Posts tagged Los Angeles River

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.

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, with a first post from Estevan:

Graphic by Estevan Castaneda

Is there a link between housing values and the geographic elevation levels across Los Angeles?

The answer to this question may not have a direct answer. From personal experience, I’ve associated houses on higher elevations with a higher value because of the seclusion from noise and their inclusion of beautiful views. But this is not always the case. When does elevation become a valuable feature and when does it devalue a location?

Downtown Los Angeles from behind the Hollywood Sign” by James Gubera. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

My theory is that a combination of components come into play: the neighborhood’s average income, the availability of transportation, and the elevation of one’s home. Income level would likely play a role in the possibility of the home occupants owning a car. If a family can buy a car, their need for public transportation diminishes. But when families cannot afford a car, then access to public transportation becomes a top priority.

This ties closely with the availability, or lack thereof, of other transportation modes. Let us consider two cities, Beverly Hills and Boyle Heights. These cities exist at the opposite levels of income and public transportation spectrum and present different values in relation to their similar elevations. In the case of Beverly Hills, where the top fifth percent earns up to $660,000 per year, public transportation options are sparse. This has little to no effect on the high-income communities in Beverly Hills, but it does affect the low-income communities that live there. Some families in Beverly Hills earn as little as $14,000, and public transportation is their only option for getting to and from their jobs.

“Hollywood and Beverly Hills” by Aito Aguirregabiria. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the case of Boyle Heights, the public transportation system is not sparse, but the amount of high quality transportation is lacking. The highest quality mode of public transportation in Boyle Heights is the Gold Line, which opened in 2009. This neighborhood’s average income is around $33,000, while the Los Angeles County average is about $58,000. Thus, the need for proper public transportation to connect these neighborhoods to the larger city of LA exists.

“Hollywood and Beverly Hills” by Aito Aguirregabiria. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Elevation ties both factors if average income and available transportation together, creating value. Usually when homes are put on a higher elevation, they are separated from main streets and the nuisances such as noise, pollution, and trash that comes with living in close proximity of other citizens. In Beverly Hills, this results in an idealized neighborhood with a higher average housing value. But the opposite can be true when higher elevation separates people from proper public transportation. In Boyle Heights where a car is not always as readily available, this can mean a walk down or up steep slopes,which is not a desired everyday route for older and disabled citizens.

There are other variables that ultimately affect property values, but this is just my theory…

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The Los Angeles River. Photo by Clarence Lacy

It was after a recent visit along the great Los Angeles River I began thinking about the adaptability of the natural environment in response to large infrastructure interventions. My thoughts wandered from Los Angeles across 2,500 miles, along the Toronto waterfront to the Leslie Street Spit,  a protective barrier constructed over the past 75 years to control wave action along the city’s port and harbors. Leslie Street Spit is also home to Tommy Thompson Park, one of my favorite parks/open spaces.

Following Toronto’s growing prominence in the banking sector, skyscrapers began to climb and dominate the city’s skyline. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing well into the 1980s, international architects left their fingerprint on the formerly manufacturing and packing dominated cityscape. One of the most famous being Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Centre.

With this construction boom, subway development, and the development of the underground city known as the PATH, construction and demolition waste needed a place.  Land reclamation and the construction of bulkheads extended the shoreline into Lake Ontario, and a new spit was created in order to protect the port from erosion and sedimentation.

The main structure of the spit is constructed with hard material. This structure holds embayments made to hold earth fill and dredgate from the harbours. In the mid-1970s, Toronto Region Conservation Agency (TRCA) began to push for a plan for the future use and designation for the land as an open space.

By this time the inactive portions of the Leslie Street Spit had undergone ecological succession. This purely accidental ‘Nature’ became a feature and amenity on the Toronto lakefront. Additionally, it became a stop for migratory birds, earning the designation as an Important Bird Area. More than 300 species of birds have been spotted at the Park, with over 40 being species breeding within the headland of the spit.

The Northern portion of Leslie Street Spit has been designated Tommy Thompson Park, with plans in the coming years to convert the entire Spit into part of the Park. Even James Corner Field Operations was involved in a Parks Master Plan for the Spit. It’s one of my favorite spaces in North America, showing the true tenacity and strength of “Nature” to reclaim and adapt to human constructed infrastructure.

The Leslie Street Spit. Creative Commons photo by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine

So, back to the Los Angeles River….

How can we use the Leslie Street Spit as a precedent for redeveloping the LA River? How do we begin to understand the ecological systems currently at play? How do we begin to deconstruct and design small changes, sowing the seeds that allow for succession of this infrastructure system? And how can we strike a balance  so it still functions efficiently, but affords ‘Nature’ a chance to thrive?

Even though some parts of Leslie Street Spit have become heavily vegetated and give the appearance of a natural landscape, the archaeology of the site presents a purely anthropogenic construction. Its less about creating a space that looks like a river or a forest, and more about the functionality of the conditions. The Leslie Street Spit is still a designated dumping ground, receiving brick, concrete, stone, rebar, and excavation waste from large projects across the Greater Toronto Area.

The current river has the potential to provide a diverse range of ecologies. We only need to augment the Los Angeles River to create the right conditions. If given enough time and opportunity, Nature’s resiliency will do the rest, creating a new adapted ecology unique to the river winding through our city.

A pedestrian bridge spans the stream bed, with the Metro Goldline Bridge in the background. All photos by Katherine Montgomery

A pedestrian bridge spans the stream bed, with the Metro Goldline Bridge in the background. All photos by Katherine Montgomery

While running errands and avoiding listening to election news on the radio this past weekend, I decided to stop at a small parcel of land I’ve long admired. I usually only see this open space while riding the Gold Line train that passes above it, or while driving along Avenue 18 between Cypress Park and Lincoln Heights.

Nestled between industrial buildings, surrounded by transit (Metro, freight trains, and highways) in a section some might call a no-man’s-land, I entered a surprisingly lush space filled with bird song, the rustling of willows, and the calming sound of water.

Path meandering through a landscape of native and California-friendly plants.

A path meandering through a landscape of native and California-friendly plants.

A view with the historic Lincoln Heights jail visible in the background.

A view with the historic Lincoln Heights jail visible in the background.

Completed in 2013 by the Bureau of Sanitation, the Ed Reyes Greenway is a one-acre park.  The in-between open space cleans stormwater runoff from the adjacent industrial area in an underground biofiltration system before it moves through the site, into the Los Angeles River, and eventually out to the ocean. The park also serves as a pocket habitat with dense plant material – some of which is native – but all serving a purpose.  Grasses and willows absorb pollutants in the water as it percolates into the soil.  Native sycamore trees and mallows provide habitat for birds, lizards, possums, and raccoons. In whole, Ed Reyes Greenway is a much-needed urban habitat for LA’s underserved wildlife.

A waterfall at the entrance of the park greets visitors.

A waterfall at the entrance of the park greets visitors.

As Los Angeles grapples with issues of drought, environmental responsibility, and increasing density, it is parks like these that serve as an example of how we should design a wilder Los Angeles.  Integrating nature and stormwater management into the urban context is vital to creating a healthy ecosystem.

If you have not voted yet, please be sure to vote in favor of Measure A, which provides funding for programs in parks, water conservation efforts, and protection of natural areas.

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

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

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.

Photo: Jenni Zell

Compton Creek with vegetation in the fall of 2013. Photo: Jennifer Zell

Compton Creek with vegetation removed. 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

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?