas logistics may appear to derive authority from the rational application of universal laws of nature, a landscape approach foregrounds the fact that certain values or uses are chosen over others, one way of life over many other possibilities, and that landscapes are remade to support those values. Those with power, or those who claim it, make choices about how things are and how they might be.

Expansion-Driven Expansion

Now let’s look at the processes of landscape-making that are unfolding today as a result of the Panama Canal expansion. Two examples from the United States illustrate the scope of this massive infrastructural realignment. First is Atlantic and Gulf Coast port expansion. The anticipation of higher traffic through the Panama Canal is translated and articulated by local authorities into the deepening of shipping channels, port infrastructure upgrades, and new intermodal facilities thousands of miles away. Second is Pacific Coast counter-expansion, an attempt by Pacific ports to maintain their share of shipping between Asia and the North American interior. (It’s important to emphasize that these examples represent a much broader transformation whose full effects spread across both the northern and southern halves of the American hemisphere and, to a lesser extent, ports across the globe. 30)

Map of post-Panamax port upgrades in the United States.
United States ports are expanding their facilities to accommodate post-Panamax shipping. [Map by the authors]

On the Atlantic Coast, the major ports of New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, and Virginia have all recently completed or nearly completed post-Panamax expansions. Further south, Charleston is able to receive post-Panamax drafts at high tide. 31 The Gulf Coast’s major ports lag behind, with channels only 45 feet deep. Dredging is prohibitively challenging in the Gulf, given the shallow coastal profile, which requires unusually long approach channels. Still, upgrades are planned or underway at Mobile, Alabama; Texas’s Galveston Bay complex (Galveston, Texas City, Bayport, Barbour’s Cut, and the refineries of the Houston Ship Channel); and Louisiana’s Mississippi River complex (which includes New Orleans as well as the elongated riverbank port of South Louisiana). At Bayport, the Gulf’s largest and newest container facility, port authorities are dredging deeper channels, expanding berthing space, adding container yard acreage, and installing post-Panamax cranes. 32

Meanwhile, small and medium ports on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts are also upgrading their facilities. Analysts expect a wave of smaller vessels looking for new berths as a result of transshipment, as well as larger vessels due to what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calls a “cascade effect.” 33 As merchant fleets assign New Panamax vessels to the highest priority routes, the previous generation of ships are assigned to slightly lower priority routes, thus displacing slightly smaller vessels, and so on. Ports such as Boston, Wilmington, Tampa, and Corpus Christi are all jockeying to benefit from this cascade.

Globally, the Panama Canal has two major competitors: the Suez Canal, which offers an alternative route between the Pacific and the Atlantic, and the “U.S. intermodal system” of overland transcontinental shipping. 34 In the 20th century, the intermodal system built a significant advantage over the Panama Canal by virtue of its speed, container readiness, and Pacific harbor capacity. By the end of the century, the intermodal system had captured over 80 percent of all containerized traffic between northeast Asia and the U.S. East Coast. The canal expansion is intended to directly counteract this advantage: “one commonly cited estimate is that up to 25 percent of current West Coast volume could shift to eastern ports and market areas.” 35 But the agencies and corporations that run the U.S. intermodal system have no intention of permitting this share-grab, and so they are undertaking their own counter-expansion.

Terminal Island map
The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach at Terminal Island. [Map by Amelia Jensen and the authors]

The largest Pacific ports — Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, and Seattle — are already handling post-Panamax vessels, with channel depths of at least 50 feet. 36 At Los Angeles/Long Beach, the Army Corps recently completed a decade-long dredging project that deepened the main approach channels from 45 to 53 feet and enlarged turning basins to post-Panamax standards. 37 Now the bottleneck is the limited capacity of the intermodal infrastructures which convey cargo to the interior. 38 This capacity is defined by physical infrastructures, such as berths and cranes, container yard space, customs facilities, switching yards, railroads, warehouses, and inland facilities, as well as labor forces, political environments, and information technologies.

