River Revitalisation in Los Angeles

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Great cities are categorized as places that not only offer productive conditions for business, culture and leisure, but also provide a healthy environment without any environmental hazards that provides the opportunity to live a healthy lifestyle. For a healthy population, this requires an adequate open space devoted to recreation. Over the past several years, the Los Angeles community has longed for more public and more environmentally friendly open space, but has been stuck in a concrete landscape. As a result, the City of Los Angeles has begun efforts to revitalize the Los Angeles River and has invested on major revitalization issues including opportunities for parks, bicycle paths and pedestrian trails, recreation, neighborhood identity, community development, tourism, civic pride, neighborhood redevelopment, water quality and supply, revaluing neglected space, and fostering a sense of place along the River throughout the City (1). One of the many revitalization plans is the Greenway 2020 led by the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation with partnership with several private and public agencies. Their plan’s vision calls for transforming the River into a safe, accessible, environmentally friendly and celebrated place, with the goal of giving the River’s lifeless environment a chance to foster civic pride and gain back its once vibrant channel. This paper will examine the major problems of a concrete encased river in an urban environment, the possible solutions currently being developed to activate the public spaces adjacent to the river, and to analyze the physical and social changes it will have to the neighboring communities.

The motivation for the Los Angeles River’s revitalization is ignited from the idea that the River is the City’s very heart, and that its ultimate restoration is essential to the city. This relationship is eloquently summarized by noted American conservationist Aldo Leopold, who believed that, “the way we treat rivers reflects the way we treat each other” (2). Waterfront redevelopment in the urban center has become an important element in the process of inner city regeneration and urban renewal. In Shanghai, the relationship between the waterfront and the urban center is extremely close and the characteristics of waterfront public space have been molded in accordance with changes in the city center. Shanghai’s waterfront experienced the process of originally being the central financial district and place of living, to subsequently losing its attraction and became neglected until it was redeveloped to serve as a tourist attraction and recreation space. The scenic waterfront of the Huangpu River became a great opportunity for Shanghai to make open public space for its increasing population and international identification. Both the Bund and Houtan Park set forth successful examples for making the waterfront more accessible. As a result of redeveloping the public space around the river, it brought back the community to enjoy the natural geography, and respect the origin of the city.

Similarly, the Los Angeles River has long been neglected by Angelinos since after a series of floods, including a particularly deadly one in 1938, have forced engineers to put the river in a concrete straitjacket. “The Los Angeles River – the defining landscape of the nineteenth century – was sacrificed for the sake of emergency relief, the preservation of industrial land values and a temporary abetment of the flood problem” (3). It was a decision made in the name of safety, but in the process, a natural amenity became an unsightly and unnatural entity, and ultimately disconnected the river from the community. Currently, the goals of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation is not to take the river back to some “all natural,” preindustrial past, but instead look for a few places where they can untangle its concrete straightjacket and interact with it in new ways. Similar to Shanghai’s Huangpu River, what are the possibilities and outcomes of reactivating the Los Angeles River’s public spaces to meet the point of equilibrium between the amount of wildlife and human interaction that meets the needs of the river environment? And how will these functional and visual qualities of the Los Angeles River’s new redeveloped public spaces affect the built environment?

While conducting a site visit along the concrete confined banks of the Los Angeles River, it was almost impossible to accept it as a river and even more difficult to imagine how it became this way. According to Gumprecht’s The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth, the river was never confined in concrete. The river unreservedly flowed anywhere and everywhere until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have tamed it because of the major flood problems it produces. The old Los Angeles River banks “were incapable of containing the great quantities of water that would rush from the mountains during winter rains which often results in floods over the waterfront. Sudden storms transformed normally dry streams into raging torrents, often in a matter of hours. Usually, placid rivers overflowed their banks, inundating large areas and occasionally turning portions of the coastal plain into a huge lake. Swirling floodwaters, carrying great loads of rock, sediment and trees, cut new channels through countryside and dug depression in the soil, leaving sloughs, marshes, and ponds in their wake” (4). After human activity has changed the Los Angeles River, it was never aesthetically and functionally the same. The Los Angeles River today is only a mere fraction of what it once was during its glorious days. It is but another concrete encased entity in a city that worships concrete. Its channel has been nearly encased in concrete, and has been lengthened, deepened and widened because of its unpredictable and potentially dangerous flows. “It has concrete banks on 94 percent of its course and a completely concrete channel, with paved bed sides, for three-quarters of its fifty-one miles. Because the river was designed to accommodate flood discharges as much as twenty thousand times its natural summertime flow, what you see when you look at the river most of the year is a broad swath of dry cement, which looks nothing so much as a deserted freeway” (5). Enclosed by barbed wire fences and surrounded by freeways and industries, the concrete river is unsightly and unapproachable. It is frequently trashed, and paved with multiple layers of graffiti one after the other. Thousands of miles of storm drains also empty along its banks, spilling out toxic wastes, and as a result, homes and businesses built along its course turn their backs against this remnant of a once beautiful river. Access to its channel is technically illegal as well to protect the country against liability in case of drowning or any other accidents, but these laws do little to keep out vagrants and gangs as homeless people live in cardboard shacks atop the river banks and drug users shoot up and deal drugs beneath river bridges (6). The isolation of the river not only refuses to have any benefits other than flood control, but also makes it a magnet for crime.

