Visual Histories of the Los Angeles River: the Past and Envisioned Futures

[This post is part of The Infrastructural City blogiscussion – Chapter 2: Flood Control Freakology]

[An aerial view of Los Angeles and its River taken from a balloon around 1887.]

“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)]

[An earlier conception of the ‘freakology’ of the L.A. River as experienced in 1914…]

[…and again in 1934, thus initiating the US Army Corps of Engineer’s Flood control channelization of the river]

[Perspective and sectional diagram of the flood control strategy (1938)  “Sketch shows systems that prevent floods”.]

[Construction of the steel reinforced concrete channels in the late 1930s, similar flood control infrastructures built in multiple cities in the western U.S. around that time]

[“men work  24 hours a day to complete project”]

[Gazing upon the technological engineering of the infrastructural city, including the water channel, steel bridge, railway lines, electrical towers and gasholders.]

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:

[“Existing conditions, trapezoidal section at Canoga Park. (2006)”]

[“Near-term improvements illustrate “greening” the concrete with a trail, native vines, and natural area.”]

[“Long-term improvements modify the channel to restore riparian habitat and provide terraced access.  Rubber dams could be installed to allow water to be pooled in certain locations.”]

“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.”

[“Imagine, a boatable secondary Los Angeles River channel.”]

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)


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rob Holmes. Rob Holmes said: F.A.D. provides a quick visual history of the Los Angeles River | #mammothbook […]

  2. Couldn’t agree more about the renderings looking remarkably antiseptic and the citizenry incredibly white-bread (granted, those are my words). It is impossible to take this seriously, to be honest, which is too bad because I found the essay excellent. The renderings are disingenuous and it probably undermines the designer’s authority in the eyes of constituents. Enough of the rant.

    Thank you for getting into the history, specifically when the river became channelized. Once Mulholland’s aqueducts started bringing water from elsewhere and the LA River was only a problem, not a resource, in the collective consciousness, it became a lot easier to stigmatize it and make it a non-place in the city.

    So the timeline is something like (per Fletcher’s essay and your history):
    up to 1915- river needed for agriculture/drinking water/recreation, also caused problems with flooding
    1915-1930’s- river is largely superfluous, still causes flooding problems
    1930’s-now- river is channelized, flooding no longer a problem, becomes a non-place in the city
    Future- LA can no longer shoot that wastewater into the ocean, river becomes important again (somehow)

  3. There is definitely nothing lo-fi or dirty urbanism about the proposals. Although i was very taken with the project initially. Plus, if it could be focused more towards transportation and other performative (as opposed to purely recreational which mainly just raises property values) than i still think the idea has some value.

    However, that being said Fletcher’s piece does raise serious questions in my mind about basic issues like is there enough water to support such visions. Moreover, in the interim CA’s budgetary issues also raise doubts re: likelihood of implementation. Making a lo-fi, experimental approach more important in my mind.

  4. Having singled out the perspective renderings from the LA River Revitalization master Plan (LARRMP) for scrutiny in this post may have been a little misleading of the document as a whole, or perhaps those last couple of paragraphs in this post were a little too thin. My intention is not to bash it generally, as I do think there is a lot of quality physical planning work in the LARRMP and it’s worth looking at. And rather than attributing the ‘clean’ narrative to Fletcher or anyone else in particular (there were several landscape architecture firms involved and a huge number of other people and organizations), my intention is to emphasize how the visual (ecological) narrative gets influenced by the political and bureaucratic forces or ecologies controlling the river (and the LARRMP) which Fletcher mentions at the outset of the chapter. For a similar comparison, the perspective renderings produced for the Fresh Kills competition (also managed by large, political entities) could be scrutinized for their notable cleanliness.
    It’s meta and political, but significant how subjective the renderings and narratives of urban ecologies currently are and how they are used, which Fletcher was getting at (and also guilty of) with a bit of intended hyperbole.

  5. […] F.A.D.’s “Visual Histories of the Los Angeles River: Past and Envisioned Futures” curates images of the L.A. River’s history, and offers a critique of the official Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, […]

  6. “….CA’s budgetary issues also raise doubts re: likelihood of implementation. Making a lo-fi, experimental approach more important in my mind.”

    Totally. I think that type of ‘lo-fi’ pragmatism is what Fletcher is arguing for and is going to be required for L.A.’s problems and elsewhere.