Upgrading these hard and soft infrastructures is the main focus of the counter-expansion. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — which share the enormous artificial landmass of Terminal Island and handle a full third of the nation’s container traffic 39 — are adding new berths and a massive “near-dock rail container transfer facility” (Los Angeles) and new container terminal (Long Beach), while upgrading the Alameda Corridor depressed railway. Seattle has recently converted a cruise terminal to a container terminal. 40 Oakland is expanding and upgrading existing terminals, and is also redeveloping a 330-acre abandoned Army base as an intermodal switching yard, reducing dependence on inland facilities. 41

The Panama Canal expansion is inflating an infrastructural bubble whose only beneficiary may be the Panama Canal Authority itself.

Thus, the Panama Canal expansion is inflating an infrastructural bubble. Nations, states, cities, and ports; on the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific; in North, Central, and South America; are all dredging, digging, building, and upgrading. Many do so with outsize expectations. They believe not only that they will they benefit from the ongoing rise in global shipping, but also that they will use this volatile moment to grab a greater share of the total volume of trade. They cannot all be right. As a former high-ranking port official told The New York Times, “everybody is trying to go after it [but] there are going to be few beneficiaries.” 42 Some unknown portion of this activity is speculative excess.

Don’t count on logistics to identify that excess. The U.S. Army Corps’ most recent survey of post-Panamax preparations uses the words “uncertainty” and “uncertainties” 28 times. 43 As the Times put it, “no one really knows how much traffic will be diverted and whether the expected increase will make up for the costs of improving the ports.” 44 Some analyses suggest that the only entity to benefit significantly from the expansion of the canal may be the Panama Canal Authority itself. 45

This frenzy of self-interested speculation presents both difficulties and opportunities. The environmental feedbacks of port expansion are in many cases severe. For example, plans to protect the benthic ecosystem of the Savannah River include twelve “oxygen injection machines”: giant cones which suck up river water, oxygenate it, and return the oxygenated water to the river at levels that support the delicate balance of fish, mammals, and plants. 46 This unusual design is a terminal condition; there is no intention of taking the landscape off life support once it is on. That’s an expensive price to pay for port expansion, especially if it turns out there is no economic benefit.

Jamaica Bay restoration work
Restoration work in Jamaica Bay, New York. [Flickr / Commons]

But in other situations, material excesses can be redirected to beneficial ends. This is the case in New York’s Jamaica Bay, where tidal wetlands are being recreated with dredged sediments from the New York-New Jersey Harbor Deepening Project. 47 Unlike the sediments from maintenance dredging, which are typically fine silts that are relatively contaminated, the material from expansion dredging is suitable for restoration work. Between 2006 and 2012, contractors working for the Army Corps diverted enough sediment to construct 155 acres of marsh island at Jamaica, countering a century-long trend of disappearing marshes. 48

The framing of excavated earth as strictly a ‘disposal problem’ stands in stark contrast to emerging awareness of dredged material as a valuable resource that can generate new landscapes.

Because the Panama Canal expansion has been viewed within a logistical frame, project managers have missed opportunities that a landscape approach would have identified. Consider the 65 million cubic meters of material dredged from the approach channels and from the bottom of Gatún Lake. These sediments are removed by barge, hopper, truck, and train, or piped through floating pontoon pipelines to deposition sites located along the length of the Canal, from the underwater Northwest Breakwater disposal site in the Atlantic to the open water disposal sites off Tortolita Island in the Pacific. ACP documents reveal that these massive earthmoving efforts have been determined according to a very narrow framework. Project managers considered, first, the problem of material receipt (Where are there sites with sufficient capacity to receive the material?); second, cost efficiency (How can disposal costs be minimized by shortening the distance between dredging and disposal?); and third, environmental impact (Can disposal be accomplished without damaging “sensitive environments”?). Of all the deposit sites they studied, only one merited a description of potential benefits. 49

This framing of excavated earth as strictly a “disposal problem” stands in stark contrast to emerging awareness of dredged material as a valuable resource that can generate new landscapes. 50 The ACP is legally required to conduct extensive mitigation for environmental damages related to canal expansion, including the capture and relocation of various species, reforestation, and off-site habitat creation. 51 This mitigation could have accompanied strategic placement of all that excavated material, but that would require a broader design framework and a fuller spectrum of values.

