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Photo: Downtowngal

Rarely does a stretch of concrete elicit praise and mockery like the Los Angeles River. The waterway spans 51 miles across 17 cities and, depending on one’s vantage point, may be the site of guided tours, plant life, street art or hazardous waste.

Noted architect Frank Gehry (of L.A. Disney Concert Hall fame) seemed an unlikely candidate to helm the river’s revitalization. Enter River LA, a non-profit involved in policy reform, public planning and community engagement. The organization commissioned Gehry Partners to be the lead consultants for their latest project.

“One of the first questions [Frank Gehry] asked us was ‘is the LA River a river without water in it. Can it still function as a river and deliver on all that a river can be for communities if it doesn’t have flow all year round?’” says Eli Kaufman, director of communications for River LA. Gehry initiated the first meeting following an a-ha moment on the riverbank and has been working pro bono for the organization ever since.

To fill the technical gaps in Gehry’s resume, the non-profit recruited Geosyntec, a consulting firm specializing in the impact of water quality and modeling on ecology, and a leading landscape architecture firm called OLIN. Together they created the LA River Index, a synthesis of data tracking the river’s key parameters over 25 years. Their website outlines nine points of interest that include: flood risk management, water recharge, water quality, greenhouse gases, ecology and habitat, open spaces and parks, public health, transportation and programming. In the same way the river connects cities, each pillar informs the others in some way.

Los Angeles River. (Photo via TreePeople)

Los Angeles River. (Photo via TreePeople)

After reviewing plans created by numerous agencies – such as the approved $1.3 billion U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan – and those of various municipalities, River LA created the index to assess the health of the river from beginning to end and to better gauge its value as a multi-use, public good.

Don’t Call It a Master Plan

Kaufman says the directory is not meant to be a blueprint. Rather, it’s a touchstone “by which to inspire, enhance and evaluate future work on the LA river,” according to the website. He hopes the data will make it easier for communities and policymakers to quantify what a redesign will mean for adjacent neighborhoods.

“Instead of competing for these resources, these cities are starting to understand that coming together actually gives them and the river the best chance at the best outcome” says Kaufman.

Engineers designed the river channel with one purpose in mind: flood prevention. The goal was to funnel water to the ocean during heavy periods of rainfall. While the river’s current design succeeds to that end, recent weather conditions have turned Southern California into a dustbowl. The water level stands below four feet 99 percent of the time, and considerably lower during times of drought. The use of a capture and release system could trap the some 310 million gallons of water that flow to sea each day and reroute it through aquifers for drought relief, landscaping and recreational purposes.

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Of the 2300 acres of natural space suggested by the World Health Organization to support residents living within a mile radius of the LA River, only 10 percent of the channel touches green space. The discrepancy is due to poor circulation compared to the original riverine area and a patchwork system of ecology that prevents green spaces from taking hold along the river’s concrete banks.

River LA envisions an alternative multi-use future for the river. A healthy river ecosystem supports plant life and its surrounding habitat, but a standalone model like the L.A. River results in haphazard areas of vegetation and animal life. Ecologists refer to this phenomenon as a fragmented river. Engineering the river to address these infrastructure challenges would result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions and overall health benefits.

Shared Access and Embracing the Public Sphere

While it is easy to see the potential impact of a redesign on surrounding ecology, changes to social equity and enhanced mobility are less readily apparent. The problem is exacerbated when concurrent plans that hold merit on their own fail to inform each other, says Kaufman. “People are starting to see that this river is actually a part of a larger watershed and what happens up stream effects what happens downstream… [T]he notion that everything sort of has to work together is becoming the narrative that people understand.” 

According to the index, 26 percent of train routes are within a mile of the river. The number of public commuters and new residents could rise substantially if the area were made more enticing and biker friendly. The river could attract tourism, serve as the site of community projects and tether the city from Canoga Park to Long Beach. To that end, it has the potential to reshape the way Southern Californians interact with the public sphere.

Photo Credit: LA River Index

Photo Credit: LA River Index

As the experts focus on how to elevate the river from its current status, some neighborhood groups fear the makeover could lead to an increase in gentrification along parts of the river touching low-income neighborhoods. The cost of living, it’s presumed, will rise in response. Kaufman treads lightly on the topic, insisting River LA will have to “thoughtfully and humanely address that change.” He refers to a tax-sharing program that would divert property tax dollars to revitalization efforts as a kind of insurance policy against displacement.

“We’ve met with every one of those [17 cities’] mayors, we’ve had community meetings…we understand that we have to create an open dialogue where everybody gets a chance to have their say,” he says. 

The Los Angeles River channel. Looking north from the Fourth Street Bridge — toward the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority headquarters building (tower). (Photo Credit: Downtowngal / WikiMedia Commons)

The Los Angeles River channel. Looking north from the Fourth Street Bridge — toward the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority headquarters building (tower). (Photo Credit: Downtowngal / WikiMedia Commons)

Historically, Los Angeles has been reluctant to embrace public offerings like metro transportation, preferring scattered highways and suburbia to the structure of city life. Planners have worked hard to combat the effects of sprawl by promoting public transit and urban infill, and the river could play a vital role in further reversing course.

“We’ve hit the boundaries of the region and we’re now looking back inwardly at ourselves,” says Kaufman. “The river’s time is now.”

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