In the process of altering the River for safety purposes, we have erased the most dominant natural system in the City and created a highly-engineered infrastructure that have eradicated numerous plant and wildlife species that contribute to a balanced environment, and have robbed people of the open space that is necessary for human health and wellbeing. “In Los Angeles the amount of open space per thousand people varies from thirty two acres in upper income areas, to less than one acre per thousand people in predominantly minority neighborhoods” (7). Given a proper planning and redevelopment, the Los Angeles River can offer one of the greatest opportunities to regenerate the health of its environment and the health of the City as a whole. One of the greatest feats of great cities like Los Angeles is their ability to adapt and reinvent itself over time, and the revitalization of the River is crucial to Los Angeles’ growth for the River was once an active natural force of nature that provided diversity and maintained a healthy environment. It can positively activate the neighborhoods and give life to the Los Angeles River’s lifeless environment, becoming a push that the city needs towards a greater change. Greenway 2020 is the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation’s response to six decades of lack of open space and recreational area around the river. It is a campaign to work with the community to complete, by connecting the existing paths around the river, a continuous fifty one mile Greenway along the Los Angeles River by the year 2020. According to the Greenway 2020’s lead design consultant, PORT Urbanism, it has the potential to provide the Los Angeles River the opportunity to enhance and transform it into an ecological and recreational public realm that could serve as the first step to create a “regional non-motorized transportation corridor in Los Angeles. Passing through 13 cities and numerous jurisdictions, the Greenway will make it possible for Angelenos to get on their bicycles and take a ride to Griffith Park, Dodgers Stadium, Downtown and Long Beach Harbor along the LA River with amenities such as riverfront parks, cafes and equipment rentals to enjoy along the way. It will enable daily commuters throughout the city to ditch crowded roads and buses in favor of a beautiful and healthy daily bike ride along the River” (8). The Greenway is a continuous strip of naturalistic vegetation and ecosystems that will offer one of the longest recreational pathways in the country by connecting the existing twenty six miles of bike path to other sections of the River’s surrounding paths. People can use the public space for recreation, and these spaces will be increasingly important to biological conservation and urban recreation in the future. Greenway 2020 not only aims to revitalize the Los Angeles River, but also connect neighborhoods to the river, extend open space to the neighborhoods, and enhance the river’s identity completely. As stated in the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, “the Greenway will serve as the City’s “green spine,” a framework around which the rest of its public open space is oriented” (9). First, it will extend throughout the connecting tributaries and include trails and bike paths to connect communities to the River, and provide a non-motorized transportation network within the City. By implementing river promenades, grade-separated crossings, equestrian and neighborhood walking loops within the Greenway, it will increase direct pedestrian and visual access to the River that promotes fitness and can also define the local character of the River’s diverse neighborhoods and communities. Then, when there is an opportunity to expand beyond the River corridor, underused or vacant open spaces around the river will be transformed into parks. These River parks will be designed to improve and engage the Greenway, and provide active and passive recreational areas, which include outdoor classrooms, River learning centers, playgrounds and outdoor fields, for the surrounding neighborhood (10). Finally, the Plan’s vision calls for the strengthening of the River’s identity by using signature elements, such as iconic gateways and innovative bridges. Currently, the River is lacking visibility within the City and is generally suffering from negative perceptions. Being mostly blocked by railways and industrial development, today many River reaches are virtually invisible, and where they can be seen, they do not present a welcoming environment. To enhance the river’s visibility and create awareness, Greenway 2020 is currently working to successfully construct the very first philanthropically-funded and cable-stayed bridge in Los Angeles, the La Kretz Crossing. “It will connect the newly-expanded North Atwater Park to 4,200-acre Griffith Park via a bicycle, pedestrian and equestrian structure across the LA River” (11). The bridge will provide observation points, resting areas, and pathways for pedestrian, bicycle and equestrian uses which will all have a view of the river and downtown Los Angeles, and ultimately make it a locally valued destination. According to Omar Brownson, the executive director of the LA River Revitalization Corporation, the bridge was not just meant to provide pathways for bicycle and pedestrians, but to become “a destination, not just a crossing. It should be a gathering place for people” (12). The bridge aims to be an iconic cable style design that will attract the community to the concrete and once neglected river. Ultimately, the vision for the Greenway 2020 is built around the foundation of four organizing goals. First, Greenway 2020 aims to improve the function and health of the River for people, the environment, wildlife habitat and flood protection; second, with increased public safety, to increase public access to the River by interconnecting neighborhoods and commercial streets in multiple locations with Local Green Streets and walkways around the river; third, to develop the River as the “green spine” that connects neighborhood community facilities through a regional non-motorized trail network; and finally, to increase the value of the River as an amenity within neighborhoods, ultimately improving the neighborhood’s stability and quality around the river, and recognize the River as a new iconic destination for both local and visitors of the Los Angeles County (13).

Los Angeles residents have long articulated a strong desire for a “greener” Los Angeles, and with the completion of Greenway 2020 that may be experienced by everyone sooner than expected. As projected by the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, the greening of the River will provide multiple benefits to communities. For residents, Greenway 2020 will provide more parks and greener waterfronts with restored ecological functions that will connect the river to multiple adjacent neighborhoods and provide people a safer non-motorized path to get from places to places. For neighborhoods, both along the River and beyond its perimeter, it will provide recreational areas, including more parks and open space, and ultimately creating a greater sense of community identity and pride. For the City as a whole, it will increase attractiveness to visitors, and decrease the overall carbon footprint for it provides an alternative way to move around in the City that does not involve a motorized vehicle. Finally, at the federal level, in light of the River’s past flood history, it will reduce flood-damage, and improve environmental conditions through restoration of wildlife habitat and water quality features (14). Implementing the Greenway 2020 requires the ongoing engagement and support of the many people and groups that advocates its creation to revitalize the river. The Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation acknowledges that this transformative plan could not be accomplished in one lifetime, but for the sake of the Los Angeles River, it is crucial that it the people continue to carry it forward to ultimately make the River a much better place for today’s Angelenos. The City of Los Angeles has been given a rare opportunity to reverse the past and re-envision the River, and with enough determination, resurrect the river from its current lifeless, concrete state.