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The Bigger Picture: Competing Visions of the Los Angeles River’s Future

Published as part of an environmental storytelling partnership with the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS) at UCLA, with extensive contributions from faculty and MFA students in UCLA’s documentary film program in theSchool of Theater, Film and Television. The first storyline focuses on the past, present and possible futures of Taylor Yard, an abandoned and contaminated rail yard adjacent to the L.A. River. Find more stories about Taylor Yard here.

 

What will the Los Angeles River look like in 10 or 20 years? There are dozens of visions that offer possible answers: there are large-scale planning documents like the County’s “Los Angeles River Master Plan” or the City’s “Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan” and more focused ones like the Department of Water and Power’s “One Water LA”; or imaginative products like “LA River Gateway,” a report produced by the engineering firm AECOM that offers a vision of a future river that will offer “open space, housing, transportation, and commerce,” reconnect the city to the natural world, and “transform Los Angeles for generations to come.”  

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This rendering looking east towards the Arroyo Seco at West Avenue 26 Bridge is part of a student project that proposes turning the present concrete-laden confluence of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco into a recreation destination. | Yingjun Hu

It’s easy to look at all of this excitement and imagine that the river’s future has an actual shape. And a confluence of recent activity surrounding the river can make it feel as if the river is rushing toward some future version of itself — in 2017, the State Legislature devoted $100 million and the city allocated $60 million to purchase the G2 parcel as the centerpiece of its river revitalization efforts.  But within the plans and between the people responsible for them are fundamental disagreements over some of the most basic questions regarding the river: Should the concrete that defines its channel, and its image, be removed? How much water should flow through it? Should it be used to support plants and animals, or to provide the city with drinking water? Should the river be a park, an ecosystem, a commercial space, a reservoir? And who decides? The many plans reflect many possible future rivers, and even the process for choosing between them is undecided.

So when you hear a piece of news about the many plans swirling around the river, it can be helpful to ask: What version of the future river is being offered here? Which opportunities does a given plan embody, and which does it ignore? What follows is a guide to some of the values the river might hold for different stakeholders and the ways that these different visions and interests could come into conflict as the L.A. River continues to be remade.

 Part of the recommended for the river restoration project, this rendering shows a proposed restored reach that includes a side channel, a daylighted stream, and restoration of the Verdugo Wash confluence. | U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Part of the recommended for the river restoration project, this rendering shows a proposed restored reach that includes a side channel, a daylighted stream, and restoration of the Verdugo Wash confluence. | U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Habitat

The river created Los Angeles, and almost destroyed it. Southern California’s arid climate meant that early settlers — first Tongva, and later European — clustered around rivers that provided the only year-round freshwater. Thus L.A.’s heaviest early development occurred along the river, which made the city vulnerable to its periodic floods. After several especially devastating floods (including one in 1938 that killed 115 people), the city called on the Army Corps of Engineers to encase the river in concrete. This brought the river under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ control.

Ironically, this control means that the Army Corps is now responsible for one of the more radical plans to transform the river. Any modification to the river’s physical structure requires corps approval. So when the City began to consider the possibility of a greener river, it fell to the Army Corps to determine how radical a change was possible. Now, after lobbying by the city and by Mayor Eric Garcetti, the corps has approved a plan to remove the concrete from the river bottom along an 11-mile stretch from Griffith Park to downtown L.A. This is the “Alternative 20” plan (part of the “Integrated Feasibility Report,” also known as the “ARBOR Plan”— I know, it’s not easy to keep these things straight). This plan is primarily intended to restore the native riparian habitat that was lost when the channel was concretized.

Heron strolling on the banks of the L.A. River. | Courtney Cecale
Heron strolling on the banks of the L.A. River. | Courtney Cecale

The promise of a newly green river — of herons downtown and trout swimming past Griffith Park — is one of the more enticing elements found in plans for the river’s future. Many planning documents are illustrated with artists’ renderings, and these always feature a verdant river, sometimes decorated with jacarandas and bougainvillea. They’re beautiful. And anyone who has crept illicitly to the river’s edge to get a closer look at some flash of color — a red-winged blackbird maybe, or a California fuchsia — knows the thrill of finding wildness wedged between freight tracks and a freeway. Everyone should live with the possibility of such experiences, and greening the river will multiply those possibilities. 

But deciding what a “restored” ecosystem means is not necessarily easy. Under the ARBOR plan, the river would be inhabited by species native to the area. This could mean the removal of non-native species that currently thrive in the river, as it did several years ago when the Army Corps removed vegetation from the Sepulveda Basin area of the river — vegetation that some local environmentalists argued was important habitat for birds that should have been maintained. Removing concrete could threaten current bird habitat, as well: migrating shorebirds actually feed on algae mats that form along some parts of the concrete channel.

