Atlantic Cities

L.A. Wants to Turn Its Concrete 'River' Into a Real River

Bodies of water have so much allure—particularly in overpaved cities—that we’re content to put up with the algae-scented funk of the Central Park pond, or even the stench of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, just to rest our eyes on something blue (or, er, brown).

In recent years the Los Angeles River has enjoyed a renaissance. Though the waterway hasn’t really been a natural habitat since the 1930s (when the city lined the riverbed with concrete to control flooding), new bike paths, public art, and kayak tours now draw Angelenos to the water’s edge. So far these upgrades have been largely peripheral, due in large part to urban enthusiasts’ determination to start using the giant ditch they inherited as a river. Meanwhile, the city’s more substantial plan to transform the channel into a living habitat is mired in delays at the federal level.

The Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan, completed in 2007 by the landscape design firm Mia Lehrer + Associates, calls for the removal of most of the concrete and natural habitat restoration around the river. But, as the Architect’s Newspaper‘s Sam Lubell reports, a delay in a feasibility study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stalled this ambitious project, putting everyone’s dreams of a green urban idyll on hold.

The Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan, completed in 2007 by the landscape design firm Mia Lehrer + Associates, calls for the removal of most of the concrete and natural habitat restoration around the river. But, as the Architect’s Newspaper‘s Sam Lubell reports, a delay in a feasibility study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stalled this ambitious project, putting everyone’s dreams of a green urban idyll on hold.


The LA River today. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering.

Before work can proceed, the Corps must assess the flood risks and, counterintuitively, the habitat risks of altering the river’s makeup. (Are we worried that all those algae colonies will die off for want of concrete?) The feasibility study was scheduled to wind up at the end of this year, but six years of bureaucratic snares and funding mishaps have jeopardized that deadline.

Carol Armstrong, director of the Los Angeles River Project Office for the city’s Bureau of Engineering, told the Architect’s Newspaper that she expects the study to drag on because of a lack of support in Washington. "They’d rather add acres to the Everglades instead of changing a concrete channel in LA. It’s a cognitive shift we’re going to have to make," she said.

Next to Florida’s famous wetlands, yes, a concrete ditch doesn’t have much to offer as a natural wonder. But let’s hope the feds realize that a city waterfront—with all the Portlandia-style frolicking and bursts of economic activity that come with it—is ultimately urban good.


Rendering of a revitalized LA River with landscaping and public promenades. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering.


Courtesy of the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering.

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

Lamar Anderson is a San Francisco–based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Architectural Record, ARTnews, the Hairpin, and Salon. All posts »

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