If opportunities like this are being missed at the relatively small scale of the isthmus itself, what is being missed at the broader scale of hemispheric infrastructural speculation? What might other modes of analysis and design investigation offer?

Infrastructural Futures

In July 2014, the Nicaraguan government proposed a new canal, “three times as long and almost twice as deep as its rival in Panama,” that would “require the removal of more than 4.5 billion cubic meters of earth” — unbelievably, more than twenty times the volume excavated in the original construction of the Panama Canal. 52 The potential impacts are similarly enormous. The dredging of a navigational channel through Lake Cocibolca alone will “require the removal of approximately 1.1 billion tons of sediment and material,” along with the destruction or displacement of ecological communities. 53 As proposed, the canal will require roughly 2 billion gallons of water daily, necessitating the construction of another artificial lake, “Lago Atlanta.” 54 As many as 27,000 rural citizens would have to be displaced from lands along the canal route, and opposition from the campesinos and their supporters has been vocal and intense. 55 Environmental advocates are similarly outraged by potential impacts on an estimated 1,500 square miles of “mangroves, coral reefs, dry forest, rainforest, wetland, and lacustrine habitat.” 56

Nicaragua Canal map, 1870
A route for the Nicaragua Canal proposed in 1870.

In the United States, many designers and urbanists have lamented the end of the modern age of infrastructure-building. Some call for renewed investment in public works 57 while others advocate for hacks and tactics to fill the perceived void. 58 However, we may soon see a new wave of infrastructural expansion built not by nation-states but by private interests (e.g. the Nicaragua Canal project driven by HKND Group, a Chinese corporation) or city governments (e.g. coastal cities such as Tokyo, Miami, and New York preparing for rising seas). Whoever is orchestrating construction, it’s clear that there is a continuing appetite for large-scale infrastructural works.

While the phenomenon of bigness is a common historical condition in the Americas generally 59 and the Panamanian isthmus specifically, the operative role of logistics distinguishes the current reconfigurations from the preceding five centuries of commerce, excavation, and construction. 60 The neutral language of logistics occludes the true scale of the Panama Canal expansion. Instead of acknowledging earth moved and channels dug, logistics celebrates wait times shortened and profit margins eased. And because it is a positivistic framework, logistics obscures the political and social implications of its behavior. But the canal expansion puts the lie to the claim that logistics is politically neutral. The primary medium of logistics is territory, and territory is land which is politically divided, controlled, and administered. 61

Efficiency is necessarily measured within bounds; redraw the boundaries, either physical or conceptual, and the calculus changes significantly. 62 The excess generated by the Panama Canal expansion and its networked effects challenges the validity of the bounds drawn around infrastructural projects of this scope and scale. Here the bounds are drawn based on the relatively narrow values admitted by logistics. Thus, the sedimentary surplus of excavation is seen as a disposal expense, rather than a potential resource, because the value it could generate would accrue to residents, turtles, and fish, not to the ACP or the global shipping corporations it deals with. The uncertain fate of American port expansions challenges the elevation of efficiency as a primary goal, by demonstrating that it may be impossible to draw boundaries so small that they meaningfully predict the behavior of such large systems in the manner demanded by positivist logistics.

The legacy of canal expansion may be a constellation of overbuilt and underutilized infrastructure projects and degraded ecosystems.

We are not arguing that logistics should or will lose its role in the organization of infrastructure projects that have global effects. (That would be unrealistic, if only because of the intimate intertwinement of logistics and contemporary capitalism. 63) Rather, we argue that landscapes, people, and others affected by these projects would benefit if logistics were augmented with other conceptual tools. At the scale of the Panama Canal expansion, logistics has produced unintended effects that harm local communities and environments. While these are sometimes justified as necessary casualties of economic development, that defense collapses when the presumed economic benefits fail to materialize. The legacy of canal expansion may be a constellation of overbuilt and underutilized infrastructure projects and degraded ecosystems — symbols of unfulfilled political and economic ambitions. If this is common to logistical infrastructures at very large scales, then we should not use logistics as the sole framework for their conceptualization.