And it’s important to realize that the river can never return to its original state, not least because its original state included those epic floods and even occasional changes to the river’s route. Until 1825, the river entered the Pacific at Ballona Creek near Santa Monica. After a major flood that year it jumped its channel and formed its current mouth 25 miles away in Long Beach. Millions of people live on what was once the river’s floodplain. Even the most ecologically rich new river will, literally, be a narrow fraction of what it once was. The river’s history can inform and inspire us, but it can’t dictate what its future will be. 

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People

If a new river does attract more plants and animals, they might find themselves competing with people for the space. The Alternative 20 plan also calls for transforming the land around the river. Last year, the city purchased the G2
Parcel, a portion of Taylor Yard, a former railyard along the river between Cypress Park and Frogtown in the Elysian Valley. The city has begun what will be a years-long process to decontaminate the area, redesign it, and turn it into a park. Along with Rio de Los Angeles State Park, which opened in 2007, the California State Parks department’s Bowtie Parcel (both of which were once part of Taylor Yard, too), and Los Angeles State Historic Park, which opened last year closer to downtown, turning the G2 Parcel into a park could transform this stretch of the river into a kind of Central Park for Los Angeles.

All of these changes are meant to bring more people to the river. Right now, it is illegal to enter the river’s channel except at specific times for specific recreational uses, like kayaking. For much of its length, it’s difficult even to approach the river. But the city’s master plan, for example, imagines walkways on and above the river’s banks, terraces stepping down to the river’s edge, launches for kayaks, cafés and shops, tech companies, and other businesses, a 51-mile bike path, and hundreds, even thousands of units of new housing. This is part of a broader vision of a whole new Los Angeles: denser, friendlier to bikers and pedestrians, with more open space than the city of today.

People walking between a fence separating the river from Taylor Yard. | Courtney Cecale
People walking between a fence separating the river from Taylor Yard. | Courtney Cecale

A river designed for human use could help address some of Los Angeles’s perennial challenges, like our housing shortage and our lack of sufficient well-paying jobs. But inviting more people to the river’s edge would create challenges as well. Business investment can drive up the price of housing. Critics who advocate for the mostly low-income neighborhoods closest to the river, including groups like FROG (Frogtown Residents Opposing Gentrification) worry that inviting development will accelerate gentrification — which can displace people just like a flood. In fact, by definition, development will cause displacement of some people, since many homeless people currently live along the river channel. And space is always at a premium in L.A. There is enough along the river to build new houses and new parks, but not so much that we won’t have to make some choices between them. The ARBOR plan suggests that it will include opportunities for human recreation “compatible with the restored environment.” When the city joined with the State Parks department to build and manage Rio de Los Angeles, neighborhood groups successfully lobbied for the park to include not just restored habitat but soccer fields and other recreational community spaces.

There is some real tension between a river for people and a river for birds. On the other hand, it’s well established that people’s lives are enriched by places alive with plants and fish and other kinds of creatures. Natural places are a vital part of human ecosystems, as well. This is especially important in a city like Los Angeles — which, though it sits between oceans and mountains and within hours of some of the wildest places in the country, is also one of the most park-poor major cities in the United States.

Infrastructure

Frank Gehry — one of the most famous architects in the world, and one of the most polarizing people involved in planning the river’s future — does not want us to forget the one thing that makes a river a river: water. Gehry is currently overseeing the creation of a whole new master plan for the river, in partnership with the City (and with River LA, a nonprofit formed by the city to advocate for its river plans). In a recent interview with KCRW’s Frances Anderton, Gehry declared that “you can’t build habitat and you can’t build space for recreation in the river,” because removing the concrete would increase flood risk. And in fact, a flood in 2005 was greater in volume than the deadly 1938 flood that inspired the concrete river in the first place.

Gehry’s firm has not said much about its vision for the river. But the indications so far are that Gehry sees the river primarily as a piece of infrastructure. His public comments have emphasized the river’s role as a flood control channel and as a potential source of freshwater for the city. When the city asked Gehry to create the new plan, he said he would “only do it on the condition that they approached it as a water-reclamation project, to deal with all the water issues first." As late as the 1960s, the river provided a third of L.A.’s drinking water (and in the city’s early days all of it). Gehry has suggested that it could do so again, and thus reduce L.A.’s dependence on water shipped in from Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, the Colorado River, and the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers in northern California.

Engineers are seen using models for their flood control projects, 1948. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Engineers are seen using models for their flood control projects, 1948. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

Advocates for habitat restoration point out that removing concrete could actually be part of a water-reclamation future for the river: a soft bottom would filter the river’s water and allow it to percolate into the city’s aquifer, thus recharging an important source of water for the city.

In any case, though Gehry’s perspective might seem less focused on nature, he, too, is actually thinking about ecosystems. His work is a reminder that the river is part of the huge environmental system that is Los Angeles. A re-engineered river could play a key role in making Los Angeles more sustainable as well as more livable.

