Every weekday while commuting to Downtown Los Angeles from Long Beach on the Metro Blue Line train, I pass over both the Los Angeles River and Compton Creek. The section of river and tributary I pass over is located north of the 405 freeway, near the 710 freeway. Here, the Los Angeles River is represented as a concrete lined channel, while the Compton Creek maintains a natural soft-bottom. For several months I’ve watched the dramatic evolution of these two river channel habitats, being witness to the devastation of one and the seemingly miraculous emergence of another.
Lower Los Angeles River with emergent tiny-island-ecosystems. Photo: Jennifer Zell
Sometime this summer a photosynthetic ecosystem emerged on the surface of the concrete lined channel. From what I can ascertain, algae grew on the concrete surface, growth fed by nutrients available in the thin film of water that spread across the concrete floor as it overflowed over the low flow channel. Birds, such as killdeer, ducks and black-necked stilts, then began feeding on the aquatic invertebrates that collected in the pockets of algae growth. More recently, a thin layer of sediment has been trapped by this algae growth, forming small islands of flowering plants living within the isolated channel. These islands appear quite verdant and beautiful from the train, like miniature vignettes of an island ecology.
Los Angeles River. Photo: Gregory Han
By contrast, the soft-bottomed portion of Compton Creek supports a thickly vegetated growth of rushes and exotic plant species – at least until about two weeks ago, when the vegetation was removed (alongside the nests, protective cover, and food sources) by the Los Angeles County Flood Control District in anticipation of winter rains. The soft-bottomed portion of Compton Creek is considered a remnant wetland habitat, and supports many wildlife species including egrets and herons. Vegetation management is currently necessary to prevent flooding and is authorized by the US Army Corps of Engineers in order to maintain channel flood capacity. But, vegetation management is necessary because the channels and levees were designed without vegetation incorporated into volume calculations.
Compton Creek with vegetation in the fall of 2013. Photo: Jennifer Zell
Compton Creek with vegetation removed. Photo: Jennifer Zell
Compton Creek After Maintenance. Creative Commons Photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/Heal the Bay
Being witness to the Compton Creek habitat wiped out (albeit it overrun with exotic species) and anticipating a similar scouring of the miniature islands within the channel of the L.A. River makes we wonder: How can we have both flood protection and space for habitat?
Photo by Jenni Zell
Like most employees of AHBE Landscape Architects, I ride public transportation to get to and from work. Riding public transportation in Los Angeles can feel like an act of defiance against the dominant automobile culture. The protective bubble of autonomy and self-determination that accompanies driving a car is dissolved when riding the train. Sharing destinations and overlapping zones of personal space are a few of the trade-offs one makes for the economy and reduced environmental footprint associated with riding public transportation. The train also offers a dramatically different experience of moving through the landscape of Los Angeles.
My daily route is on the Metro Blue Line train, beginning from the Willow Station in Long Beach traveling to the 7th Street/Metro Center station in Downtown Los Angeles. Based on the direction the train is traveling (northbound or southbound), the direction of the car (north or south), and the position an individual stands within the car (facing east or west), there are eight ways to ride the Blue Line train. In the morning, I prefer to ride facing north while sitting nearest the east facing window. The sun is behind me, and the San Gabriel Mountains are in front of me. Crossing over the Los Angeles River, I enjoy watching black-necked stilts fish along the edges of the low flow channel, and I occasionally spot great blue herons and snowy egrets along the soft bottom section of Compton Creek (a tributary of the Los Angeles River).
Los Angeles Metro Light Rail Blue Line arriving at Slauson Station. Creative Commons photo by Justefrain
However, the most picturesque view to be seen from all eight various riding positions on the train comes into focus near the Slauson Station, where the train car is elevated about 25’ above street level. From here the view’s fore, middle, and background vibrates with visual interest. The San Gabriel Mountains (sometimes snowcapped) form a backdrop to the industrial landscape of Vernon – neat piles of wrecked cars and towers of wood shipping crates – our city’s version of the ox carts and windmills that once littered the paintings of 17th century Dutch landscape and cityscape artists’ works. Anchoring the foreground of this particular view near the Slauson Station is a caricaturization of a television with the hand lettered message “UNN PLUG IT NOW,” an unexpectedly resonant statement most likely rendered with spray cans under the cover of dark.
If I travel southbound after dark, the ride always feels claustrophobic. The landscape is compressed into silhouettes and the dark outlines are disrupted by sharply detailed views into the private lives of people living along the Blue Line route. If I’m fortunate enough to get to the top floor of the Willow Station parking garage before dark, I’m rewarded with a striking view. The parapet walls of the garage act as a horizontal framing device, blocking out the pedestrian landscape and directing the eye toward the distant landscape of Downtown Long Beach and the hills of Palos Verdes, with the mellowed light and soft focus of the rosy atmosphere framing a pleasing return back into my private car and a return to my private life.