Natural Corridors of LA

A common perception of Angelenos is that the freeway is their only shared urban experience. This truism seems confirmed by an aerial view of greater Los Angeles, as the basin and valleys are criss-crossed by a series of linear, concrete paths. Surprisingly, these are not the freeways but the rivers, arroyos, and washes of the region’s flood control system. Although visually dominant from the air, the rivers are largely invisible and unseen to the everyday life of the city at the ground level, contained in concrete storm drains located in back alleys and behind industrial sites. Excluding the mountains and beaches, the water channels of the Los Angeles area – the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, the Arroyo Seco, the Tujunga and Verdugo Washes, Ballona and Dominguez Creeks, among others – are the central natural fact of the region.

These rivers and streams drain some of the steepest, fastest-growing and most unstable mountain ranges in the world. When the winter monsoon storms arrive – after the fall fires remove the chaparral vegetation – the rainwater cascades out of the mountains and their picturesque arroyos, delivering mudflows, rocks, and debris into the valleys and coastal plains. (A sequence made famous by John McPhee’s essay “Los Angeles against the Mountains”). Millenniums of this natural rhythm created an alluvium plain one mile thick, filled its sandy soils with an aquifer of such pressure that freshwater geysers were common until the early 20th century, and delivered sands down the coast to create Southern California’s famous beaches. But these floodwaters also overwhelmed the usually dry channel of the Los Angeles River and its tributaries, spreading across much of what today constitutes the urbanized area of greater Los Angeles. Following the disastrous flood of 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers fixed the river’s course in concrete channels, in what remains one of the largest public works projects west of the Mississippi. The result is a river that looks more like an empty freeway than the “beautiful, limpid little stream” William Mulholland described in 1877.

Thus, the hydrology of the Los Angeles basin today is drastically different from the riparian landscape of arroyos settled by the Spaniards in 1781. Now, the Los Angeles River and its tributaries are artificial from their source in the San Gabriel Mountains to the river’s mouth in Long Beach. The course of the river is permanently constrained by concrete channels, designed to move winter storm waters to the ocean as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the river’s dry season flow is predominately treated wastewater originating from two water reclamation plants (and indirectly from northern California and the Colorado River). As a result, the river is a largely forgotten landscape, except for the occasional appearance in movies (Them!, Grease, Terminator 2) and storm coverage newscasts (“Rain Pounds the Southland”). Not surprisingly, the watershed of the Los Angeles basin contains some the most environmentally degraded and maligned streams in the country.

But in the water-hungry and park-poor region defined by the river basin, interest in the river’s potential to create regional recreational space and supplement water supplies is increasing. In the past twenty years, a growing constituency of people has imagined a new future for the rivers. They have argued that the present condition of the Los Angeles River and its tributaries can be reversed, transforming from banal concrete ditches into a network of linear waterfront parks and public urban spaces. The remaining riparian landscape of the river as it passes through the Sepulveda Dam Basin or the Glendale Narrows is the precedent cited for the first vision; the San Antonio Riverwalk is the model for the second. However, achieving this imagined future will require a radical reconception of the river’s status, as its present condition along much of its 51-mile long course seems to render the vision suggested by these precedents a utopian fantasy.

Although most of the river is encased in concrete, sections of it have a more river-like appearance. A thicket of sycamores and cattails grows in the Glendale Narrows, the eight miles between Griffith and Elysian Parks, where the high water table forced the Corps to accept cobblestones and sand instead of concrete as the river bottom. With the scenic hills of Griffith Park as a backdrop, it is possible here to imagine what the historic landscape of the river looked like, notwithstanding sloped concrete embankments and the noise from the adjacent I-5 Freeway. Here North East Trees and other non-profit organizations have pioneered a series of pocket parks, employing local artists and at-risk-youth. Located in odd leftover spaces between the public works flood control fences, private property and the concrete embankments, these parks demonstrate that no site is too small for river greening. These parks – just big enough for one or two benches – are scaled to the individual or small groups. One, a passive fitness course, is a linear series of shaded stops, each with a plaque describing a yoga position. Other sites, like Rattlesnake Park in Frogtown and Anza Picnic Area at Los Feliz Boulevard, are simply landscaped gateways to the river, literally marked with formal gates and wildlife sculptures. Paralleling this necklace of mini-parks is a Class-I bike path, the first leg in what is hoped to be a 51-mile long bikeway connecting the mountains and the ocean.

Upstream in the San Fernando Valley, where the river is contained in an all-concrete trench, Valleyheart Park has just opened. Designed by local 4th and 5th graders under the guidance of The River Project, one of the many non-profit groups focused on river revitalization, the park was completed in 2004. The park’s entrance is gate in the shape of a toad, created by student Michael Harris and artist Lahni Baruck. Other amenities include the Butterfly Bench – inscribed with a quote from Thoreau, and the Snake Wall – engraved with the names of children who participated in the park’s design.

