Last Friday I paid a visit to the impressive Becoming Los Angeles exhibit at the L.A. County Natural History Museum in Exposition Park. The brand new permanent exhibit tells the story of how a region that was once a collection of coastal and riparian Native American villages transformed into one of the world's largest metropolitan areas in the span of some 232 years. One of the thoughts that lingered in my mind after I left the museum was the ecological impact of the man-made, built environment that was created here.
I often say to friends (especially those that also grew up here, after randomly running into them in public or discovering mutual acquaintances), "Los Angeles is really a small town -- it just happens to have a lot of concrete."
And do we have a lot of concrete. What we city dwellers consider the urban environment is, in actuality, a paved layer that we exist upon: A man-made surface of concrete, cement, masonry, and asphalt, intended to cover and conceal the natural surface at every opportunity, the sight of dirt be gone at all costs. If the planet is comprised of a core, a mantle and a crust, then humankind has created its own stratum atop the crust: "The layer."
It is an appropriate symbol of human strength and weakness. Perceived as solid and strong, yet paper-thin by geologic standards, the layer is intended to protect us -- from the elements, from other creatures, and from ourselves -- yet it paradoxically possesses its own risks and dangers, for instance, when we fall upon it (or it falls upon us). It's meant as a benchmark of civilization, as we have been conditioned to equate the built environment as more advanced than the natural, primitive one. A paved road is more preferred to travel on than a dirt path, right?
But that layer, in both function and symbolism, separates us from the natural environment that existed long before we did, and will keep existing long after we are gone.
The layer has created microclimates that have resulted in urban heat islands, altering weather patterns and increasing demand for indoor power consumption to counter the effects of that heat. It has allowed water to run away, out of sight, out of mind, via channelized structures, preventing it from draining into the ground, where it could have been filtered through the natural processes of rock and soil and accumulate in subterranean water tables. The layer has obliterated ecosystems and severely restricted the domain of the flora and fauna that have earned their unenforced seniority over us.
Though the layer was created for the sake of human convenience and dependency, we do, on occasion, seek opportunities to free ourselves from its grasp. Is it any wonder that we are attracted to places that are free of the layer, or at least where the layer is restricted? Skiing in the mountains, hiking in the foothills, camping in the forest, picnicking in the park -- all ways to temporarily get away from the layer. The beach is perhaps the most well-known and well-loved layer-free zone here in Southern California.
The other day I took a short walk around my East Hollywood neighborhood, nested within the densely urban confines of central Los Angeles, and found countless examples of not just the layer's omnipresence, but its insistence. Besides the expected roads, alleys, sidewalks and parking lots, there was a car parked on an even concrete surface in front of a house where a front yard once stood many years ago. And just down the block, where a mini-mall stands at an intersection, an area outside the corner of the shopping plaza originally designed to hold plants and landscaping, eventually fell to neglect and was filled in with concrete. Now the hard surface is used as a platform for impromptu sidewalk vending or for loitering by some of the neighborhood drunkards.
As dominating as the layer is, it has a key vulnerability. The layer itself is high-maintenance, requiring constant human upkeep and considerable financial investment. For instance, the 10,750 miles of sidewalk in the City of Los Angeles alone costs $1.6 billion to maintain and repair. Sometimes the layer is physically worn down by our own usage and wear. But the biggest adversary to the layer is the very thing the layer was meant to guard us from: the force of nature. Be it through earthquakes, erosion, the effects of the sun and heat, or plant growth, the layer is inherently weak. Without our constant intervention, the layer is ultimately broken down by natural means.
The same neighborhood walk also yielded examples of that wear, which appears as human neglect and lack of upkeep, but is in actuality the natural world breaking down the layer: A ficus tree's mighty roots buckles a sidewalk and a driveway. And chunks of street curbs have fallen off over the years to reveal bare dirt.
Though humankind has been building concrete structures in some form for the past 8,500 years, the layer is largely a 20th century concept: the proliferation of roads and highways for motor vehicles, surface lots to park them, paved sidewalks and plazas to hold large masses of people, and the creation of channelized waterways to speed up water flow.
We 21st Century humans who live on the layer should start re-thinking and re-designing that layer, to allow a more penetrable layer that allows us to better interface with the natural world, rather than shield us from its interference.
Perhaps the best example of this more porous layer is the implementation of permeable paving, which allows stormwater to sink into the ground and naturally recharge local aquifers, rather than wastefully flushing out runoff into the sea. Fortunately I encountered an example of this in my neighborhood walk, as the rear parking lot of a relatively new commercial building was made out of permeable material, and the front of the structure also featured an abundant softscaped frontage of drought-tolerant plants.
But there is still more that can be done. Our channelized waterways such as the Los Angeles River are currently envisioned to have some of their layer broken in order to function more naturally. Natural creeks, currently diverted to flow encased within the layer, can be daylighted for aesthetic and ecological benefit. And more importantly, as contemporary human communities are built to be more densified, their structures and physical amenities can be designed to enforce less of the layer and better coexist with the natural environment while still maintaining human function. Achieving those things would, quite literally, be a breakthrough.