But here, too, visions could come into conflict. Many plans imagine the river as part of L.A.’s investment in public transit. River LA, for instance, is advocating for connecting the bike paths along the river into one continuous path. Given that 30 percent of all Metro rail stations are within a mile of the river, a continuous bike path could play an important role in LA’s transportation network. At the same time, the river is being imagined as a kind of infrastructure for animals: a green river could act as a wildlife corridor connecting currently fragmented habitats and populations. For example, the ARBOR plan suggests that the Santa Monica Mountains, with its isolated and endangered population of mountain lions, could one day be connected to the San Gabriels via restored waterways, the L.A. River and its tributaries. How would Angelenos feel about sharing bike lanes with mountain lions? Time may tell.

People attending a tour of the L.A. River. | Andrew Vought
People attending a tour of the L.A. River. | Andrew Vought

Politics

Choosing the kind of river we want means choosing the kind of city we want to be. It also means deciding who this “we” is. Who is the river for? Who will benefit from its transformation? And who gets to decide? In other words, how inclusive will the process for creating the river be? And then, how inclusive will the river itself be when all the shouting and building and restoring is done?

So far, the process behind many of the plans has been quite open and collaborative. The Lower LA River Working Group, for example, contains representatives from community groups, nonprofits, and the governments of 12 of the cities the river flows through and it holds monthly meetings that are open to the public. Many of the other entities planning for the river’s future are similarly open to public involvement.

But inevitably, as planning involves making actual decisions about land use, the values that different groups invest in the river will come into conflict. And those who most stand to benefit from one version of the future river, like private developers, will put pressure on the planning process — and especially on decisions made without public knowledge or participation. If we want the river to be a truly public place, passionate citizens will need to insist that the process includes them, so that it doesn’t answer only to the interests of those who stand to profit from privatizing the river’s banks.

And maybe we can think of the river as an opportunity to make our politics even more inclusive. The decisions we make about the river, and the way we make them, will determine whether homeless people displaced by river development will have somewhere to go. They will determine whether people who have already made lives along the river’s banks will be able to stay and benefit as the river changes. They will determine whether mountain lions have the right to wander full-sized territories, and whether children have a right to grow up with trout in a river that runs through the city.

A sign shown at a tour of the G2 parcel. | Andrew Vought
People viewing a sign shown at a tour of the G2 parcel. | Andrew Vought

The river is part of all of these ecologies. What happens to it will have physical, biological, economic, and aesthetic effects on a wide range of people, plants, and animals. Doing justice to this fact requires that all of them have some kind of voice — some kind of representation — in the process.

Imagine a meeting where all those voices are heard. It would be loud. It would be contentious. It would be frustrating to hear one’s favored version of the river shouted down. But the alternative might be a starker kind of conflict: if Angelenos feel that a plan for the river is simply handed down to them by experts, it will reduce their choice to a binary: accept the plan, or oppose river restoration completely. It would be natural for people at risk of being displaced or ignored by the process to simply say no.

Instead, planners need to commit to (and the public needs to insist on) a planning process inclusive enough to be contentious, and maybe painful, and probably slow. That means more open meetings with their dizzying diversity of stakeholders. But I think it goes further: the people in the room now should actively invite in others, including those who are currently skeptical of the whole process. And they should strive to speak for those can’t easily speak for their own interest, and those who can’t speak at all, including the other than human interests in the political ecology of the river. It is incumbent on those of us who already have a voice in the city’s politics to speak up for those who don’t.

Creating an inclusive process will mean learning to let go of control a little bit — a good lesson of ecological thinking. Participants in the politics of the river will likely need to give up of some of their specific hopes for the river. Such a process might decide that native species are not the only measure for the river’s ecological health, or that some water goes to recharging our aquifer rather than watering parks. We don’t know yet what sort of river this process will imagine and create. But in 10 or 20 years we’ll have a river that, hopefully, reflects us all. 

 

The interactive network visualization below traces the relationships between people, institutions, plants, animals, materials, and other forces that shape Taylor Yard and the Los Angeles River. Nodes represent actors with some influence over Taylor Yard, the G2 parcel, the river, and the planning processes for them. Lines represent different kinds of relationships these actors have with each other — dependence, power, cooperation, etc. Many nodes have descriptions and links where you can learn more about who and what will shape the future of the river. 

You might wonder where the river itself is in this network. If the graph included a node for the river, that node would connect with everything else: every person, plant, plan, and place in this network is connected to the river. A visualization of an ever-changing network is always incomplete. This is intended to be an ongoing project. And it is concentrated around Taylor Yard for now. If you have suggestions to make this visualization more accurate and complete, including suggestions of actors and relationships that aren’t reflected in the visualization's current state, please email Spencer Robins at mappinglariver@gmail.com.

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