Los Angeles Brings Back Its River: Will It Do So with Current Residents in Mind?

February 20, 2018; CityLab

The Los Angeles River, long neglected, is slated for revival. As Jon Christensen writes in CityLab, “The river, which once rampaged in wet winters, was tamed by concrete beginning in the late 1930s. People forgot there was a river. It became a flood-control channel.”

The turnabout is stunning. As the Los Angeles Times wrote back in 2015, “With architect Frank Gehry now involved in remaking the Los Angeles River, it’s hard to imagine that there once was a push to place a freeway along the waterway’s path.” Back in the late 1980s, then-California Assemblyman Richard Katz had actually suggested using part of the concrete “river” as a freeway. The Los Angeles Times article adds that, “A preliminary report concluded that much of the river could support the traffic lanes, and the proposal would relieve traffic congestion on several area freeways.”

Now, events have taken a dramatically different turn. As Christensen, founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS) at UCLA, writes, “Plans and fears center on an 11-mile stretch in the middle of the river’s run near downtown, where the city and the US Army Corps of Engineers have agreed on a vision for giving the river back some room to be a river again—and to become an icon for the future Los Angeles.”

Of course, with revitalization comes a risk of displacement of existing residents in neighborhoods bordering this 11-mile stretch, a challenge that Christensen has called “green gentrification.” These neighborhoods in Los Angeles have names—places like “Atwater Village, Glassell Park, Cypress Park, Mount Washington, Northeast Los Angeles, Frogtown, Elysian Valley, Lincoln Heights, Solano Canyon, Chinatown, and Dogtown.” These communities are, as Christensen, says “park poor.” But, as Christensen notes, making an area greener can price residents out, as has happened with other park development projects, like Manhattan’s High Line park.

Christensen notes, however, that a new group, the Los Angeles Regional Open Space and Affordable Housing Collaborative—LA ROSAH—is trying to address these challenges. The coalition, “formed by organizations advocating for open space, affordable housing, and environmental justice” is seeking “to ensure that a greener environment benefits low-income residents rather than contributing to their displacement.” Christensen observes that the group’s name evokes the rose “in the process of blooming, becoming.”

Part of the work of the collaborative, Christensen adds, has been “to improve coordination among parks and affordable housing advocates and agencies, and to promote successful policies and strategies for preserving and creating more affordable housing and green spaces.” As Christensen points out, “What becomes of this collaborative, and what becomes of parks and communities on the Los Angeles River, will shape the future of [Los Angeles] and will be watched closely as an example by the whole world.”

The reason for this global scrutiny, of course, is that Los Angeles will host the Olympics in 2028.

The city wants the Los Angeles River…to be an iconic centerpiece of the new story that it tells the world about itself. What if it were a true story about developing a real model for equitable and just greening of the city, a model that other cities around the world could learn from and build upon? That would truly be worth celebrating.

—Sean Watterson and Steve Dubb