Posts tagged Los Angeles River

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?

Creative Commons photo by Andrew Hart

Creative Commons photo by Andrew Hart

The Los Angeles River is one of the largest waterways and tributaries in Southern California. And contrary to its original pragmatic intent at the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers as a controlled concrete basin, the once alluvial river has become a source of inspiration and opportunity amongst local communities living along the waterway’s route. With news about big name revitalization projects in its near futire, the river has garnered public attention, and in the process the Los Angeles River seems to be teeming with civic life as a prelude to its upcoming reincarnation as a public feature of pride.

Los Angeles River fishing enthusiast sites like reveal there is a surprising amount of fish living in the river...except none are currently native species. Photo by Jim Burns/

Los Angeles River fishing enthusiast sites like reveal there is a surprising population of fish living in the river…except none are currently native species. Photo by Jim Burns/

In Chuan Ding’s post titled, Discovering Where Los Angeles Begins and Ends, she discussed how the Los Angeles River has become a popular destination for many visitors from all across the city, offering visitors an opportunity to kayak, hike, bicycle, or to simply observe wildlife along its more wild sections.

Although there are many opportunities to interact with urban wildlife along the Los Angeles River shoreline, most residents do not consider the waterway a prime fishing spot, or even know several fish species can be found living within its depths and shallows. Although a majority of the river is controlled through concrete channels, there are still sections along the Los Angeles River that feature rocky banks, a soil bottom, and naturalized vegetation along its waterway that allow for several species of fish to survive (and some large specimens too).

Unfortunately the native fish species that were once original and/or endemic to the river prior to the engineered channelization in 1938 did not survive (nor did the grizzly bears which once roamed its shores). Historical Los Angeles River fish species included: Steelheads/Rainbow Trout, Arroyo Chub, River Shrimp, species of Salmon, Three-Spined Stickleback, and several other native fish species.

The last recorded catch of the elusive endangered Southern California Steelhead was recorded in 1948 by a local fisherman near the Glendale Bridge. Although the native fish species are gone, there are still fish living within the river, largely invasive and transplanted fish species (even so, it is a testament to the potential for life within the river, and the possibility original species could be reintroduced).

A study conducted by FoLAR (Friends of the Los Angeles River)  in 2008 recorded catching various fish species within the Los Angeles River, including mosquitofish, tilapia, green sunfish, fathead minnow, carp, black bullhead, Amazon sailfin catfish, and largemouth bass. The majority of fish caught during the study were tilapia and mosquitofish.

Although there are still a dedicated few who roam the river in hopes of hooking a California Steelhead, many recreational fishing spots have become popular with locals for fly-fishing (as local fishing enthusiast blog puts it, “Fishing for carp, waiting for steelhead”). Still, there is also a sense of urgency tempered with hope that the once densely populated Los Angeles River can again potentially become a habitat for the native species again with planning and rehabilitation of the ecosystem. With efforts along tributaries for habitat restoration and the upcoming Los Angeles Revitalization Plan bringing more public attention, the river greenway offers the possibility not only to fulfill its role as an urban revitalization project for the people, but also a wildlife refuge for California’s earlier aquatic natives.


LA River Impression by Chuan Ding

“LA River Impression” by Chuan Ding

Filmmaker and artist Wim Wenders once noted, “Landscapes tell stories, and the Los Angeles River tells a story of violence and danger.” After six decades of taming the Los Angeles River through the medium of concrete and construction, the city’s major waterway can still be dangerous and occasionally violent, but mostly more of a placid flood abatement feature than the wild force it once was.

Today the Los Angeles River is a corridor of public land that serves as a conduit for the movement of water, trains, cars, electricity, trucks, and freight for much of its fifty miles. From its beginnings in Canoga Park in the San Fernando Valley, the river journeys out to Long Beach, eventually emptying into the Pacific Ocean. The river’s flow travels through a variety of communities and urban landscapes, sometimes a calm trickle, occasionally a turbulent force reminding us of its former seasonal ferocity.

The river is a witness and materialized carrier of all the changes and development that has happened across Southern California over the decades. Conversely, those years of urban development have also made the river what it is today,  a dividing line across the Angeleno urban grid. That’s why I believe it is so important to take a journey along Los Angeles River to fully comprehend its impact as a shaping force of Los Angeles, and the history of the city itself.

“Nobody knows Los Angeles without knowing its river.”- Joan Didion

From small scale green streets and pocket parks, all the way to larger regional scale projects across the city, the Los Angeles River plays a vivid and complex role as an artery of the city. The river’s waterfront is a paradigmatic symbol of the inherent complexity of a natural mutable system continually lapping up against an immovable constructed edge, the river’s length continually busy with human activity determined to make use of its water for work, leisure, and as a reliable resource. It is at the very heart of one of the largest urban transformation projects, one that will undoubtedly reshape Los Angeles.

Angelenos can bike, hike, bird watch, and even kayak along the Los Angeles River. It’s a place where visitors can relax and spend family time in some of the pocket parks found along the river. Those seeking more environmentally-oriented activities can partake in the annual LA River Cleanup events. The Los Angeles River is also a famously popular site for film, television, and commercials. You’ve probably seen plenty of footage of it as a backdrop; anyone who’s seen one of the numerous Hollywood movie car chases over the last 30 years will recognize the 51-mile structure that runs from San Fernando Valley through to Long Beach.

