A significant amount of investment and accompanying interest has focused across the section of the Los Angeles River located north of Downtown Los Angeles. Some of that attention has been directed toward Long Beach where the LA River empties into the Pacific Ocean, but very little public awareness exists about the sections located between the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which include Cudahy [KUD-ə-hay],  Maywood, and South Gate.

AHBE Lab wanted to find out more about these stretches of communities following the river. Jiani Shen, a masters student at LSU, and Estevan Castenada, a bachelor’s student from Cal Poly Pomona, are both AHBE summer interns. They’ve been both tasked to gather information about this section along the Los Angeles River, asked to research upon open space recommendations, as well as report about connections to the adjoining communities. Both summer interns will share their observations about living within the Los Angeles landscape, this being our second post of the series from Jiani:

Our current relationship to the natural environment

We’ve long been capable of manipulating our natural environment to make our surroundings more beneficial for human activities and safety. People have always wanted to tame natural environments and make them predictable. The Los Angeles River is an example, a channelized river with a concrete bottom and sides. Because the river used to overflow its bank and intermittently flood the Los Angeles River basin, the city’s citizens and political leaders contained its flow within an approximately 450 feet wide channel.

The channel tames the river’s course and flow, stabilizing its velocity, and preventing flooding into surrounding neighborhoods.The construction of the channel took 22 years to complete. The stark concrete levee and concrete channel now manages the entire length of the Los Angeles River, from Valley to the ocean. However, this construction comes at a price: it prevents the river’s natural behavior and destroyed much of the ecological systems along the river.

The current flow of the Los Angeles River.

The original Mississippi River is another example of a waterway that frequently overflowed its banks. The river brought sediment down into the Delta during flooding, thus shaping the land. In the last 100 years humans constructed levees all along the river; the US Army Corp of Engineering built a levee to prevent the water directly flowing into Atchafalaya Basin area. The goal was to direct the river’s flow down toward New Orleans, supporting commercial river activities like shipping. As a result, the Mississippi River now has a longer river commercial route, which in turn helped New Orleans become a metropolitan city.

This map of an area just north of the Atchafalaya River shows a slice of the complex history of the Mississippi. The modern river course is superimposed on channels from 1880 (green), 1820 (red), and 1765 (blue). Even earlier, prehistoric channels underlie the more recent patterns. An oxbow lake—a crescent of water left behind when a meander (bend in the river) closes itself off—remains from 1785. A satellite image from 1999 shows the current course of the river and the old oxbow lake. Despite modern human-made changes to the landscape, traces of the past remain, with roads and fields following the contours of past channels.”

Our future relationship the natural environment
The Los Angeles River is now no longer a natural recreational area in the city’s citizens’ daily lives. However, we need to reconsider the resilient relationship between our city’s river and the urban environment that surrounds its entire length. We should find new ways to bring the LA River back into people’s life while preserving the cultural heritage that sprung forth from its existence. I believe there are three strategies Los Angeles needs to do to accomplish this goal of making the LA River an integral part of our city:

  • First: transform abandoned waterfront industries by renovating under-utilized land to improve the quality of life of neighboring communities.
  • Second: increase water front accessibility. For example, connect the bike trail from the upper river to the lower river, and enhance public transportation to river access points.
  • Third: facilitate ecological recovery, including enhance flood prevention capacity; restore LA River water quality and wildlife habitat.

Humans are naturally attracted to water and nature. When the Los Angeles River becomes a safe and ecological public recreational space it could become a new landmark instead of just an ideal place to shoot crime films.

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