We argue that analytic and design frameworks that take landscape as their primary object should be among the tools used to evaluate such infrastructures. We say this precisely because landscape, as a concept, works with a more complete range of values — material (as emphasized in this essay), social, political, ecological, cultural, and aesthetic. 64 While logistics elides these dimensions, we have shown that they are present in the expansion project and have been a part of the canal landscape since its inception. 65 As a medium, landscape integrates multiple processes, indicators, and design goals. Landscape has both analytical and experiential dimensions, which makes it ideally suited for synthesizing ideas across science, design, land management, and other practices. 66 While the logistician frames every situation as a technical problem to be solved, the landscape designer sees a cultural project, an opportunity to bring together competing value systems and forms of expertise. Landscape foregrounds the values that are contested in a given project, and it does not assume that economic gain and efficient distribution are the only goals that matter. This is all the more important given that logistics is often speculative; promised economic benefits doesn’t always materialize, even as social and environmental effects do.

Designers who learn to grapple with logistical bigness might discover new formats for public works.

Here our argument differs from that of other writers in the design disciplines who have engaged logistics and the landscapes that it produces. Charles Waldheim’s and Alan Berger’s “Logistics Landscape” makes a direct connection between the production of physical space through logistics and landscape as a conceptual framework, but the article focuses on articulating logistical landscapes as a manifestation of the current period of urban history and offering a set of logistical landscape typologies. 67 It closes by asserting that landscape architecture could play a role in the design and planning of logistics landscapes, but does not articulate how that role might develop or what inadequacies in a purely logistical approach might need to be ameliorated. Writers such as Clare Lyster and Jesse LeCavalier critically examine and unpack the workings of logistical flow with the intention of drawing methodological lessons that might inspire designers, planners, and other urbanists, but they do not attempt to carve out roles for designers within the territories governed by logistics. 68 All of these researchers share a common interest in explaining why other disciplines, primarily designers, should be interested in how logistics operates.

We have taken a different approach, describing gaps in the operations of logistics in order to convey the urgency of approaching large-scale infrastructural projects with landscape tools, methods, and frameworks. The discipline of landscape architecture, which we as authors call our own and which Waldheim and Berger assert the value of, possesses some of these characteristics, but it is not alone. Landscape ecology, geography, soil science, environmental studies, the nascent spatial humanities, and spatial planning are all examples of disciplines that take landscape as their medium. 69 Working with colleagues from these disciplines, designers who learn to grapple with logistical bigness might discover new formats for public works, approaches which neither retreat to the tactical nor valorize a bygone era, but instead produce augmented speculative frameworks, novel spatial practices, and material responses fit to contemporary conditions.

Authors’ Note

An earlier version of this essay was paired with work by Casey Lance Brown, bringing together our study of the Panama Canal expansion with his study of the U.S.-Mexico border. Brown’s essay “The Rise of Stateless Space” will appear in the forthcoming LA+ Tyranny.

Editors’ Note

This article has been peer-reviewed.

