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Growing an Urban Agriculture Hub on the Los Angeles River

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When the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan (CASP) was close to being approved, the Los Angeles Times praised it, holding up as a model for smart development.

The plan's many pros included addressing the need for open space, mixed uses between retail and residential, as well as providing for alternative means of transportation. What the headlines missed was one unusual feature for any specific plan, which governs development in a neighborhood: urban agriculture.

"The CASP is unique in that it explicitly allows urban agriculture to happen in the neighborhood," said Jennifer Samson, who manages real estate projects with the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation (LARRC), while speaking earlier this month at a Los Angeles Design Festival (LADF) panel on the possibilities of urban agriculture on the Los Angeles River.

Together with architecture and urban planning firm Perkins and Will (P+W), community outreach outfit Dake Luna, urban agriculturalist Jesse Dubois, and economic advisors Project Finance Advisory Committee, LARRC undertook a study that outlines the challenges and ways forward of creating an agricultural hub along the Los Angeles River, funded by a Proposition 84 grant.

After a series of community workshops and studies done over the course of a year and a half, the study concluded that the 660-acre area bisected by the Los Angeles River within Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park, and Chinatown neighborhoods is an ideal neighborhood to encourage urban agriculture.

The 4 'Nodes' of the CASP urban agriculture hub
The 4 'Nodes' of the CASP urban agriculture hub

The study suggested the neighborhood be subdivided into nodes, which would concentrate activities in specific small areas. Node A near Avenue 26 could become a food hub and commissary that functions as a distribution center for small, and mid-size farms. Node B near the Ed P. Reyes Greenway is an ideal incubator area where the renovated Lincoln Heights Jail could be a community hub, aquaponics facility, and brewery/restaurant. (The urban rooftop garden proposal on Lincoln Heights Jail was an idea P+W has put forward three years ago, but it looks like funding and support for this has yet to be found, said Leigh Christy, associate principal at P+W.) Node C between the Los Angele River and the Los Angeles State Historic Park could host commercial agriculture and community garden spaces. Node D near Chinatown would make for an idea public events space where the idea of urban agriculture could be promoted.

Growing an urban agricultural industry would help alleviate the area's food scarcity, add long-term jobs, and of course, create a greener, healthier environment. "The Los Angeles River runs through many obesity-impacted neighborhoods in Los Angeles," said Samson. "By creating an urban agriculture zone here we're leveraging environmental benefits along with economic, political, and health." Samson says the issue isn't just about solving one aspect of life, but creating a holistic answer to the interrelated issues in the neighborhood.

Rendering for Node A
Rendering for Node A
Rendering for Node B
Rendering for Node B

The report's study area affects about 5,000 people from diverse backgrounds, 82.5% of whom are renters. About 60% speak Spanish, 30% speak an Asian language and the rest speaking English. Less than 10% finished education past high school.

Christy added there would be no shortage of farmers. The firm found that many people in the neighborhood were already growing their own gardens as a way to access healthy food, rather than taking onerous trips to far-flung markets.

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The CASP area is one of Los Angeles' many food deserts, where affordable fresh produce can be hard to find and corner stores are few and far between. This has led many in the community to start their own gardens. "People were growing things they couldn't buy for themselves," said Christy, who found these urban farmers during the study's community workshops.

According to Christy, the vision isn't just about developing plots of land with vegetables; it's creating a whole ecosystem of growing from: food production, processing, and distribution. Christy points out that the neighborhood already has a lot of things going for it: it's near transportation hubs, such as the freeway and the rails; it also has a lot of warehouse facilities, underused lots and rooftops.

Rendering for Node C
Rendering for Node C
Rendering for Node D
Rendering for Node D

More than just plots of land growing fruits and vegetables, P+W imagines urban agriculture to include beekeeping, aquaculture, small animal husbandry, fermentation, pickling, and canning. "When we talk about urban agriculture, most people automatically think BIG," said Christy, "but it can happen on all scales from a pot to a plot of land."

Despite many advantages, the report acknowledges that the prospect of an urban agricultural zone does come with challenges. Samson notes that this area is hemmed in by major infrastructure, making urban farming more resource intensive than rural counterparts with larger plots of land. The site's history also makes it very possible that soil remediation would be required. The report notes that soil remediation could be negotiated within a private agreement between an incoming developer and the community.

LARRC and P+W's study was finished early this year. LARRC and P+W is now looking to start pilot projects in the area. Christy says talks are under way with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) to start a project on DWP-owned land nearby. It might also work on starting school gardens within the neighborhood.

Read the full report here.

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