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Making Room for the Los Angeles River: Learning from the Dutch

Climate change is an issue that affects us all, yet perhaps given the way the human mind works, or the enormity of the issue, it is often easier to procrastinate rather than to start working on solutions.

Reports like the neighborhood-centric one released by UCLA's Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, however, remind us that climate change is real and it will have measurable effects in our own backyard and in our lifetimes. According to the report, in 30 years, the region's summer will be longer and hotter. Los Angeles will experience triple the number of scorching days in downtown and quadruple the number in the valleys and high elevations. (Check out the per neighborhood stats here.) Climate change would also bring severe storms and damaging floods, which would leave the local population vulnerable, if no steps are taken.

Just last week, a consensus statement was released to the public signed by 520 scientists from 44 countries with a dire warning that the Earth is approaching its tipping point. "By the time today's children reach middle age, it is extremely likely that Earth's life-support systems, critical for human prosperity and existence, will be irretrievably damaged by the magnitude, global extent and combination of these human-caused environmental stressors, unless we take concrete, immediate actions to ensure a sustainable, high-quality future," the scientists write.

Fortunately, there are those in Los Angeles who have taken this clear warning to heart. On May 17, Los Angeles hosted "Room for the River Los Angeles," a conference that gathered experts from Netherlands and Los Angeles to begin the conversation on climate change solutions anchored on the Los Angeles River.

Why ask help from the Dutch? Because they are actually addressing the problem. In the Netherlands, 55 percent of housing sits in a flood prone area. To keep homeowners safe, the Dutch have traditionally built higher and higher dikes, but evacuations of 250,000 people in 1993 and 1995 have shown them this was only a stopgap solution.

"Natural hazards, climate change, sea level rise, the risk is already there," says Frans van de Ven of Urban Water Management team at Dutch applied research institute, Deltares. Instead of continually building higher, the Dutch embarked on a €2.2 billion "Room for the River" program to mitigate the risks and use nature to their advantage.

The team is implementing various solutions in 39 key areas, which include: moving dikes back to add more land on which the river can flow, deepening river beds, digging a new channel, adding temporary water storage for overflow, and constructing a spillway that would even water levels between two rivers. These projects would fundamentally change the landscape of the country, but planners hope the changes will be for the better. This example of inter-agency cooperation and public support (even to the extent of migrating entrenched farmers) is what Los Angeles hopes to learn from.

1897 L.A. River by J.H. Dockweiler shows the shifting shape of the river

During the two-day conference, environmentalists in Los Angeles worked with Dutch experts to see if the Los Angeles River could similarly help the city become more resilient to climate change. The groups were asked to create proposals grounded on science, but unconstrained by policy or funding.

A group led by Andy Lipkis, president of TreePeople, focused on the Glendale Narrows area, "one of the more vulnerable areas to severe weather" according to Lipkis, given wildfires and floods that could come from the Angeles Forest. Their proposal imagined slowing down rushing water from the steep mountains by urban agriculture and building a network of green streets to connect the mountain to the river. The most ambitious portion of their proposal was to create a green freeway that would place the 5 freeway underground, while landscape flourished overhead.

Knowing that a vibrant neighborhood rests on individual homeowners, Lipkis also asked the audience to imagine, "What if the 48,000 square feet of homes in the area could be a player by capturing water?" Doing so would help residents become an active part of the movement, but also attune them to the goings-on of nature right in their backyard.

Working on the southern portion of the Los Angeles river watershed, a group led by Mike Antos, Research Manager of the Council for Watershed Health, proposed designing a "Delta River City." Antos says that expensive dredging regularly occurs in the area because sediment naturally builds up. Rather than paying for dredging, the group proposed to let nature proceed as it wants, creating an offshore delta that could be the new Port of Los Angeles. Back in the mainland, the neighborhood could incorporate green roofs, bioswales and a wetland park, to help contain and treat water.

At the Arroyo Seco Confluence, an industrial zone below the Glendale Narrows constrained by railways, a group led by Paula Daniels of the Mayor's office suggested five elements: linking parks and waterways to create greenbelts that double as floodways; treating transit as an asset and leveraging possible high speed rail funds to design transit structures that also have water quality benefits; building small scale developments that promote permeable surfaces; buying back land to restore flood plains; and building low-impact developments that would help manage stormwater.

In San Fernando Valley, a group led by The River Project's Melanie Winter turned to history for inspiration. "A hundred years ago, the L.A. County Flood Control & Water Conservation District wanted to reserve 3,135 acres of land surrounding the Hansen Dam for the purposes of spreading storm flows from the mountains," explained Winter. Today, only about 250 acres of spreading ground is left. Her group proposed a long-term voluntary buy back program that would reclaim 2,000 acres of land. The group also wanted to see "focused density," which would build higher structures along transit lines to "accommodate more people in less space."

Rather than have streets that gradually slope down on the sides, the group would like to see boulevards depressed down the middle so water can flow through the middle. Instead of treating runoff at the end, each home would be encouraged to capture water. They project an additional 150,000 to 175,000 acre-feet of additional water supply would be captured annually. "Today, the city only sources 12 percent of its water locally," says Winter, "we can flip that equation."

As much as Los Angeles needs ambitious plans like these come to life, the proposals each group presented were not meant to be firm plans. Instead, they were meant to seed the imaginations of those in Los Angeles, helping them envision a Los Angeles that could literally weather the coming storms. "How we think and talk about the river has to change. Dramatically," said Winter. "And science needs to drive policy if we want a liveable, resilient city."

Room for the River- Promo Clip from Netherlands:

Top: Wall with Dutch-style row homes in Elysian Valley near the L.A. River. Photo by Justin Cram.

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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