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Landscape Design Students Propose Urban Interventions on the L.A. River

When it comes to complex problems, fresh eyes sometimes bring valuable new perspectives. This year, the Los Angeles chapter of landscape and urban design firm SWA Group hosted seven students from around the country and asked them to reconsider the landscape around the Los Angeles River.

"It was very much a challenge for the students given that we only had four weeks," explained Ying-Yu Hung, principal at SWA, "but the Los Angeles River was very much in our backyard and we couldn't resist the opportunity to study it."

Each summer, SWA Landscape holds it annual summer student program in one of the firm's seven locations around the world. This year is SWA Los Angeles's first turn at hosting the summer program. For four weeks, participants were immersed in river issues and asked to come up with landscape proposals centered on a particular neighborhood of Los Angeles along the river. Students kayaked along the river, spoke with professionals working on the river, and toured the upper watershed as preparation.

What came out of the month-long immersion were a wide variety of solutions, some closer to ambitious projects Angelenos could easily imagine playing out in the city, others pushing the envelope of what's possible in the city.

Renderings by Ian Mackay

In the former camp is Ian Mackay, an Ohio State University student double majoring in landscape architecture and city planning. He focused on the Elysian Valley and Cypress Park. (His research also included combing through KCET's StoryShare sessions on the riverfront.) "What if we could build a bridge that could do more than just encourage people to cross between neighborhoods?" asked Mackay. "Can a bridge be a site of a lovefest between people, birds and the river?"

He imagined building what he called a "habitat bridge" that would be able to house birds. Green landscape wedges positioned on the east bank would have perforated spaces that could host bird nests. Behind the wedge's scrim, pedestrians and cyclists would able to view the wildlife beyond while going about their recreational activities.

See Ian Mackay's full report: 1, 2

Renderings by Stephanie Kopplin

At the DWP main yard, right by San Antonio Winery, Stephanie Kopplin from The University of Texas at Austin noticed the area had no river crossings at all. It was further hemmed in by existing rail infrastructure and could hardly be seen at all from outside. Here, Kopplin suggested opening a diversion from the river to the area to treat incoming water, which would then flow back out to the river cleaner than it was before. Kopplin's proposal also created slopes in the banks to add recreational opportunities such as mountain biking hills and climbing canyons. Kopplin made use of the area's more passive spots by re-casting them as riparian observation spots and nurseries, nourished by the diverted water from the river.

See Stephanie Kopplin's full report: 1, 2

Renderings by Chunlan Zeng

At the rear of Union Station, Chunlan Zeng of the University of Pennsylvania saw that the area could be Los Angeles's answer to New York's Central Park. Zeng made a convincing case after mapping traffic from people getting of the trains, and passing through in their cars, on their bikes and on foot. This area could be a riverfront promenade with lunch gardens, farmer's markets and restaurants dotting a green walkway, connecting Union station to other points in the neighborhood.

See Chunlan Zeng's full report: 1, 2

Renderings by Marta Gual-Ricort

On Santa Fe Avenue, Marta Gual-Ricort, who's currently finishing her Master's in Landscape Architecture from the University of California Berkeley, noticed that there were no residential neighborhoods within a 1.2-mile radius and no pedestrian or bike paths were nearby either. On rainy days, it also received the highest velocity of water flows. Knowing this, she concluded that her area wouldn't be a place for the public, but a refuge for wildlife that could also help clean the city's water supply. Here, she placed a wetland park that doubled as water treatment and storage area.

See Marta Gual-Ricort's full report: 1, 2

Renderings by Esther Kworteg

On the other hand, Esther Kworteg took a more daring approach to the William Mead Housing area between the L.A. County Jail and the river. A native of Netherlands, Kworteg it seems took a cue from her countrymen when it comes to dreaming up water-related solutions. She saw Los Angeles as a city on the floodplain of a river. Her proposal included stilt housing, which would be designed to float along with the current should a great flood rush down the plain.

"Everyone's very scared of the river," she observed, "but we should re-think our position and see the ways we could live amphibiously." Land under the lowest point of the floodplain would be engineered to retain water, allowing the city to clean its water supply as water flows.

See Esther Kworteg's full report: 1, 2

Renderings by Rachel Vasser

Rachel Vasser from the University of Virginia took advantage of the Arts District's vibrant creative community, by proposing a performative punk playground right by the river. Just as Paris's catacombs have become alternative art spaces, so Vasser envisions outfalls, channel walls and rail yards repurposed for temporal art projects and turned into public spaces.

See Rachel Vasser's full report: 1, 2

Renderings by Binbin Ma

Binbin Ma from Harvard University Graduate School of Design wondered if the area around Sixth Street Bridge could be recast as a Fashion Art Park, seeing its proximity to art studios and manufacturing facilities. Ma's proposal created a nexus of fashion by placing fashion stores, fashion museum, even an outdoor theater in the vicinity. A string of art parks and pedestrian paths would converge on the location; even concrete channels often so intimidating would be open to the public to wander in toward the nexus.

See Binbin Ma's full report: 1, 2

While all of the proposals were essentially rough drafts, the SWA students' efforts weren't wasted. Each project was presented to a group of river advocates that included representatives from the city of Los Angeles, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, and the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, who perhaps may take these ideas and funnel them back into the growing spate of river-related projects. Which one proposal would you like to see come to life in your neighborhood?

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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