  1. The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) maintains that the project is 95 percent complete (as of October 31, 2015), and on track for an April 2016 opening; but further delays may occur. See for instance “Cracks in Lock May Delay Panama Canal Expansion,” Container Management, August 25, 2015.
  2. ACP, Proposal for the Expansion of the Panama Canal: Third Set of Locks Project [pdf], April 24, 2006, 4.
  3. See, for instance, Kevin Knight, The Implications of Panama Canal Expansion to U.S. Ports and Coastal Navigation Economic Analysis [pdf], a white paper of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Institute for Water Resources, December 2008; U.S. Port and Inland Waterways Modernization: Preparing for Post-Panamax Vessels [pdf], USACE IWR, June 20, 2012; or Delmy L. Salin, Impact of Panama Canal Expansion on the U.S. Intermodal System [pdf], U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, January 2010.
  4. U.S. Port and Inland Waterways Modernization, 43.
  5. J.B. Jackson, “The Word Itself,” Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (New Haven: Yale UP, 1984), 8.
  6. Brett Milligan, “Corporate Ecologies,” Journal of Landscape Architecture 5.1 (2010): 6-23.
  7. Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: the Power of Infrastructure Space (New York: Verso, 2014). See also Easterling, “Zone: The Spatial Softwares of Extrastatecraft,” Places Journal, June 2012.
  8. Deborah Cowen, “A Geography of Logistics: Market Authority and the Security of Supply Chains” [pdf], Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100 (2010): 1-21, 3.
  9. Photis M. Panayides, “Maritime Logistics and Global Supply Chains: Towards a Research Agenda,” Maritime Economics & Logistics 8 (2006), 3-18.
  10. Ibid., 6.
  11. Kate Hepworth, “Enacting Logistical Geographies,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32:6 (2014) 1120-34, 1121.
  12. The Panama Canal: A Plan to Unlock Prosperity,” The Economist, December 3, 2009. For more on the Pacific access channels, see ACP, “Geologic Map, Pacific Side,” Technical Analysis of Disposal Sites for Work on Panama Canal Post-Panamax Channels and Locks with Gatún Lake at 9.14 m PLD [pdf] (2006): 50. Note that the excess from this carving will not be wasted; the report states, “basalt from the excavation will be used to make concrete” for the expansion.
  13. Luis D. Alfaro, “The Expansion of the Panama Canal: The Impact of Developments in Rock Mechanics,” presentation, American Rock Mechanics Association, Chicago, Illinois, June 24-27, 2012.
  14. ACP, Technical Analysis of Disposal Sites, 10-13.
  15. See the ACP website and ACP, Proposal for the Expansion of the Panama Canal, 66. See also “Expansion of Panama Canal to Create 7,000 Jobs,” Latin American Herald Tribune.
  16. Worker unrest threatens Panama Canal expansion timeline,” The Journal of Commerce, August 11, 2015; and “Panama Canal Workers Call off Strike,” The Journal of Commerce, August 11,, August 12th, 2015.
  17. ACP, Environmental Impact Statement, Panama Canal Expansion Project, Third Set of Locks [pdf], 2007, Chapter 3, 108.
  18. U.S. Port and Inland Waterways Modernization, iii. Note that while only 16 percent of vessels are post-Panamax, they account for 45 percent of shipping capacity. This share is rising rapidly; see Brad Reagan, “The Panama Canal’s Ultimate Upgrade,” Popular Mechanics, October 1, 2009.
  19. Reagan, op cit.
  20. Henry Fountain, “Panama Adding a Wider Shortcut for Shipping,” New York Times, August 16, 2011.
  21. Reagan, op cit.
  22. “The Panama Canal: A Plan to Unlock Prosperity.”
  23. ACP, OP Notice to Shipping No. N-1-2014, Vessel Requirements [pdf], February 27, 2014.
  24. Fountain.
  25. See, for instance, Knight, “The Implications of Panama Canal Expansion.”
  26. For one such case study, see Jesse LeCavalier’s “All Those Numbers: Logistics, Territory, and Walmart,” Places Journal, May 2010.
  27. Easterling, 14.
  28. Proposal for the Expansion of the Panama Canal, 14-15.
  29. Ashley Carse, “Nature as Infrastructure: Making and Managing the Panama Canal Watershed,” Social Studies of Science, 42 (2012): 539-63. A fuller account of this can be found in Carse’s recent book, Beyond the Big Ditch (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014).
  30. Jim Wyss, Jacqueline Charles, and Mimi Whitefield, “Latin American ports ready for Panama Canal expansion,” Miami Herald, November 23, 2012.
  31. U.S. Port and Inland Waterways Modernization.
  32. Carrie Kissel, Claire Gron, Allison Heck, and Anju Chopra, Freight Transportation and Economic Development: Planning for the Panama Canal Expansion (Washington, DC: National Association of Development Organizations Research Foundation, 2012), 5.
