From the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach, the L.A. River winds through more than 50 miles within Los Angeles County, along the way linking together far-flung communities like Canoga Park and Paramount in ways that even the freeways can’t. Over a million people make their home within a mile of the river and, according to the “L.A. River Master Plan” released by Los Angeles County earlier this year, more than half of the county’s residents live within its watershed. The Los Angeles River is integral to the region and a recent poll indicates that locals know this, whether or not they live near it.
In July, StudyLA conducted its 2021 Los Angeles River Survey, where 600 Angelenos took part in a 15-minute telephone poll, sharing their thoughts and concerns regarding the region’s waterway. The surveys were conducted in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Korean, four commonly spoken languages in Los Angeles. “The whole idea is to get a representative sample of Los Angeles County,” says Fernando Guerra, professor and director for the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, by phone. By excluding other languages, he explains, bias exists in the study. “But,” he adds, “by having these multiple languages, it gets us closer.”
I certainly didn’t expect that, but it’s one of the major findings— how much support for investing in the river goes way beyond the neighborhoods by the river.Fernando Guerra, professor and director for the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University
Amongst this diverse group of Angelenos, only 124 of whom lived within one mile of the river, researchers made a surprising find. Whether or not Angelenos spend much time around the river, they care a lot about its future, as well as the future of the communities surrounding the L.A. River and the habitat it provides. “We really thought that there would be tremendous differences between the people who live nearby the river and those who live beyond the river,” says Guerra. However, he says that they saw very little difference in the responses despite those geographic differences. That is significant.
“It could be a resource for all of L.A. County, not just those that are by the river,” says Guerra of the L.A. River. “I certainly didn’t expect that, but it’s one of the major findings— how much support for investing in the river goes way beyond the neighborhoods by the river.”
“I think that poll allows us the opportunity to know that we’re on the right path as to what we’re doing,” says Mark Stanley, Executive Officer of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy.
The conservancy, which was established by the California Legislature in 1999, works on environmental preservation, conservation and restoration efforts in 68 cities in the region. In its work on the Los Angeles River, the group’s primary concern is the section south of downtown L.A., stretching from Vernon to Long Beach. Stanley points out that much of this segment of the L.A. River is a concrete channel that is, essentially, flood protection for the adjacent communities. “It still needs to be capable of providing flood protection to the communities, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t have multi-benefits,” says Stanley. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t provide better trails along the river, better vegetation along the river and provide these areas of respite for people who go up and down the corridor.”
When it comes to the L.A. River as a whole, Angelenos' perceptions of it can be complicated. Participants in StudyLA’s recent poll were given an open-ended question, asking “What comes to mind when you think of the Los Angeles River?” At a presentation of the poll’s findings on September 10, those responses were shown as a word cloud. One of the most prominent words in that cloud was "dirty". In our interview, Guerra notes that “dirty” came up “quite a bit” in the poll. That can lead to what he refers to as a Catch-22 issue. “If you don’t think it’s worthy, you’re not going to invest. If you don’t invest, it will never be worthy,” says Guerra. “I think this is what that word cloud speaks to me, that we have to have some initial investment to try to get people to understand the potential of this resource.”
While most responders were not aware that Los Angeles County had released a master plan for revitalization of the river earlier this year, many were on board with proposals like more bike and pedestrian lanes, parks and recreation spots. While 91% of residents supported river revitalization, only 48% of those would support a tax increase to do it. Amongst the respondents, 82% said that creating habitat for plants and animals was a high priority for river revitalization. Meanwhile, 79% of the respondents said flood control should be prioritized and 76% believe that ensuring that revitalization projects don’t displace locals should be a high priority. “Many saw the potential of this river, not only for their own lives, but for those who are along the river and the future users of the river,” says Guerra.
Gentrification has already hit some communities along the river and, certainly, the possibility for it to continue as more portions are revitalized is a concern. At a recent press conference regarding the L.A. River poll, Damon Nagami, Senior Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council, raised the issue that revitalization can lead to land speculation, which can result in displacement and gentrification. In the poll, low-income residents and renters were especially concerned about gentrification and displacement. “There are opportunities here for equitable community development,” said Nagami, “but we have to be intentional and build those policies.”
Guerra points out the major cities around the world— London, Paris, New York and Chicago, to name a few— that are supported by rivers. “To be a great city, we need a great river,” he says. “I think that Angelenos are coming around to that perspective.”