Just downriver from the Glendale Narrows, plans exist for the Confluence Park, at the intersection of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco, under the 5 and 110 freeways and three separate rail lines. Where today there is an industrialized parking lot for County and CalTrans trucks, river advocates see the hub of a future 51-mile long L.A. River Greenway. This is river central – within walking distance is the present L.A. River Center and Gardens – from here, gardens and paths will reach north through the Glendale Narrows up to the San Fernando Valley, northeast to Pasadena via the Arroyo Seco, and south to Downtown and the working class cities of south Los Angeles. Reclaiming the confluence site is as much as a park-building exercise as an effort to renew communities’ connections to each other. It is also an attempt to renew the city’s historic connection to place – the confluence was the only site in the region where a year-round supply of water could be located, the impetus for founding El Pueblo de Los Angeles downhill in 1798. At Confluence Park the real ambitions of river restoration become evident – hopes that greening the river will not only produce bike paths and shaded benches, but also create physical and psychic links between neighborhoods, history, and nature. As environmental historian Jennifer Price writes, “It is at once one of the most hopeless and hopeful spots in L.A.”

Currently local community groups and the City are working with the State Parks department to create two large urban parks from abandoned rail yards adjacent to the river. Both sites will create significant recreation areas for crowded neighborhoods with a shortage of parks and public space. But more importantly, both projects are underway because river groups joined with broad-based community coalitions to resist typical industrial development schemes. At the Cornfield and Taylor Yard, the river became a common umbrella for groups committed to historic preservation, ecological restoration, watershed management, and social justice. The Los Angeles River has become a “civic” space, gathering the city’s diverse populace.

At Chinatown Yard (long known as the Cornfield), just downstream from the confluence, the connection to the river is of high symbolic and historic significance since it is here that the Zanja Madre, the city’s original aqueduct, delivered river water to the pueblo and its agricultural fields. While final plans are prepared for what is officially known as the Los Angeles State Historic Park, the entire 33 acre site will be planted with corn in summer 2005. Funded by the Annenberg Foundation and created by artist Lauren Bon, “Not a Cornfield,” will be an ephemeral public art project akin to the work of Christo, and result in a fall harvest festival.

Taylor Yard, upstream from the confluence in the Glendale Narrows, features over two miles of river frontage. Named Rio de Los Angeles State Park, the project will include much needed soccer fields and other normative park amenities. Conceptual drawings for future phases of the park suggest breaching the concrete walls to create 60 acres of wetlands, indicating ambitious plans to restore the river as a productive landscape – to create multi-functional public spaces that integrate flood-control engineering, recreation fields and wildlife habitat. The yearly cycle of water in the river will flow in and out of the park, renewing its landscape. If this is successful, the Taylor Yard project will be more than a river-overlook located atop the concrete embankments, and become of the river, not merely on it. It will be the first of the new parks to physically engage the river’s ecology, and merge it with the public life of the city. It will begin to renew the relationship between the ecological and civic life of the region, a relationship that has arguably been lost since the Americanization of Southern California.

Further plans to renew the Los Angeles River are even more ambitious. The City of Los Angeles has set aside $3 million to commission a master plan for the entire river – the design team will soon be selected from a pool of international practitioners of architects, urban designers and landscape architects. Perhaps the master plan will incorporate studies created by students from Harvard’s Landscape Architecture program for the Union Pacific Rail Yard just east of downtown L.A. Commissioned by the non-profit Friends of the L.A. River (FoLAR), these conceptual studies range from diversion channels to temporary dams to create ponds, lakes, and new wetlands in what are currently some of the most industrialized areas in the city. The prospect of river-nourished parks, community gardens, and recreation trails, fishing ponds, and even beaches running along the east edge of downtown requires a major leap of imagination. Yet this is the vision of FoLAR and other environmental groups in the Los Angeles region. They imagine a future where the restoration of the river also gives it a public face, civic presence, and cultural meaning.

Today’s pocket parks on the Los Angeles River are portals on tomorrow’s restored ecology, revived neighborhoods and renewed city. They are glimpses of an urban landscape where the river not only connects the mountains and the sea, but also neighborhoods and citizens. They have prompted a rethinking of regional stormwater management policies, leading to innovative and integrated watershed plans basin-wide. They suggest a city where the cycles of the natural world have presence, value and meaning in public life – where the expression of the genius loci and the civic realm are one in the same.

Published in Los Angeles: Building the Polycentric Region
(Los Angeles: Congress for New Urbanism XIII / Moule & Polyzoides / Reconnecting America, 2005)

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