Posts by Christina Lynch

Sculpture and Plaque at former location of Pacific Electric Monrovia Station. Olive and Myrtle Avenues, Monrovia, CA. Image by Christina Lynch.

Sculpture and Plaque at former location of Pacific Electric Monrovia Station. Olive and Myrtle Avenues, Monrovia, CA. Image by Christina Lynch.

While exploring the town of Monrovia recently I found myself drawn to a sculpture anchoring the courtyard of a residential building. I was surprised to discover the artwork was created to commemorate the former location of the Pacific Electric Railway’s Monrovia Station. As a mass transit user, I was curious about this regional train line, enthused to learn that this former rail line was once the largest provider of inter-urban electric railway passenger service in the world.

The privately owned Pacific Electric Railway was begun in 1901 by railway executive Henry E. Huntington and banker Isaias W. Hellman. The railway would ultimately provide transit via buses, streetcars, and light-rail inter-urban cars. While freight lines were abundant, light rail electric and trolley lines for passengers – which Huntington had run in San Francisco – were less prevalent in Southern California, particularly outside city areas. In the pre-automobile era of the early 1900s, when most roads were unpaved and transportation was typically via horse, these light rail passenger lines were the most economical ways to connect outlying areas to city centers. In conjunction with Hellman, Southern California’s leading banker at the time, Huntington believed the time had come to begin building systems of light rail lines to connect outlying areas to Downtown Los Angeles.

The Pacific Electric Rail Logo. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Pacific Electric Rail Logo. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Huntington and Hellman’s motives were far from altruistic. With ample financial and political clout, a strong driver behind Hellman and Huntington’s desire to develop light rail lines was to offer (and provide) electricity and transportation to developing areas. In addition, these rail line owners also purchased land – either outright or with partners – surrounding property acquired for the right of way for rail lines.

Ultimately, Huntington and his partners came to own a significant amount of land holdings north, east and south of the city.

With the Pacific and Electric’s main terminal located at 6th and Main in Downtown Los Angeles, light rail lines were developed to extend service in all directions outside the city, ultimately forming four districts: the Eastern District (serving towns in Riverside and San Bernardino counties), Southern District (serving the Long Beach area and northern parts of Orange County), Western District (Hollywood, Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley area) and the Northern District, covering the San Gabriel Valley area. By the 1920s, this Southern California network of more than 2,100 daily trains utilized over 1,000 miles of tracks and was the largest electric railway system in the world.

The Pacific Electric Building in Downtown Los Angeles, circa 1909. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Pacific Electric Building in Downtown Los Angeles, circa 1909. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Completed in 1907, the Pacific Electric’s Monrovia-Glendora route serviced the San Gabriel Valley, with much of the rail line running along present day Huntington Drive. With 39 stops – including San Marino, Arcadia, Monrovia, and Glendora – the railway provided a vital link between cities and the growing countryside. Typical weekday service was a car every half-hour to Monrovia. The addition of two and three trains every ten or fifteen minutes was often provided to accommodate rush hours.

The arrival of the mass-produced car and then government funding of public road systems for the car ultimately doomed these inter-urban rail lines. While the Pacific Electric owned extensive private systems of rail beds, many of the rail lines where laid within city streets. As these urban streets and the suburban areas the rail lines helped develop, development began accommodating more and more space for cars, with conflicts rapidly developing. Fueled by the novelty of cars and the slowing of train running times due to at-grade crossings and heightened congestion as trains competed for roadway space with cars ridership flagged. The 1930s saw the rise of express roads and early freeway systems. While planners intended to include interurban tracks in the center of these highways in the Los Angeles area, the plan was never implemented. Most electric rail lines were gone by the 1930s, with only a few surviving into the 1950s.

On my daily commute today onboard the Metro Gold, Red, and Purple lines into DTLA, I’m thrilled to experience the rapidly growing ridership and appreciation of our mass transit systems. I’ve enjoyed overhearing fellow passengers marvel at the beauty of the surrounding San Gabriel mountains, or discuss the pleasure of stopping off mid-week in Old Town Pasadena, or to shop at the farmer’s market.

Yes, we grumble about over-packed commuter cars and delays in service. But more often, we share an appreciation of not having to be chained to our cars as we glide by a congested 210 Freeway. Ultimately, I believe commuting with my mostly unknown fellow mass-transit passengers provides a sense of community that sitting individually in a car never could, or can, provide.

Eucalyptus deglupta’s bark compliments the exotic plumage of freeing roaming peafowl. All Photos by Christina Lynch.

Eucalyptus deglupta’s bark complements the exotic plumage of freeing roaming peafowl. All Photos by Christina Lynch.

My recent trip to Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia within the San Gabriel Valley was ostensibly for horticultural immersion within the park’s extensive green space. My visit was partly studious – to become familiar with Southern California’s plant material – as well as to enjoy relief from daily helpings of dense urbanity.

Not to say the Arboretum didn’t fulfill my goals. At 127 acres, there is no lack of native, exotic, and way cool plants to see. It’s just that I had a hard time keeping my focus on the flora once the wandering peacocks caught my attention.

