[This post is part of The Infrastructural City blogiscussion – Chapter 2: Flood Control Freakology]
“Historically, as the river flooded and meandered across the floodplain, the watershed boundary redefined itself. Originally the river ran through a broad alluvial floodplain, the result of meandering dendritic flows that constantly redefined and disturbed the landscape and its ecologies…as late as 1872 a coast guard survey shows a continuous series of tidal estuaries, lagoons, mudflats and salt marshes from the mouth of the Los Angeles River east to the San Gabriel River.” -Fletcher
David Fletcher’s Flood Control Freakology chapter of The Infrastructural City provides a vivid documentation of the LA River as it exists today. It also demonstrates the agency of narrative in both the physical and conceptual construction of urban ecology. The following consists of images of the river’s past as well as imagined scenarios of its future as part of unpacking ‘freakologies’ in the quest for expanded narratives of the urban watershed.
[Extensive farming along the river around 1900. See the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan for what this landscape looks like today (p. 17)]
The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan that Fletcher mentions near the end of the chapter offers views of what a more diverse and programmatically rich L.A. river might look like in the future. The revitalization is approached through studies of opportunity areas along the existing river for redesign by cutting, splicing and widening the existing channel geometry, producing a hybrid system of what used to be and the concrete channel that is there now:
“To ensure that improvements can be made in the near-term, the Plan proposes a phased, “top down” approach for ecological restoration projects that would construct water quality terraces, natural areas that provide habitat, overlooks, and pathway connections. These features can be introduced with minimal changes to the existing channel configuration. Over the long-term, as funding is made available to increase channel capacity and reduce flow velocities, the channel section might be modified further to reintroduce a functional riparian corridor in the channel bottom. The intent to install long-term improvements without having to fully replace near-term improvements is facilitated by working top-down. The Plan recommends an adaptive management approach to phasing, implementing this top-down approach in selected pilot or demonstration sites, and evaluating and incorporating what is learned about guidelines for restoration in future efforts.”
“For the six decades since the River was paved, it has been treated as an unwelcome guest in many neighborhoods…A major element of reconnecting neighborhoods to the Los Angeles River is the transformation of the River Corridor into a continuous River Greenway that functions as the ‘green spine’ of the City.”
These renderings appear remarkably clean. The river’s unique assemblage of hybrid freakologies and cultural subnatures seem to have migrated somewhere else in this future (as we see a remarkably presentable and law-abiding entourage of citizens), nor is there any L.A. moss anywhere, or images of the requisite infrastructure to manage it (which as Fletcher alludes to, contributes heavily to a much larger, and perhaps more freakish off-site constructed biome). If Fletcher was in full control of these renderings they might look a little differently, perhaps suggesting the political and economic ecologies at play in design presentation conventions, and explaining the contrast in tone of Fletcher’s chapter to elements of the LA River Revitalization Plan. Then there’s the question of how to describe, or narrate that otherness. As mammoth touched on in their post, Freakologies might not be the best way to describe the modified systems of the LA River, “given both the naturally-negative connotations of the term and the degree to which hybridized natural-infrastructural ecologies have become the norm in urbanized areas.”
The tension between the bucolic and the totally constructed is the central theme of the chapter, and more broadly, of tensions in design practice related to contemporary interpretations of ecology. It’s remarkable how diverse these interpretations are and the degree to which it effects the approach. As much as we might scoff at the naive advocating for a return to a pristine, L.A. river (impossible), future generations might also look back on current tendencies to fetishize industrial ruins and curious instances of odd ecologies associated with more broadly destructive industrial processes with irony, given the potential futures we might soon encounter from their less visible degenerative legacies. We think the answer lies somewhere in a diverse middle rather than in either stance, because too much of one or the other leads to a certain design exclusion, rather that the more inclusive hybrid Fletcher is advocating for. But in general the diversity of narratives seems to be beneficial, as wide-ranging perspectives on mutant, post-industrial native/non-native and endangered ecologies (i.e. the emergent study of urban ecology) hopefully suggests exploratory and productive hyperbole along a spectrum of continued investigation.
(All black and white photographs and associated quotes are courtesy of the Los Angeles public library photo archives. All renderings and associated quotes are pulled from the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan)