Posts by Jenni Zell

Image: AHBE Landscape Architects

Graphic: AHBE Landscape Architects

This month Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Los Angeles will be joining the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, revealing our first citywide Resilience Strategy. In addition, the mayor signed an executive directive to create Chief Resilience Officers, new positions for leading the way in taking steps to make Los Angeles a more resilient and stronger city. The Rockefeller Foundation has been taking charge in supporting governments, residents, agencies and designers to reimagine solutions to the complex problems facing our cities today.

By joining the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, the city of Los Angeles taps into the momentum of other places sharing common problems and solutions. After Hurricane Katrina, a strong partnership was forged between engineers, designers, and policy makers from the Netherlands to address water disaster issues and to plan in Louisiana. Similarly, The Bay Area Resilient By Design is forging new knowledge and solutions to strengthen the region’s resilience to sea level rise, severe storms, flooding and earthquakes. AHBE submitted a proposal with Tetra Tech, Restoration Design Group, and Professor Barry Lehrman of Cal Poly Pomona (view our video here), working together to create small-scale implementable, testable, and scalable strategies for sea level rise.

A still from Resilient By Design Bay Area Challenge by Evan Mather for AHBE Landscape Architects.

Southern California can learn from the research and site-specific design proposal generated by the Bay Area Resilient By Design initiative. These privately funded efforts and partnerships with local research universities are a force in creating a vision for mitigation and adaptation challenges facing our communities. We hope to see similar collaborations between the scientific and design communities addressing the issues specific to Los Angeles and Southern California coastal cities.

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Jessica, Jenni, Chuan, and Wendy searching for sea turtles along the San Gabriel River. Photos by Jenni Zell.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of exploring the Lower San Gabriel River and Los Cerritos Wetlands with colleagues, students, and Professor Barry Lehrman of Cal Poly Pomona. We abandoned our computers for the day to  set out to explore the waterways by kayak, bicycle, and on foot with the express purpose of direct and unmediated experience of this landscape, and also to collect primary perceptions to inform meaningful design.

I was there for adventure and to provide support AHBE’s collaborative studio with fourth-year landscape architecture students at Cal Poly Pomona. The students are spending their winter term exploring the speculative transformation of the AES Alamitos and the DWP Haynes power generating facilities from fossil fuel burning behemoths into something still yet unimagined (my colleague Brett Miller wrote about the collaboration).

Jessica and Chuan in the San Gabriel River channel. Photos by Jenni Zell.

The AHBE staff is playing a mentorship role again, collaborating with the senior Cal Poly Pomona studio to work together on a Long Beach remediation project exploring …

As we rode our bicycles along the levee of the soft-bottomed channel of the San Gabriel River we witnessed dozens of large silvery fish jumping out of the river with the seeming symmetry and choreography of a Busby Berkeley dance. Biologist Eric Zahn later informed me the fish were striped mullet, a species of fish commonly found in coastal estuaries and in the lower reaches of coastal streams.

Wendy and Chuan stopping to check out where the river channel transitions from a concrete lined waterway to a soft-bottomed flow.

But, why were these fish jumping? Striped mullet are known to feed on organic detritus like diatoms, bacteria, and micro-invertebrates. The fish were not trying to catch insects for food; and unlike topsmelt, which jump to avoid being eaten, the stripped mullet are about 18” and 3 pounds in size and had little need to jump to escape predators. According to Eric, we don’t really know why the fish jump.

During our bicycle ride we also observed several Pacific green sea turtles, a docile species occasionally found swimming in the San Gabriel River.

It is essential for landscape architects to know the occurrence and distribution of plant and animal communities in order to protect and restore critical ecosystem functions and to better understand how plants and animals respond to various conditions. The relationship between ecological science and design must be strengthened in our profession. AHBE’s collaboration with Cal Poly Pomona students is one effort to focus on the complex infrastructure of human modification and natural systems.

Photos by Calvin Abe

I get a good look at the Lower Los Angeles River (LLAR) and Compton Creek during my daily commute on the Metro Blue Line Train. Depending on the vegetation management activities of the Flood Control District and the season, what I see can be either hopeful or bleak.

In the summer, after a season of growth where sediment, vegetation, and wildlife establish their territory within both the soft bottom and concrete-lined waterways, I feel an optimistic hope that nature based infrastructure solutions can be restored to the region. Now, at the beginning of the rainy season when vegetation has been removed from the channel and replaced with high volumes of water flowing with suspended trash, pollutants, and dangerous levels of bacteria, it seems as if the ecological destruction caused by paving our watershed will never be mitigated.

However bleak my views about the river have become lately, there remains genuine reason for hope. In December of 2017, the Draft Lower Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan was released to the public, an important document outlining opportunities and constraints for significant future LLAR projects from Vernon to Long Beach. The plan can be viewed here.

