Can Neglected Urban Waterways Like the Los Angeles River Become Thriving Greenways?

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By Esha Chhabra / Published by Dwell
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With new natural features and recreation opportunities, rivers in city centers across America are getting a chance to shine again.

The Los Angeles River, the famous eyesore that Hollywood long ago fixed in the public imagination as the setting for noirish murders and dystopian blood battles, is getting a makeover. In 2014, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers endorsed a $1 billion plan to widen the waterway, remove its signature concrete bedding, restore natural features, and create bike trails along an 11-mile stretch of the river north of downtown.

“Restoring natural habitats and adding walking and cycling trails along urban waterways can connect people with opportunities at the civic scale to make our environment more healthy and beautiful," says environmental designer Cynthia Hirschhorn.

The product of a decade of advocacy and a spirited lobbying campaign, the plan is notable for its scope and ambition, but it is just one of more than a dozen efforts to revitalize neglected urban waterways across the country, from California to Texas and New York—in many cases with the encouragement and financial support of the U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency. 

The Army Corps of Engineers has endorsed a $1 billion plan to revive an 11-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River by restoring natural features that were lost when the waterway was turned into a drainage channel in the 1930s.

The purpose is twofold. There are environmental benefits to containing erosion and promoting cleaner water and stronger riverbanks, while the bike paths that are a key component of most of these plans provide an ecologically friendly transportation alternative in traffic-choked city centers. Beyond this, the cities embarking on these projects are hoping to lure and retain young urban dwellers, who are seen as essential to a healthy local economy.

Many supporters see it as a first step toward the creation of a linear expanse of parks and wetlands along the river’s entire 51-mile length. This image shows what the river could look like after the efforts.

Cynthia Hirschhorn is an environmental designer whose organization, flowproject.la, aims to bring public art and urban gardens to the banks of the L.A. River. Restoring natural habitats and adding walking and cycling trails along urban waterways, she says, can "connect people with opportunities
at the civic scale to make our environment more healthy and beautiful." 

A recent photo of the area around the Los Angeles River shows a sea of concrete.

In Los Angeles, one goal is to undo some of the damage that was done in the 1930s, when a devastating flood prompted Congress to order the Corps of Engineers to deepen the river and line most of it with concrete. In the spring of 2014, following a lobbying effort led by Mayor Eric Garcetti, the Corps approved the $1 billion revitalization plan over a far less ambitious $453 million proposal that it had previously signaled it intended to support. President Obama has endorsed the plan, leaving it to Congress to authorize the Corps’ $500 million share of the cost. It will be up to the city to finance the rest, likely using a combination of city, state, and federal funds.

Another look at the proposed plan. “It can be a linear Central Park because it connects through so many different communities,” says Omar Brownson, executive director of the L.A. River Revitalization Corp.

Flowproject.la and the L.A. River Revitalization Corp., for which Hirschhorn serves as a board member, see the Corps plan as a starting point. The larger goal is to create a greenway—complete with bike paths, parks, and public art—along the entire length of the river, which crosses 14 city boundaries on its 51-mile journey from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach Harbor. "It can be a linear Central Park because it connects through so many different communities," says Omar Brownson, executive director of the L.A. River Revitalization Corp.

Similar projects are being undertaken across the country, albeit on a smaller scale. In downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, planners are seeking to remove dams and add boulders to restore the rapids that are the city’s namesake. In Washington, D.C., the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and OLIN Studio were selected to design a two-level park spanning the Anacostia River, literally bridging a socioeconomic chasm. The Grand and Anacostia rivers are among 19 waterways included in the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, which the EPA started in 2011 to promote renewal projects. 

It will likely be several years before jackhammers begin tearing up the concrete bed of the L.A. River, and then the Corps estimates that the work will take at least a decade to complete. But things are moving, and for Hirschhorn it’s only the beginning. "It is all about collaboration and connection between people and institutions," she says, "and bringing their talents, treasures, and time together to produce wonderful things for us all to share, now and for generations to come."

Further Reading

KCET’s guide to the L.A. River: kcet.org/socal/departures/lariver

"There It Is. Take It." Boom: A Journal of California. Fall 2013, Vol. 3, No. 3. 

A Place in the Sun: Photographs of Los Angeles by John Humble. Getty Museum.

Los Angeles River (Images of America: California) by Ted Elrick and FoLAR. Arcadia Publishing, January 2008.

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Down by the Los Angeles River: Friends of the Los Angeles River’s Official Guide by Joe Liton. Wilderness Press, October 2005.