At first glance, the L.A. River seems less a river than a glorified rain gutter. Designed to shuttle water off the urban landscape and into the Pacific as fast as possible, much of the once-mighty Los Angeles River was bound by concrete following a massive 1938 flood that washed away thousands of properties and claimed the lives of more than 140 people. Conservationists are now working on restoring what little riverside habitat still remains.
In the valley, a half-mile stretch of river between Coldwater Canyon and Whitsett Avenue has just been designated the "Zev Yaroslavsky L.A. River Greenway Trail," thanks to a partnership between Community Conservation Solutions, a local non-profit, and L.A. County, which owns the land. The half-mile of trail connects two previously existing segments of L.A. River Greenway Trail, creating a five-mile corridor along the river for the public to explore.
"The overall plan was to do something that's not been done on the river," Community Conservation Solutions President Esther Feldman explains as she walks along the unpaved trail, "which is to use native plants not just as a landscaping tool, but to really recreate habitats that were here one hundred years ago." In other words, the goal was to restore habitats that would have existed alongside the river before it was channelized.
To do it, Feldman and her team first had to gain the support of local homeowners and businesses, something she says wasn't difficult, especially considering what was here before. For one thing, there was no access to the area. It was closed off with an ugly fence and barbed wire, and besides a few exotic plants, the soil was pretty barren.
She had to secure all the necessary permits and ensure that the trail complied with all relevant regulations. There were engineering considerations, for example, to ensure that the soil would not erode into the river. There were hydrological considerations, to ensure that rainwater could still flow into the river as it’s supposed to.
Five years later, this half-mile stretch of riverside habitat is the home of some 3,000 trees, shrubs, and flowers, all native to the San Fernando Valley. There are California walnut trees and western sycamores, coast live oaks and valley oaks, and of course toyons a.k.a. California holly, the plant from which Hollywood drew its name. Around the trees are native bunchgrasses, California sagebush, bigpod ceanothus, and other species common in chaparral and coastal sage scrub habitats. There are also plants that have come here on their own, like native jimsonweed, whose white flowers are sometimes known as the "devil's trumpet."
While the focus of the project is on restoration and recreation, Feldman’s team has paid attention to education and interpretation as well. Some newly planted trees are accompanied by rocks with their names carved into them, and metal artwork installed along the fence features native wildlife, subtly reminding folks what animals might be found nearby.
The trail has been open for less than a week, and joggers, cyclists, and folks walking their dogs are already taking advantage. By some wonderful accident – or perhaps some clever engineering almost a century ago – it's almost impossible to tell that you're in the middle of one of the country's busiest cities, a block away from one of the city's busiest business districts, with Ventura Boulevard a stone's throw away. Instead of hearing cars, the sound of chattering birds fills the air.
It may not be the wild river it once was, but it's not entirely sterile either. This version of the river represents a sort of compromise. Nature is here, even if it doesn't look like it. Cliff swallows swoop and soar over the water, chasing after tasty bugs, while lizards bask in the sunshine. One pair of red tailed hawks has already nested on the trail, and it won't be long before the raccoons and possums find safe refuge here as well. It may not be much aesthetically, but the river still supports life.
While a half mile of restored river won't provide a suitable habitat for a black bear or, say, a mountain lion, Feldman hopes that if there are enough such pockets of habitat sprinkled across the landscape, connectivity for wildlife will improve, at least compared to what came before. While the space from the concrete walls of the river to the encroaching urban development only spans a few dozen feet, it represents a tremendous amount of habitat, especially if you consider that these few dozen feet stretch along the river for miles.
Feldman compares habitat restoration to navigating an ocean liner. Nudge a cruise ship just one degree off its heading, and in a few hours it will be miles off-course on an entirely different trajectory. So too with the river. "It's part of an overall perspective of what does it mean to green an urban area," she says. "In my view, this becomes a model for the remaining thirty miles of the river. Fast forward twenty years, and we've made a really big change."
For the record: A previous version of this article imprecisely described the Yaroslavsky greenway as being part of an uninterrupted five-mile corridor. This statement was added to the author's original text during editing, and we apologize to our readers and to Jason for introducing the error.