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The Sorry State Of The Los Angeles River
I was recently alerted to the stark and failing Los Angeles River by this video called Where The Water Once Flowed, by photographer Chang Kim. Through the use of drone footage, it charts the course of the river, if you can even call it that, through the city. The images are shocking. The narrow channel of deep blue water runs at the crux of two steep concrete banks, often with industrial rail tracks alongside. The banks are sparse and monotonous, a seemingly never ending ribbon of grey concrete, apart from the odd shrub trying to claim back the land in which nature once thrived. Layers of thick brown muck cake the banks, and cars hurry over lonely bridges which criss-cross over the river, seemingly embarrassed by its presence. The truly dismal state of the Los Angeles River exemplified by the film prompted me to write this article in order to raise awareness of the strife of the waterway, and more optimistically some of the revitalisation plans for its future.
The sorry state of the river is entirely the fault of poor planning decisions and a short term ethos, which coincidentally sums up much infrastructure development in 20th century America. From 1890-1930 the population of Los Angeles surged from 50,000 to 1.2 million, increasing its standing on the list of America’s largest cities from 57th to 5th. Flooding had always occurred in the area, however due to the population boom and resulting urban sprawl, more and more lives were being put at risk. The issue came to a head during the spring of 1938 when abnormally high rainfall brought by two Pacific storms caused exceptional flooding in the state. 115 people were killed and the equivalent of $250 million of damage was suffered, with the flood being named the fifth worst in history by the Red Cross at the time.
In response, in the following months the US Army Corps of Engineers performed widespread alterations to minimise future flooding, including constructing the hideous trough which blights the river today. The work was completed in October 1938, just six months after the flood, which proves the slapdash and unconsidered nature of the project.

The condition set up in 1938 has remained for almost a century, a surprising fact given the development of the nation and Los Angeles specifically. It is now the second largest city in America, yet backing to revitalise the river is only just gaining traction. Of course, the decision to quickly erect defences in 1938 was justified given the scale of the flood, however I can only assume that the measures were seen as a temporary at the time. If not, I would find it shocking and disheartening that an American city could so easily abandon a major part of its geography. Around the world, many cities are enhanced hugely by their rivers, which provide beautiful vistas, vibrant and energetic waterfronts and recreational opportunities.
One river revitalisation case study that Los Angeles planners can take as inspiration is Madrid Rio in the Spanish capital, run by Dutch firm West 8 and a group of local practices after winning an invited competition. Before the project begun in 2005, the Manzanares River was flanked by two busy motorways, essentially blocking access to it. In order to reengage the city with the river a radical idea was proposed, to bury one of the motorways and construct on top of it new public spaces such as parks, plazas and bridges. The 80 hectare development was split into a number of smaller projects to increase the variation and creativity in the design. Despite congestion problems during construction, the scheme has been heralded as a success since its completion, and has achieved its aim of reconnecting citizens with the Manzanares River. One signifier of its success is the number of similar projects that have emerged in other cities around the world, for example San Francisco, Seoul and Medellin.
Thankfully, finally, revitalisation plans for the 51 mile stretch of the Los Angeles River within the city seem to be developing, with some concrete milestones already surpassed. In July last year approval was granted to redevelop an eleven mile stretch of the river, and just two weeks ago a vote was passed to acquire 41 hectares of land beside the waterway that will act as the “crown jewel” of the restoration project. However, despite the progress, the project has not been without controversy. It was revealed in August 2015 that starchitect Frank Gehry, who is a long term resident of Los Angeles, had been selected to update and oversee a masterplan that was initially created in 2007 by an engineering firm and three landscape architecture practices. The decision was criticised by many landscape architects who expressed disappointment regarding the lack of public involvement in the decision as well as concern over Gehry’s ability to realise the scheme to its full potential. Duanne Border, principal of a local landscape architecture firm, commented “Architects such as Frank Gehry can certainly be valuable in this process, but even he admitted he isn’t ‘a landscape guy'”.

The story of the Los Angeles River up to now is a sad one, fraught with carelessness, neglect, and a total lack of respect for nature. Whilst I accept that the hurried alterations were necessary in 1938 to prevent further flooding, I am stunned that they were not seen as a temporary measure. It saddens me that the original, natural appearance of the river, which no doubt would have been beautiful, has seemingly been forgotten as the decades have passed. However, as exemplified in the Madrid Rio project and other international revitalisation efforts, it is possible to renourish and reimagine riversides. Fortunately, the Los Angeles River is recoverable, and progress seems to be gaining pace with the acquirement of land and key approvals. Despite the controversy, predominantly positive steps are being taken to ensure the future narrative of the Los Angeles River contrasts its dismal past.