  33. U.S. Port and Inland Waterways Modernization, xv.
  34. Proposal for the Expansion of the Panama Canal, 19-22.
  35. Ibid., 20.
  36. U.S. Port and Inland Waterways Modernization, 48.
  37. Port of Los Angeles Celebrates Completion of 10-Year, $370 million Main Channel Deepening Project,” Port of Los Angeles, news release, April 3, 2013.
  38. Theodore Prince, “Panama Canal Expansion: Game Changer or More of the Same,” CSCMP Supply Chain Quarterly, Quarter 1, 2012.
  39. Statistics reported by the American Association of Port Authorities in NAFTA Region Container Traffic, 2012 [pdf]. See also Center for Land Use Interpretation, “Terminal Island,” Lay of the Land Newsletter, Spring 2005.
  40. Kissel, et al., 4
  41. SSA Terminals (Oakland) Invests in Oakland’s Future,” SSA Terminals, press release, July 13, 2013; Carolyn Jones, “Oakland Army Base to be Used for Port Operations,” SF Gate, May 3, 2013.
  42. Kim Severson, “A Race to Capture a Bounty From Shipping,” The New York Times, December 11, 2010; and Susannah Jacob, “Canal Expansion Raises Expectations and and Questions,” The New York Times, February 18, 2012.
  43. U.S. Port and Inland Waterways Modernization.
  44. Severson, op cit.
  45. Prince, op cit.
  46. Associated Press, “Savannah Harbor Deal Hinges on Oxygen Machines,” June 2, 2013.
  47. Rob Holmes and Brett Milligan, “Feedback: Designing the Dredge Cycle,” Scenario Journal 3 (Spring 2013).
  48. USACE, New York District, “Jamaica Bay Marsh Islands.”
  49. Technical Analysis of Disposal Sites, 14-25.
  50. David J. Yozzo, Pace Wilber, and Robert J. Will. “Beneficial Use of Dredged Material for Habitat Creation, Enhancement, and Restoration in New York–New Jersey Harbor,” Journal of Environmental Management 73, no. 1 (2004): 39-52.
  51. See, for instance, ACP’s Social and Environmental Sustainability Reports.
  52. Jonathan Watts, “Land of Opportunity — and Fear — Along Route of Nicaragua’s Giant New Canal,” The Guardian, January 20, 2015.
  53. Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, Resolution to Halt the Interoceanic Canal in Nicaragua [pdf].
  54. Pablo Fonseca Q., “Nicaragua Constructs Enormous Canal, Blind to its Environmental Cost,” Scientific American, February 11, 2015.
  55. Mary Anastasia O’Grady, “China Wants to Dig the Nicaragua Canal,” The Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2015.
  56. Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, op cit.
  57. See Linda Samuels, “Working Public Architecture,” Places Journal, January 2010, and Nancy Levinson, “The Public Works,” Places Journal, January 2010.
  58. See Jeffrey Hou, Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities (New York: Routledge, 2010), and Kazys Varnelis, The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles (New York: Actar, 2009), reviewed in Places Journal by Chris Reed.
  59. John Stilgoe, “Wuthering Immensity,” Manifest: A Journal of Architecture and American Urbanism 1.
  60. Charles Waldheim and Alan Berger, “Logistics Landscape,” Landscape Journal 27 (2008): 219-246, explains how logistics, as a mode of organization and a process of urbanization, differs from earlier paradigms for the production of space.
  61. See, for instance, an analysis of the concept of territory within Western political thought in Stuart Elden, The Birth of Territory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  62. Rob Holmes, Christie Allen, and Lauren Sosa, “One Percent: Mining Bone Valley,” Scenario Journal 5 (Fall 2015).
  63. The relationship between logistics, the built environment, and late capitalism is covered at length in Waldheim and Berger, op cit.
  64. For more on the conceptual breadth of landscape, see Recovering Landscape, ed. James Corner (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), particularly Corner’s two contributions to the collection and “Part Three: Urbanizing Landscape.”
  65. Brett Milligan, Rob Holmes, and Brian Davis, “The Force of Things: Constructing the Panama Canal,” paper presented at 2014 CELA Annual Conference and forthcoming in Landscape Research Record 4.
  66. Joan Iverson Nassauer, “Landscape as Medium and Method for Synthesis in Urban Ecological Design,” Landscape and Urban Planning 106.3 (2012): 221-229.
  67. Waldheim and Berger, op cit.
  68. Clare Lyster, “Learning from FedEx: Lessons for the City,” Journal of Landscape Architecture 7:1, 54-67, and LeCavalier, op cit.
  69. Brian Davis and Thomas Oles, “From Architecture to Landscape: The Case for a New Landscape Science,” Places Journal, October 2014.
Brian Davis, Rob Holmes & Brett Milligan, “Isthmus,” Places Journal, December 2015. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

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