Upon seeing them, I’m sure I must be among thousands of Arboretum visitors who think:

‘Peacocks –how cool!’  
‘Peacocks? Where did they come from?’ 
‘How are they thriving in this urban environment?’

The striking plumage of Pavo cristatus ‘India Blue’.

The striking plumage of Pavo cristatus ‘India Blue’.

Native to woodland areas and open forests of South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, peafowl (the collective terms for peacocks,  peahens, and peachicks) –  find our locally warm and arid weather a good climatic fit (they dislike water).

The most familiar and commonly known peafowl – the ‘India Blue’ – were introduced into the area in the late 1800s by Elias J. ‘Lucky’ Baldwin. The founder of the town of Arcadia stocked his 8,000 acre farm – Rancho Santa Anita – with these exotic birds, along with common sheep, cattle and horses, and acres of fruit trees.  Following the fashion of large land owners of the time, Baldwin imported and showcased these birds alongside a collection of exotic animals, who, because they consume snails and small snakes and roamed the ranch freely, were purportedly a favorite of Baldwin.

By the time 111 remaining acres of Baldwin’s former ranch were purchased in for the Arboretum by the State and County in 1947, the peafowl population had grown.  Fully capable of finding sufficient food and suitable habitats for nesting, the peafowl adapted to the local environment and naturalized. Today they’ve spread to surrounding urban neighborhoods with an estimated population well over 200.

The Peacock’s long train will be molted at the end of the summer, signaling the end of Peafowl mating season.

The peacock’s long train will be molted at the end of the summer, signaling the end of Peafowl mating season.

Currently, the most common conflict between these local urbanized fowl is with humans and is over food. Once acclimated to being fed, peafowl can become aggressive in pursuit of meals. Perhaps an urban myth, but it is reported peacocks will climb onto people to reach food (especially smaller people and kids). The park posts against feeding and the city recommends homeowners practice tidy landscape habits to discourage large populations of the birds from congregating in neighborhoods. It is illegal to feed them on public land in Arcadia.

Through education and regulatory actions, I commend the park, town, and county for continuing to support and encourage the legacy and co-existence of these birds with humans. Synonymous with Arcadia and successfully adapted, peafowl have become an integral, memorable, and flamboyant part of our local urban ecology.

Other unique and interesting Peafowl facts:

  • While unable to fly long distances, peafowl roost in trees at night to avoid predators.
  • Omnivores and food opportunists, peafowl eat seeds, berries, tender plants, small reptiles (snakes) and small mammals. They scratch their feet to forage for food in leaf litter.
  • Peacock’s calls are often likened to screams. ‘Lucky’ Baldwin capitalized on this and used peacocks as ‘watchdogs’. Peacocks can reportedly keep coyotes at bay.
  • A Peacocks’ tail feathers – called a train – can reach 6-7 feet long and are used to attract peahens during mating season.
  • In addition to Arcadia, La Canada-Flintridge, Glendora and the Palos Verde Peninsula also have feral peafowl populations.
  • The Los Angeles Arboretum is on the digital map of Pokemon Go.
  • The City of Arcadia’s website for Living with Peafowl in urban environments.

Plant-e modulair systeem 3 by Plant-e, a company developing technology that generates electricity from living plants without damaging them.

Plant-e modulair systeem 3 by Plant-e, a company developing technology that generates electricity from living plants without damaging them.

As a new resident of Southern California, I find that there are so many plants, it’s somewhat overwhelming attempting to absorb and learn regional plant palettes. There are regionally native drought tolerant plants, as well as drought adaptive plants from similar Mediterranean regions, such as Australia and South Africa. And then, of course, there are plants as human and animal food sources, plants as important pollinators, plants with beneficial pharmaceutical properties, and plants that filter sediment and pollution. And what about plants as a source of clean, renewable energy?

Yup, I just indoctrinated a bunch of people into the plant geek club.

It turns out there is active research focused on generating electricity from plants’ energy production processes of photosynthesis and decomposition. This energy generation can be attained without damaging plants, burning them, or creating more pollution. While the technology is relatively new and the amount of energy being captured isn’t large, it is measurable, portable, adaptable, and low cost – perfect for remote areas.

Picture No. 2 - en. - Suisun_Marsh_Overlook

Based in the Netherlands, Plant-e is pioneering technology to harvest the electrons released as a by-product of the bacterial decomposition process that naturally occurs around plant roots in response to organic matter; excess organic matter is released as a by-product of plant’s energy production photosynthesis system. By placing inert electrodes around plant root-systems, Plant-e has been able to collect electrons and convert them into electricity, all while allowing the plant to actively grow.

Picture No 1 - Creative Commond - Namwon8_editedThe process requires hundreds of plants with electrodes grouped into modular systems to generate sufficient electricity to power outdoor lights, charge an iPhone, or connect to WiFi, but the company is actively developing technology for large scale applications. As biological decomposition processes are more prominent in wet, anaerobic conditions, extensive systems of horizontal tubular systems located just below the surface in plant root zones are envisioned in ecological wet areas like deltas, mangrove forests, rice paddies, and wetlands. Researchers hope that with the ability to increase the scale of technology, both the level of energy supplied and the cost of the technology will go down.

