The Los Angeles River. Photo by Clarence Lacy

It was after a recent visit along the great Los Angeles River I began thinking about the adaptability of the natural environment in response to large infrastructure interventions. My thoughts wandered from Los Angeles across 2,500 miles, along the Toronto waterfront to the Leslie Street Spit,  a protective barrier constructed over the past 75 years to control wave action along the city’s port and harbors. Leslie Street Spit is also home to Tommy Thompson Park, one of my favorite parks/open spaces.

Following Toronto’s growing prominence in the banking sector, skyscrapers began to climb and dominate the city’s skyline. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing well into the 1980s, international architects left their fingerprint on the formerly manufacturing and packing dominated cityscape. One of the most famous being Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Centre.

With this construction boom, subway development, and the development of the underground city known as the PATH, construction and demolition waste needed a place.  Land reclamation and the construction of bulkheads extended the shoreline into Lake Ontario, and a new spit was created in order to protect the port from erosion and sedimentation.

The main structure of the spit is constructed with hard material. This structure holds embayments made to hold earth fill and dredgate from the harbours. In the mid-1970s, Toronto Region Conservation Agency (TRCA) began to push for a plan for the future use and designation for the land as an open space.

By this time the inactive portions of the Leslie Street Spit had undergone ecological succession. This purely accidental ‘Nature’ became a feature and amenity on the Toronto lakefront. Additionally, it became a stop for migratory birds, earning the designation as an Important Bird Area. More than 300 species of birds have been spotted at the Park, with over 40 being species breeding within the headland of the spit.

The Northern portion of Leslie Street Spit has been designated Tommy Thompson Park, with plans in the coming years to convert the entire Spit into part of the Park. Even James Corner Field Operations was involved in a Parks Master Plan for the Spit. It’s one of my favorite spaces in North America, showing the true tenacity and strength of “Nature” to reclaim and adapt to human constructed infrastructure.

The Leslie Street Spit. Creative Commons photo by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine

So, back to the Los Angeles River….

How can we use the Leslie Street Spit as a precedent for redeveloping the LA River? How do we begin to understand the ecological systems currently at play? How do we begin to deconstruct and design small changes, sowing the seeds that allow for succession of this infrastructure system? And how can we strike a balance  so it still functions efficiently, but affords ‘Nature’ a chance to thrive?

Even though some parts of Leslie Street Spit have become heavily vegetated and give the appearance of a natural landscape, the archaeology of the site presents a purely anthropogenic construction. Its less about creating a space that looks like a river or a forest, and more about the functionality of the conditions. The Leslie Street Spit is still a designated dumping ground, receiving brick, concrete, stone, rebar, and excavation waste from large projects across the Greater Toronto Area.

The current river has the potential to provide a diverse range of ecologies. We only need to augment the Los Angeles River to create the right conditions. If given enough time and opportunity, Nature’s resiliency will do the rest, creating a new adapted ecology unique to the river winding through our city.

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