Isthmus: The Panama Canal Expansion Project


[Panama Canal expansion. Gerardo Pesantez / World Bank]

This piece in Places Journal, co-authored by Brian Davis, Brett Milligan, and Rob Holmes, examines the Panama Canal expansion, the geographical impact of large scale infrastructure projects, and the potential of conceiving, analyzing, and constructing this projects through the lens of landscape.

It positions the current expansion project as part of a 500-year history of mega-infrastructures on the Isthmus, and develops a framework for considering the widespread territorial, material, ecological, and social ramifications of important infrastructure projects alongside the political and economic considerations. The Panama Canal is particularly interesting, because the widespread speculation and infrastructural investment is reshaping port cities and coastal landscapes up and down the east and west coasts of the Americas.

We show that despite constant laments to the contrary, the Canal Expansion and similar projects demonstrate that the political will and economic capital for major infrastructural projects does exist. This is important, because in a world of globalized trade, social change, and economic and climatic volatility infrastructural projects may be one primary way to deal grapple with these conditions. But they must be understood through a more comprehensive, synthetic framework in order to minimize social and environmental costs that have traditionally been externalized, and to maximize benefits.

panama-canal-06 (1)

[Terminal Island, shared by the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach, is undergoing its own counter-expansion]