This all very exciting news for this self-professed plant geek. It’s a good thing I’m a landscape architect – I get paid to think about, plan, and design with plants as part of outdoor spaces, alongside follow news about the future of plants improving our lives in ways we never once imagined.

My brother-in-law visited me recently. During his stay he excitedly told me about spotting several bat boxes in my neighborhood. Although my initial reaction was, “Bat what?”, I was quickly intrigued about learning whether the bats I’d noticed flitting about my tiny backyard were an urban anomaly or not.

Monrovia Bat Box_2

Bat Box – photo by Christina Lynch.

While some people shudder at the mention of bats, these flying mammals fill several ecological roles. In addition to dispersing seeds and pollinating fruit trees and flowers, bats play an important role in controlling insect populations. Primarily insectivores, bats have the ability to consume more than 600 mosquitos in an hour!

Like many species, bats worldwide aren’t fairing well in response to rapidly expanding urban environments. Habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation, diminishing prey, limited access to water, light pollution, and echolocation disruption are some examples of how urban areas can disrupt bats’ ability to forage and roost. Because bats are widely distributed throughout the world and are sensitive to ecological changes, scientists consider them bio-indicators in the study of the effects of/and adaptation to urbanization in a species.

The Big Brown Bat. Creative Commons photo by Angela C. Barry.

The Big Brown Bat. Creative Commons photo by Angela C. Barry.

Even as many bat populations are declining in urban areas, scientists are also finding species whose morphology and ecological ‘plasticity’ provide advantages in cities over less adaptive bats. Bats with long, narrow wings, which provide greater lift, are well adapted to the open but unprotected spaces of many towns, feeding efficiently upon insects drawn toward light pollution. Some species are showing adaptions to drinking from artificial water sources such as pools, a favorable behavior in drought-stricken environments such as California. And with the disturbance/loss of roosting habitats – caves, mines, or trees – bat boxes provide opportunities for the tight roosting quarters bats prefer, which minimize the energy required to keep their body temperature stabile while at rest.

Mexican free-tailed bats exiting Bracken Bat Cave. Creative Commons photos by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mexican free-tailed bats exiting Bracken Bat Cave. Creative Commons photos by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Of the 27 bat species found throughout California, bats found locally in Southern California include the Western Mastiff, the big brown bat, the Mexican free-tailed bat, and the Canyon Bat. You can learn more about local bats and listen to their calls at KPCC’s “Everything you didn’t know about bats in Los Angeles“.

SawPit Trail 1

Entrance to the Sawpit Wash Trail off Norumbega Road. All photos by Christina Lynch.

As I continue exploring my new hometown of Monrovia, I find myself drawn to places where the town’s urban fabric abuts against open and, yes, even wild spaces. As a longtime resident of the New York Metropolitan area, having weekend access to open space as a destination for decompression, contemplation, and re-connection with nature was critical to my well-being. Located in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest, I felt certain that opportunities for accessing ‘urban’ open space near and within Monrovia would be plentiful. Happily, I’ve not been disappointed.

In my ever widening exploration of neighboring blocks, I recently discovered the Sawpit Wash Trail. Crossing a ubiquitous channelized creek during an evening’s dusk, I was intrigued by the dim outline of what appeared to be a trail alongside the creek’s concrete span. A weekend exploration revealed the unexpected beauty of wildness of a ‘remnant’ space converted to a passive open-space corridor.

SawPit Trail 2JPGThe Sawpit Wash Trail is not glamorous or sophisticated. As an unimproved recreation area it is, however, a significant resource to urban centers in several ways. As a leftover space – strangely shaped, underused areas all too familiar in urban environments – these are the frequent byproducts of the interface between differing land-use zones. The infrastructure of the Sawpit Wash Trail is, similarly a legacy of  measures taken long ago by the Army Corp of Engineers, implemented to mitigate the detrimental effects of frequent flooding.

An end result of intersecting roads, rivers, streets, freeways, and railroad infrastructure, these lost spaces are often publicly accessible, and thereby provide a unique opportunity to link urban communities to pockets of open space.  Similarly, proximity to infrastructure often means an active presence of wildlife – fauna and flora – which use these as corridors to cross to larger open spaces.

The Sawpit Wash Trail links the town’s two heavily used parks:  Recreation Park and Monrovia’s Canyon Park – in a casual and indirect way.  Perhaps because of the dense housing surrounding the space, the trail provides a surprising sense of openness and wildness, all within a 30 foot wide ‘park’ system. Shade from the canopies of oaks frame inspirational views of mountains – Downtown Los Angeles seems decades away. Walkers, bikers, hikers, joggers, equestrian riders, deer, dogs, cats, coyotes, hawks, skunks, possums, bats, birds and – oh yes – the bear I saw Sunday morning, frequent the trail. And the interface of the right-of-way corridor with the adjoining backyards of the community provides an enthusiastic jumble and display of the resilience of plant material.

More and more, these underused spaces  designed and designated as dog or pocket parks – or left as passive spaces – are providing small, but significant open areas that activate and link urban communities.