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Art History Alumna’s Unique Career Path Leads to Coastal Louisiana Restoration Efforts

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Lisa Kersavage

“Coastal Louisiana—and the two million inhabitants whose lives depend on it—is in peril,” reads the summary of the Lower Mississippi River Delta Design Initiative. As project manager of the initiative, Lisa Kersavage is trying to save that delta—and those lives.

“Over the last century, nearly 2,000 square miles of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands have vanished—an area the size of Delaware,” explains Kersavage (’92 B.A. Art History). “Those wetlands are a critical natural habitat for thousands of plant and animal species and act as self-maintaining ‘horizontal levees’ that protect inland communities and infrastructure.”

Fortunately, the environmental problems of southern Louisiana ARE solvable, notes Kersavage. The Lower Mississippi River Delta Design Initiative—a project of the Environmental Defense Fund and the Van Alen Institute—seeks to restore the region’s natural land-building capacity while accommodating the needs of navigation, fisheries, the oil industry and the region’s storied communities. Expected to launch in 2013, the initiative invites teams of engineers, coastal researchers, planners, architects and landscape architects to develop visions for a self-sustaining delta landscape. The teams will be commissioned to create solutions that provide natural flood protection for vulnerable populations while accommodating the needs of critical industries.

While Kersavage’s position may seem unusual for an art history alumna, she says her Penn State education was a critical building block in the path to her current career. “Through my art history classes I developed a passion for architectural and urban history,” she explains. “In my architectural history classes I became puzzled by the fact that so many of the masterpieces of American architecture that we studied had been demolished. I became very interested in understanding the social and economic forces that led to the creation and demolition of buildings, and in understanding how historic buildings contribute to the culture and sustainability of cities.”

Following her graduation from Penn State, Kersavage earned a master of science in historic preservation with an urban planning focus at Columbia University, and subsequently worked for a number of preservation organizations, including serving as the executive director of both Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District and the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation. She also held several senior-level positions with the Municipal Art Society of New York. Most recently, Kersavage was a consultant to the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia, working as the chief policy analyst in an assessment of the city’s physical and policy environment and potential opportunities between preservation and the city’s burgeoning green building sector, which was spurred in part by Penn State’s Energy Innovation Hub at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

A native of State College, Kersavage maintains strong connections to Penn State. Her father, Paul Kersavage, taught in the School of Forest Resources, while her mother and two brothers are both alumni.