Posts by Jessica Roberts

Photo by Jessica Roberts

Step in through AHBE’s office front door and visitors are greeted with an ever-changing makeshift gallery space. Currently on display is a photo series dedicated to the Los Angeles River, inviting all to leave the office for the experience of our city’s river. After looking through previous photos of the river I had taken, I selected an image for the exhibition that wasn’t chosen for its dynamic composition, but for the way it helped me understand what it is about the river I find so unique.

My entry, entitled “Emergence”, is a meditation on experiencing landscape in relationship to the horizon, highlighting the moment when the plane and the horizon interact. The horizon line is a visual component that gives perspective to a landscape, and its quality is arguably the most defining element of a place.

In landscape painting the position of the horizon is critical. If depicted too high or too low, the horizon can draw the viewer’s attention too soon before establishing its relation with the rest of the image. By dividing the picture plane evenly in two, rather than using the rule of thirds for example, the viewer is invited to spend time to interpret and question the intention of the perspective, giving meaning to the horizon line and its relationship to everything else. Similarly, the L.A. River is a horizon-spanning mega-infrastructure that has a sense of place that is all-consuming.

Walking around the channelized landscape of the river, with its concrete underfoot and the harsh sun beating down, one feels a strong sense of self in relation to its expanse. A strong sense of the relationship to others is also felt as people pass by on foot or by bike. Conversely, the river can evoke feelings of isolation unlike anywhere else I’ve ever experienced. Gazing ever further out, the canopy of trees establish everything in relationship to the river, and as part of something bigger. The solid concrete below the horizon defines, positions, and intensifies everything, from what grows above to what travels through.

Being in the L.A. River reminds me of being out in the middle of a desert, except sunken down further into the earth, where any entity interrupting the relentless horizontal stands at once as an individual and in relationship to everything else. It is different than the layered nature of a forest or the density of buildings in a city. The sensation can feel as disorienting and isolating as standing in the middle of a prairie, without even the sway of the grasses to distract attention. It is an uncommon urban experience. The horizon line is commanding and the scale of the built infrastructure makes it seem as though the concrete channel was a natural occurrence, unique to the people who have lived and evolved along side it, unfolding and reordering the human from the natural. The Los Angeles River is a place that cannot be prescribed or repeated again, a feature of the city capable of speaking to the human experience while also testing our capacity to see ourselves in relationship to nature.

Photo by Jessica Roberts

On a recent trip to a range of rock formations near the Sierra Nevada known as the Alabama Hills, I spotted a white-lined sphinx moth, Hyles lineata, pollinating outside of a gas station during the late afternoon. The moth’s size has earned it the common name of the hummingbird moth, making it an easy winged insect to spot, and its habitat range is wide. This moth is not a picky eater, and while it contributes to pollinating many different plants, its caterpillars are known to damage crops. The moths need the plants, the plants need the moths, and we desperately need them both.

The relationship between pollinating insects and plants is profound, speaking to a level of coexistence and coevolution that is truly inspiring. I usually think of moths as nocturnal pollinators and rarely catch a glimpse of them while feeding, so seeing this moth reminded me of their importance within ecosystems.

Moths are usually seen on flowers that provide landing platforms and with nectar deeply hidden. Soon after the white-lined sphinx sighting, we found ourselves amongst the iconic Joshua trees. The yucca is an example of plants totally dependent on the pollination of specific moth species. The female yucca moth (Lepidoptera, Prodoxidae) forms pollen balls using her mouthparts and then stuffs the ball into the stigmas of the various flowers she visits. Without this very intentional routine the yucca flower would not develop fruit or seed pods. During this process the female moth will lay an egg into the flower’s chamber which protects the egg while it develops. At the arrival of the newborn caterpillars the yucca will have developed seeds, which in turn become the caterpillars’ food source.

Yucca Moth (Prodoxidae) in a yucca blossom. NPS Public Domain photo.

While watching the moth I contemplated the diversity of plants and pollinators, and considered how intertwined their relationships are. The much smaller and unassuming yucca moth uses an irregular mouthpiece to pollinate the yucca, making it a critical member of the desert ecosystem. This relationship is no accident. Unlike other pollinators that unintentionally pollinate the plants they feed from, the yucca moth caterpillars need the yucca to survive – an intentional relationship that has evolved to benefit both the plant and the insect over millions of years. The yucca’s flowers provide a source of food for many different insects, ground squirrels, and birds, each owing their existence to a tiny responsive moth.

Due to rising temperatures and water scarcity in the desert the number of Joshua tree seedlings that survive and mature is decreasing, diminishing the diversity of this unique ecosystem. Joshua trees are migrating in response to their habitat warming, dropping their seeds further northward. Only time will tell whether the yucca moth is up for the move. The rest of the desert ecosystem depends on it.

All photos: Jessica Roberts

On a recent trip to Death Valley I was introduced to a member of the desert’s ecology: wild burros. New to me, not the desert, wild burros have been a part of Death Valley and the Mojave Desert landscape since the late 19th century. The National Park Service identifies wild burros as an invasive species and has made attempts to remove them in the past. They interrupt the park’s natural ecosystem, consuming large amounts of water and vegetation.

Donkeys are thought to have first been domesticated about 5,000 years ago in Egypt or the Middle East. They were introduced to the U.S. by the Spaniards in the 1500’s and became a useful pack animal to prospectors and miners. The ghost towns and relics, as well as the donkey’s, were left behind and still make their mark on the landscape today.

