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Herons and Concrete: Redefining What Nature Means on the L.A. River

A few years ago in Lakewood, where I live, a crowd of 300 gathered on the west bank of the flood-control channel that is the San Gabriel River to take a walk. Before they began, there were a few speeches from Lakewood city officials. Afterwards, a park supervisor showed slides of the native shrubs and trees that the city had recently planted to improve the wasteland under the Edison Company power lines that snake north and south along the river.

Then the audience --patient 6 and 7-year-olds in tow-- started out on the mile-long trail that city officials had just dedicated to the public's enjoyment of nature. But what nature is that?

How that question is answered --and by whom-- will determine the outcome of a vastly more ambitious plan for 51 miles of the Los Angeles River flood-control system. The goal there is to restore all of it to something resembling a river.

With enough money and passion, large parts of the riverside in Los Angeles could look like the mile of green and pleasant land in Lakewood. In the process, we could collectively redefine what nature means to us. But contending definitions of nature, re-greening, utility, and even the river must be reconciled first.

In Lakewood, with the help of development money from the state and the county, both banks of the San Gabriel River have become more than 80 acres of recreational open space. An equestrian center, picnic shelters, baseball diamonds, wide lawns, a dog park, and bridle paths fill the east bank. The new walking and jogging trail meanders on the west bank.

It has taken more than 30 years to assemble a green corridor above the concrete box of the San Gabriel River, so the landscape there has a mixed look. Mature eucalyptus trees tower eastward over the older park. Elderberry bushes are clumped along the new trail on the west bank. From there, the walkers on the afternoon of the trail's dedication could look down into the man-made void of the San Gabriel River. Water runs in the "low flow" slot in the middle of the flood channel most days. As on most afternoons, the concrete surfaces on either side of the slot glared brightly.

Low Flow Slot: The river most days
Low Flow Slot: The river most days, | Photo by Gilbert Mercier | Creative Commons License 

Two egrets - white plumes against the greater white of the concrete - stood motionless at the edge of the slot as the walkers passed. A juvenile pelican skimmed to a perfect water landing nearby. After a moment, the pelican took wing again and rose in company with a heron that was almost lavender in the winter light.

Was that nature? And if all of it is (as I think it is), what should the proportion of concrete to heron be in future of the Los Angeles River?

Landscape architect Mia Lehrer has been considering that proportion for more than 20 years, most notably as one of the authors of the 2007 Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan and more recent river studies. Written with the assistance of community organizations, urban planners, and the Army Corps of Engineers, these river revitalization plans, if fully realized, would invest more than $2 billion in re-greening the 32 miles of the river that run through the city.

"The river is huge but it's made up of many different projects, large and small," Lehrer told Metropolis Magazine. "Every one of them tests the limits of how people can work together." At the heart of Lehrer's vision is placemaking - the creation of sites where affective links are made that tie personal memory and communal identification to particular places. Placemaking sums up Lehrer's hope that restoring the river --not to some ideal of the natural, but to the lives and memories of Angelenos-- will be the foundation of a "new urban ecology" in Los Angeles.

Before Concrete: Los Angeles River about 1910
Before Concrete: Los Angeles River about 1910 | Photo courtesy USC Digital Library

Placemaking along the Los Angeles River is challenged by the river's vast size and the diversity of the communities it flows through. The politics of development in built-out Los Angeles will set other limits.

A key element in river revitalization should be the so-called "piggyback yard," a 113-acre "intermodal facility" that lies at the foot of Lincoln Heights northeast of downtown. Union Pacific owns the parcel and won't sell it. New rail lines are one option UP is considering, but UP may also have plans to reuse the site, one of the last open spaces in the heart of the city, for commercial development one day. In April, the Los Angeles Business Council proposed changes in city zoning and permitting ordinances to speed up construction on this and other parcels along the river, saying "If you look at frontiers and underutilized resources ... the L.A. River is really fertile land with a lot of development potential. There's market-driven demand (and) a lot of developers who are eager to get in there."

The rush to develop the river is putting in doubt more idealistic visions of riverside open space, like those of the Friends of the Los Angeles River, whose poetic evocation of the river before concrete was the start of re-imagining its place in the city more than 30 years ago.

The appearance last month of an alternative planning process from the design firm headed by Frank Gehry has added another layer of meaning to river revitalization. The new plan is said to be built on the collaborative process that river stakeholders completed in 2007, but the details were unclear when the plan was first unveiled.