Somehow it seems appropriate our city’s most important river has been mapped and immortalized by a cinematic hand versus a cartographic one. In that sense, anyone can journey along the Los Angeles River with a thoughtfully LA-centric themed list of movies via their Netflix queue, following the path of a river that remained constant even as the city around it continually changed through the decades. That the river itself is now on the brink of being transformed in a
grand exercise in modern ecosystem manipulation” is reason enough to visit the Los Angeles River before it’s only a memory captured on film.

at coyotes creek
Not too long ago, my partner and I took a 12 mile roundtrip bike ride to visit one of AHBE’s project sites, the El Dorado Nature Center. Found along the San Gabriel River Bike Trail, the 105 acres of natural habitat offers an urban sanctuary for plants and animals.

entrance to sg river trail

We got onto the trail by the Long Beach – Seal Beach border along the Pacific Coast Highway, where a ramp connects the highway to the trail.

Along the way we pedaled past the LADWP Haynes Generating Station, a large gas steam power plant, hardly scenic if nature is on the agenda. But across this industrial site was a different landscape altogether, where the river has maintained some of the recognizable features of a natural waterway: a soft bottom river with birds occupying the surface, its banks stabilized with rocks and occasional plant material instead of concrete.


A few miles up the trail, Coyote Creek flows into the San Gabriel River. It is at this confluence where the concrete flood control channel starts and continues up until Downey, where the river returns to a soft bottom waterway, continuing up into the San Gabriel Mountains. The bike trail itself ends at the Santa Fe Dam, close to where the 605 freeway ends in Duarte.
The San Gabriel River is usually overshadowed by its neighboring Southland conduit, the Los Angeles River. But in fact, this other major river shares a similar history of manmade infrastructure forever changing the river’s flow (and in turn, the river helping change the city of Los Angeles as a major source of gravel, source, and rock to supply concrete manufacturing). And also like the Los Angeles River, I believe the San Gabriel River offers the potential to become so much more in the future than what we see today. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works teamed up with various stakeholders from cities, public agencies, and community groups to prepare a Master Plan to illustrate a vision for a river corridor designed with flood protection, native habitats, recreational opportunities, and economic value for the community.

The Master Plan includes trail enhancements, educational centers, bridges, gateways and connections, parks and open space, redevelopment and reclamation, habitat enhancement, and water quality and supply projects. Projects vary along the river, depending upon the various environmental, geographical, recreational, and social contexts surrounding the river.

rio hondo aerial 1

An aerial view of the Rio Hondo Coastal Spreading Ground, an important site for groundwater recharge.

AHBE Landscape Architects has already been involved in several Master Plan related projects, including the Rio Hondo Coastal Spreading Grounds and the El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach (mentioned above). The Rio Hondo Coastal Spreading Grounds include enhancements to the bike trail, trail heads, and other landscape areas surrounded by recharging basins that re-supply the local aquifer.

El Dorado
The El Dorado Nature Center will start construction this year after the nesting season. I look forward to riding along these new San Gabriel River corridor features as they’re completed in the coming years.

A photo from Kazys Varnelis's The Infrastructural City

A photo from Kazys’s The Infrastructural City

“Cobbled together out of swamp, floodplain, desert, and mountains, short of water and painfully dependent on far-away resources to survive, Los Angeles is sited on inhospitable terrain, located where the continent runs out of land,” writes Varnelis. “No city should be here.” – The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles, Kazys Varnelis

VarnelisEvents like El Niño bring Angelenos together in a communal sense of worry and anticipation. Mainly driven by unpreparedness, Los Angeles as a whole is feeling the toll of physical, mental, logistical, and for the purpose of our focus as urban shapers, infrastructural stress. Any minor interruption in the electric power, gas lines, imported potable water supply, or wireless communication could result in repercussions of exceptionally disastrous effects to city and citizens alike. While the extensive infrastructural networks connect the metropolis physically and virtually – internally and globally with optimized efficiency –  it also renders the city vulnerable to damage when one of these networks is severed.

Questions of risk and resilience constantly looming over each of today’s urban agglomerations come down to really two pillars: design and politics. Politics seeks tangible results and short-term solutions, while design seeks scientifically-informed planning and long-term strategies. Design is therefore challenged by politics and politics of economic systems that shift at rates faster than the architectural and design plans themselves.


Photos of Villa Verde Housing:

What the historical politics of fragmented urban decision-making, engineered solutions, and top-down approaches reflect in Los Angeles is rigidity and permanence. Both of these qualities are not compatible with the qualities of design for resilience. On the contrary, design for resilience emphasizes planning as a set of flexible and responsive strategies. These strategies are context-specific. In this case, Los Angeles carries a uniqueness to its history – site evolution – its ways of being and ways of functioning. As Varnelis strongly argues in his collection of essays, framing Los Angeles as an infrastructural city is required in establishing a natural framework to the understanding, spatializing, and planning for a more resilient urban Los Angeles, specifically as a networked system of flows of bits and matter, all intertwined and interconnected. The infrastructural systems, once the “life-support systems” that sustained Los Angeles, can soon become obsolete, and something is to be done!

Creative Commons photo of the Los Angeles River channel by Downtowngal.

Creative Commons photo of the Los Angeles River channel by Downtowngal.

When considering long-term impactful design in Los Angeles, it is inevitable to revisit the key concepts and approaches of one of my favorite influential architects, Alejandro Aravena. Just last week, Aravena was celebrated as the 2016 Architecture Pritzker Award winner for his work on post-disaster long-term social design strategies.  This news matters because it empowers designers and reinforces the belief that good design is indeed capable of causing change. And most of all, this capability is possible because his work is an exceptional example of design-politics tensions simplified, negotiated, and compromised for the good of all. Aravena translated the once conceptual and speculative approaches of flexible incremental design and socially-based design into pragmatic built projects. Design as strategy is key to the planning of vulnerable cities, whether in terms of planning for or post natural disasters.