In 1920 the Department of the Interior identified the wild burros as a major threat to the desert and over decades thousands of burros were shot. In 1971 the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was created, protecting the wild donkeys on lands managed by the BLM and the Forest Service. Its creation added pressure on the Park’s Service. In the 1970s and 1980s a three phase approach was instilled to round-up, adopt out, and shoot any burros that were left. Estimates now indicate anywhere from 750 and 2,000 burros now call Death Valley home. The Bureau of Land Management sees the burros as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West”. I will say after seeing them from a distance, images of westward expansion and romanticized notions of the nations history were abundant.

The consequences of the burros in the landscape is a complex issue deserving to be evaluated from many different perspectives. They can be devasting to perennial grasses native animals rely upon. However, one biologist found burros can dig water wells that support a number of birds and mammals. Cottonwoods, willows, and other plants have been found to sprout from burro wells. In 2017 the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue began work to remove 2,500 wild burros from the Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve by transporting them to training facilities. The Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue has relocated over 9,000 animals in 17 years. Ultimately my experience with the wild burros of Death Valley left me feeling conflicted about their presence and the ongoing methods of their removal, reflective of the complexity of untangling introduced naturalized species from the landscape they’ve established themselves into.

I’ve been helping with some final coordination items and design details for Magic Johnson Park Phase 1 A – a project I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working on. It was one of the first projects I began working on here at AHBE, and being able to follow through across the project’s many stages has taught me so much. Following the process from early concept to construction documents has been a roller coaster full of ups and downs. The project has seen many iterations; I cannot wait to see the built reality.

We’ve sketched, re-sketched, created illustrative plans, renders, study models, technical details, and drawings. Now they’ve all been boiled down into one set. As I look back at the work we’ve done, I recognize something about my own design process: how sometimes the simplest sketch can both define and reveal possibilities within a project and site.


As a designer very interested in graphic representation, I am guilty of being seduced by a beautiful image. A montage with picturesque aesthetic technique can determine the value placed on a site design in ways that have little to do with the potential built reality. We all know this, but the attraction is still there. Much of it has to do with what works as a composition on a 2-dimensional plane. It’s something to master, and can help create an atmosphere, communicate a mood, and describe a sense of place. This is what gets people excited about the possibilities of a project. These images carry a lot of responsibility in selling a design intent, and it is easy to overvalue final beautiful presentation graphics.

There are different layers of concentration critical in the design process. With time, I hope to become more comfortable with the act of sketching – I’m talking quick and dirty, first impression, easy and loose sketching. Sketching this way is purely about discovery and experimentation, but the process is not easy. Looking back at the design process I created for Magic Johnson Park, I realize it was the quick and dirty sketches that allowed me to communicate my design ideas most successfully. Sometimes it is the first loose sketch that gets you somewhere…only to end up in the trash moments later.


All photos: Jessica Roberts

Last weekend I joined other Angelenos at March Forth!,  a fundraiser and block party sponsored by LA Walks in advocacy of safer walking for all across the city. This year’s block party was hosted in Historic Filipinotown, and included games, face painting, lessons for healthy cooking, bicycle riding, skateboarding, and environmental workshops for all ages.

The event truly prioritized pedestrians and non-vehicular modes of transit (unfortunately a rare occurrence in Los Angeles), going as far as to offer free valet bike parking for bicyclists such as myself, compliments of The Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition. It was exciting to see everyone occupy the block cordoned off from traffic, engaged by ideas to improve pedestrian life in our city.

I have to commend the energy of the volunteer organizations in attendance, as they each made the event a success. Although the focus was clearly on community health and promoting safe streets, everyone was there in unity to have some fun. Particularly memorable was a bicycle course developed to teach kids how to safely ride their bikes. I didn’t begin riding a bike in an urban environment until my early twenties, and I remember it required some adjustment, including gaining the confidence and learning the techniques to communicate with drivers sharing the streets. Ideally, one day the social agreement to share the road will be ingrained in our culture across pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers alike.

Another organization in attendance, Ours Did, displayed evocative signs that read, “Drive Like Your _ Died Here”, offering people who’ve lost a loved one an opportunity to personalize signs in hopes of creating a deeper and personal connection with street safety.

During the event I also learned about the Vision Zero campaign, founded to eliminate all traffic-related deaths and severe injuries by 2025. Los Angeles hosts the regional Vision Zero Alliance, a citywide coalition of community based and advocacy organizations brought together to promote pedestrian advocacy across the city. It was encouraging to see the momentum already in place.

As a professional in landscape architecture, it became obvious our discipline could become more involved with policy making, community engagement, and advocacy of a safer place to walk, run, ride, and also drive. One way design professionals can participate is by increasing meaningful civic engagement through visual tools. Urban policy and planning issues may affect our communities, but they’re often portrayed in unnecessarily intimidating ways. Many policies do not encourage community participation, and in turn meaningful change never materializes in the form of construction in their environments serving the people who live there.

Design professionals can and should aid in addressing complex spatial issues associated with cultural, racial, and ethnic inequality. Organizations at March Forth! showed how to effectively use visual tools like community polls to engage the public into providing feedback about how fast vehicular traffic should be set within their community, and interactive boards inviting individuals to create their own dream street revealed what the community wants from its community. Ultimately, the more people are given the tools to promote pedestrian safety and a voice to engage in meaningful exchanges, the larger and more informed the constituency becomes…and the safer the streets of Los Angeles become for all.