 December 30, 1951 at 179th Place and Ami Street, Torrance
December 30, 1951 at 179th Place and Ami Street, Torrance ,| Photo courtesy USC Digital Library 

The new plan encompasses the entire 51-mile length of the river, 20 miles of which aren't even in the city of Los Angeles. It would cost far more than the $1.4 billion already approved by the Army Corps of Engineers for greening about 11 miles of the river from Glendale through downtown.

The new plan would require 15 cities, as diverse as Long Beach and Maywood, to accept a single design imprint, which might take the form of a repeated structural element on the river's banks or perhaps a continuous overlay on the existing concrete walls. It isn't very clear.

1965: The path of the 1938 flood, now a flood control channel under construction
1965: The path of the 1938 flood, now a flood control channel under construction, | Photo courtesy LA Public Library

Gehry explained his design concepts to LA Times architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne with a reference to branding the river, a notion that seems to be at odds with the many small-scale and neighborhood-focused sites imagined in the 2007 master plan.

It's hard for me to see how branding and the intimacy of placemaking will blend in the merging of old and new river revitalization plans. Perhaps this view, although based on Gehry's comments to the press, is too bleak. A riverside integrated into the lives in its adjacent neighborhoods can take many forms.

Gehry is impressed by the heroic proportions of the flood control system and the way its concrete materializes the power of a single idea to transform space. When the Army Corps of Engineers designed the system in the late 1930s, the transformative idea was flood prevention, although that also led to the creation dozens of square miles of newly buildable land.

Channeling the river turned out to be as much real estate speculation as it was a flood control project.

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Gehry's controlling idea for the Los Angeles River is water storage and reclamation. He would reconceive the flood control system to harness its vast capacity to gather, move, and discharge rainwater in order to put much of it at the city's use. The monumental concrete in the system would remain, but punctuated by the points of recreational access that distinguish the 2007 master plan. For Gehry, concrete should continue to bend nature to public utility.

Heron or concrete? And how much of each?

Concrete has a meant a barrier to the Friends of the Los Angeles River, who see it as forming a wall separating communities from the nature that a restored riverside would bring to life. Those concrete walls, they think, should fall to bring the river and its neighborhoods closer.

In the 2007 master plan, concrete is a malleable substance, imposing in some places and porous in others, but beautified and made to serve a "new urban ecology" of social connection. According to the 2007 plan, a re-greened river and its concrete parts could be a powerful symbol of the complicity between nature and human-scale placemaking.

1958, Pacoima Wash and Big Tujunga Channel
1958, Pacoima Wash and Big Tujunga Channel | Photo courtesy LA Public Library

My neighbors and I in Lakewood have a pragmatic view of concrete, which makes possible our not-quite-middle-class lives on the flood plain between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers. The millions of tons of concrete poured into both rivers beginning in the 1930s secured our small houses from disastrous flooding in the 1950s.

Those tons of concrete still protect us. But they won't forever.

One day it will begin to rain and it won't stop. On the fourth or fifth day of persistent, heavy rain, a surge of runoff from burned over hillsides above Glendale will cause the flood control channel north of Long Beach to fail. Water will top a concrete wall, and the earthen back of the levee will be eaten away. In thirty minutes, panels of the river's concrete wall will collapse.

 River Revitalization: Native riparian vegetation and pedestrian pathways on the west bank of the channel between Vanowen Street and Sherman Way
River Revitalization: Native riparian vegetation and pedestrian pathways on the west bank of the channel between Vanowen Street and Sherman Way| Photo courtesy Army Corps of Engineers

Water escaping from the breach will pour out in a wave that will have the force of a freight train. It will spread until a sheet of water a mile wide flows through neighborhoods adjacent to the river. The water won't be deep, but it will fill every depression. Houses on one street may only have their foundations dampened. Houses on the next street may have water standing three feet deep in their rooms.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, a breakout along the southern reach of the river could flood 82 square miles of modest tract houses. More than 600,000 people in 15 cities live under this threat, most of them in blue-collar Latino and African-American neighborhoods. In the mid-1980s, the Corps estimated that losses to homes and businesses would exceed $2.25 billion.

The Corps believes this disaster almost happened in 1980, near Wardlow Road in north Long Beach. A surge in storm runoff nearly topped the levee during the kind of intense rain event that might come two or three times in a lifetime.

This winter's El Niño rains may fall in once-in-a-century quantities.

It's wrong of me to think so, but I will wonder then if there's enough concrete in the river.

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