The first pages of the document offer an eye opening assessment about the community living within the river corridor:

  • Poor (64.1% of households are considered low income and an estimated 2,500 homeless people live along the river)
  • Ethnically diverse (93% non-white)
  • Hot (only 2% of the watershed is covered by shade trees)
  • Without sufficient access to parks (1/3 of the people living within the river adjacent communities have 1/3 the park space than the current LA County average).

This Draft Lower Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan gets into the weeds in addressing site-specific revitalization project for 146 locations throughout the river corridor. The draft also proposes a Community Stabilization Toolkit to help ensure the community living and working within the river corridor is the same population that benefits from planned projects and programs when they’re implemented. The impressive analytics provided in the report will be valuable to the communities that will ultimately take the lead in realizing these efforts.

While many of the opportunities identified in the plan are sandwiched between the channel of the river and the 710 Freeway in the upper river segments, and do not restore the natural hydraulic and ecological functions of the river and flood plain, the middle and lower segments propose spreading basins, wetlands parks, and habitat corridors. Taken in aggregate, these river adjacent projects can have a significant positive impact on water quality.

It is disappointing removing concrete from the river channel is not considered feasible in this plan (except alternate configuration 3 at the Rio Hondo Confluence). However, the most significant impact of this plan may be in the tenacity the plan commits to finding buildable opportunities along the river corridor, combined with the proposed policies and programs for community stabilization. Taken together, this sober plan proposes an authentic vision of the Lower Los Angeles River that is a cleaner, healthier and better-connected version of its current state.

This vision of tomorrow’s river system does not displace people, funnel profits to private interests, or force an idealized version of another river from another place and time. Instead, the plan embraces the complex interweaving of natural and man-made systems representing the essential heritage of the Los Angeles River.

As 2017 year comes to a close, the AHBE LAB contributors are taking time to look back at our year’s worth of posts. We are each identifying the most memorable post and sharing what we found interesting, informative, and inspiring. Enjoy the flashback, and let us know which post you thought was most memorable.

Photos by Jennifer Zell

One of my favorite AHBE Lab bloggers is Yiran Wang. Her posts tends to weave together a thesis out of seemingly disparate elements, causing the reader to reevaluate ideas about a subject. Her posts, The Magic of an Isometric Perspective, is particularly memorable. She essentially claims isometric representations – as diverse as traditional Chinese paintings and the obsessively detailed drawings of Architecture Drawing Studio – determine how cities get built.

In a post by Gary Lai titled, Signs from the Beginning, a similar theme is explored, one where representation isn’t the spatial and physical destiny of the city, but becomes the vehicle of his professional destiny. In the process of telling his story of building a model in high school for a design competition, he discovered his professional destiny—sustainability.

Both of these Lab posts reminded me of a model I made in graduate school. In building the model, I was trying to discover how to make something that did not represent the landscape as a surface, but as a whole. Something that could not be viewed from one perspective, but needed to be picked up by hand and studied from multiple angles to be understood.


My grad school model was more interesting in its ambition than execution, but it shares a theme with both Yiran and Gary’s blog posts. As designers, how we represent places, buildings, and landscapes express our world-view, and in-turn the built environment.

The original posts here: The Magic of an Isometric Perspective and Signs from the Beginning

There is a growing awareness within the landscape architecture profession about the importance of integrating scientific disciplines to address current and future environmental challenges. We cannot continue following a path of precedent-driven design propped up by soft knowledge. We have witnessed the frequent failures of constructed ecosystems and native California landscapes that do not perform the way that they were rendered and sold.

Rather than robust landscapes woven into urban and suburban infrastructures that are depicted in our renderings and narrative reports, these promised landscapes are too frequently overtaken with exotics, unattractive, and ultimately inhospitable to the intended biota.

The profession of landscape architecture is becoming more skilled at storytelling and Photoshop. But the field is also falling short of integrating the scientific substance necessary to fulfill the promises of our simulacra. However, there are structural barriers that disadvantage our profession from deeper engagement with scientific methods.

  1. The materials we work with do not have the barcodes, or the digital footprint necessary for the easy aggregation of data to drive analysis.
  2. We don’t have substantial private investment feeding research.
  3. Our academic institutions don’t offer a doctorate of landscape architecture (except for a few programs tied to history) driving long-term and sustained studies.
  4. Our professional fee structure is based on billable time tied to the interests of our clients.

A few large landscape architecture firms have added research to their practice, but this effort, while valuable, cannot complete the heavy lifting required to build a structural knowledge base to better help us understand the implications of our design experiments. And, practice-based research will always be built on the backs of other professionals completing billable work.

Following the scientific method alone can sometimes lead to asking wrong or misleading questions, and the profession of landscape architecture will always integrate art and science to guide inquiry. Collectively, the profession must develop stronger tools for putting forward hard, explicit knowledge that can be shared, tested, and refined so that by developing a professional culture of knowledge creation and sharing, we can fulfill the promised of our best stories and pictures.