2022 AAG Gilbert White Distinguished Public Service Honors Craig Colten
Craig E. Colten receives the 2022 AAG Gilbert F. White Distinguished Public Service Honors for his many contributions while a government employee during his early career and, later, while an academic. After earning a 1984 PhD at Syracuse University under the mentorship of Donald W. Meinig, he applied his skill in historical geography at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
The Love Canal disaster of the 1970s had prompted state governments to identify historic industrial sites contaminated with toxic waste, and Colten led an interdisciplinary team to develop a hazardous waste information system, a pioneering application of GIS to primary sources such as Sanborn maps. During the early 1990s, his ongoing research on toxic environmental hazards supported Superfund litigation by the US Department of Justice. In 1996, however, he transitioned into an academic position at Texas State University, both as a faculty member in the Geography Department as well as the Director of the Center for Hazards and Environmental Geography.
Since 2000, as a professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University, he has contributed seminal research on environmental racism and the environmental history of New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and the Lower Mississippi River Valley. While the author of many publications that negotiate the borderlands of academic research and public policy, a series of monographs well captures his historical perspective on the shifting interface of water, land, and life along the Gulf Coast: An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (2005), Perilous Place and Powerful Storms: Hurricane Protection in Coastal Louisiana (2009), Southern Waters: The Limits to Abundance (2014), and State of Disaster: A Historical Geography of Louisiana’s Land Loss Crisis (2021).
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as the public sought to understand the shocking devastation of one of America’s iconic cities, he demonstrated through his many media appearances and newspaper essays just how essential historical geography is for understanding people and places. Now emeritus, he and his many PhD graduates continue to apply their research to support communities threatened by flooding and coastal land loss. As one of his nomination letters puts it, “the highest art of an academic’s work is to be able to work within several worlds simultaneously and to directly provide voice for one’s ideas and knowledge in the halls of power and on the stage of public debate. It is a rare academic that can achieve this … highest bar of achievement that Gilbert White left for us. And it is [a] bar that Craig certainly passes at the highest level.”