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L.A. River Design Proposals that Can Handle the Floods

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Sometimes a computer just isn't enough. While digital technology undoubtedly eases the stress of manual labor, it also removes the designer from the physical world.

"We don't get a chance to explore our creativity within the boundaries of what we can do," said Alexander Robinson, director of the Landscape Morphologies Lab (LML), a collaborative research studio within the University of Southern California. This often results in conservative projects that fail to take advantage of the riverside's unique geography.

Robinson's studio tries to counteract this by answering the question: How can we design along the Los Angeles River, while still taking into account its flow conditions? The results of the research conducted by University of Southern California landscape architecture students can now be seen at the City Hall's Bridge Gallery on the third floor.

The proposals take into account a range of water flows on the Los Angeles River -- from a tiny trickle to a raging flood. To accomplish this, LML worked with the City of Los Angeles's L.A. River Project Office and the Department of Water and Power to build a physical hydraulic model of the Bowtie parcel out of high-density foam. The site, owned by California State Parks is located in Glassell Park, bounded by the river, the rail line, the 134 freeway, and Division Street. It may be one of the locations earmarked for restoration upon the approval of the controversial Los Angeles River Ecosystem Feasibility Study (ARBOR Study).

The model was scaled; every 30 feet on the Bowtie parcel translated to one inch. It was also stretched vertically to exaggerate the grooves and turns within the physical space.

Physical hydraulic model of the Bowtie parcel
Physical hydraulic model of the Bowtie parcel
The model simulates natural processes such as water flow, scouring, and sand deposition
The model simulates natural processes such as water flow, scouring, and sand deposition

Because a river flows, LML simulated the natural processes, such as water flow, scouring, and sand deposition. Water could be introduced through an inlet, which then flowed until it reached an outlet. Cracked walnut shells took the place of sediment and rocks. Colored dyes showed just how fast water spread through the system. USC landscape architecture students could then test their theories by milling 12-foot alternate inserts that go on top of the original model. It is a wonderfully tactile system that effectively grounds designers to the reality of the physical, rather than let them loose in the realm of the fantastic.

Among the proposals was Chuang Ding's Living System. A hybrid of greenery and concrete, Ding's proposal added wood structures that were meant to be access ways for trash to be collected. "Trash would inevitably make it to the river," said Robinson, "we might as well find a way to easily remove it."

Chuan Ding's ''Living System'' proposal
Chuan Ding's ''Living System'' proposal

Li Qian's sees the site as a possible outdoor park area that provides recreation for bicyclists, including an obstacle course. Terraced riverbanks could slow the water flows.(See top photo.)

Finally, Tina Chee's "Urban Estuary" performed the best in hydraulic testing. In theory, it would perform even better than the current configuration of the Bowtie parcel.

Chee's model adds a flowing sculptural element right on the riverbed. Chee called it "the River pathway." Running through the middle of the river, it would allow visitors to experience the water flowing on either side. Intermittent islands that spurt from the river would become ideal habitats. A separate kayak channel on the left side of the channel would be designed for swifter flows.

Tina Chee's ''Urban Estuary'' proposal
Tina Chee's ''Urban Estuary'' proposal

Though the designs are still theoretical, Robinson hopes the process LML had developed would find itself replicated in sites along the Los Angeles River, especially now that many key projects could be greenlit due to the ARBOR study. "We're going to have one chance to modify the river," said Robinson, "If we don't step up, it's going to be a tragedy."

The exhibit is on view at City Hall Bridge Gallery until August 29.

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Images courtesy of Landscape Morphologies Lab (LML).

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