  7. I agree. I think fletcher’s essay is spot-on and brings up good points from insightful observations.

    The renderings are generic and disingenuous (which I’ve ranted about before) and seem to actually push for or allude to a bucolic interpretation of a weird and interesting place. I wonder if this comes from a need to reflect community expectations of the place- make it a nice area for me and my kids. And that in turn is influenced by what has been done elsewhere. Of course, the designers could also be the ones pushing this (or likely some combination of both designers and community expectations) based on other previous “successful” precedents in other cities, etc.

    From looking over the masterplan, did you guys get a sense of this one way or the other?

  8. Well it has been a couple of years since i looked at the plan, when it first came out.

    First it seemed very conceptual. Less master plan and more vision statement/or marketing plan? At least not in the sense of here is something we are actually going to do. More a here is a plan to sell. Which almost makes it more depressing re: the form it took. Well, let me clarify not depressing but non-surprising that they went the way they did. Plus, i really do think it was probably less community input expectations (although LA has a pretty good history of community based planning) and more the input from consultants, designers and developers. I really do think developers and property values is a key angle. Or just property ownership as Fletcher points out the channelization allowed for development right up to water’s edge. That and projects from the early 2000s like High Line and Orange Park which were all about selling the pretty image/object.

    Not to slag it off too much though. I mean would i be psyched by the idea of a green corridor running through LA. Of course.

  9. I just downloaded the plan to re-read/skim.

    I think my above comments are born out. You’ll notice for example (and i thought i remembered this) that a significant amount of housing/real estate development issues/concepts are proposed or considered as part of plan. It isn’t just about making more public, green space.

    One also wonders about the difference between many of the photos/examples of current site/neighborhood conditions vs the new proposed re-vitalized segments of the river.

    There is certainly a more shiny and gentrified feel to the whole post fix image than what exists now. Seems like a significant component of plan is almost a blight clean up program. And not just exclusively re: the actual river/water quality/ecological issues.

  10. I thought this interview with Kathryn Gustafson
    Particularly this quote
    Our public parks and landscapes are now so programmed to make money. They have become commercial ventures rather than civic foundations.

  11. Thanks for the link to the Gustafson interview – a great tie in to this discussion. I also think your critique of the LA River plan is valid, as revenue, or the “selling” of the landscape (to borrow from Gustafson) is indeed an integral component of the plan. I guess I have come to expect that as a requisite given. The High Line’s parallel to all of this (nostalgic industrial ecology, selling of selective occupations of the design, gentrification etc.) is noteworthy.

    So can we do ‘civic’ landscape without intentionally co-opting it to generate revenue, particularly at this scale?

  12. It’s fascinating to see the juxtaposition of the river before and during its original reconstruction with the plans to “restore” it. It really brings home how little rehabilitated habitats resemble their original states. We really need to lose this bucolic tendency in environmentalism – it’s not as though many environmentalists other than Ed Abbey would want the LA River to return to its original flood-and-trickle nature!

  13. namhenderson · ·

    Not sure how but I would like to think so. Perhaps, one could differentiate between the crafting narrative approach outlined by Kate Orloff and Faslanyc and the selling it approach?
    Gustafson also seems to think it’s possible though i am not sure if any of her firms work is exemplary of that not selling approach…

  14. I agree with Brett about the example of the High Line. I consider it the apex of an approach whose time has (hopefully) come and gone.

    Gustafson is notable, and that quote is good. And her biased opinion aside (she designs amazing, and expensive, civic spaces, and so I’m sure wants more of them to be constructed) it brings up a question about the definition of “civic space”. In my mind, not all public spaces are or should be civic spaces.

    from my perspective, civic spaces are where large crowds gather and our shared social values find their ultimate expression. And to be quite honest, in the last 30 years, in an increasingly divided and heterogenous society, one of the few things we came together on was consuming things- experiences and goods. (I realize those are sweeping generalizations, but there is some truth there). Even our cultural spaces became about consuming an experience.

  15. Agreed. So that dominant consumer ‘ecology’ or cultural paradigm and the political and economic systems in place to support it are defining aspects of contemporary practice. Thus its hard to focus the critique at the institutionally based LARRMP because it is a logical outgrowth of those larger ecologies that are slower to change and adapt. That’s why I think we see the contrast between the way Fletcher’s narrative reads vs. the revitalization plan. In one the author is forced to operate within the dominant narrative, in the other he is getting the chance to operate in another, which leads to very different outcomes. It circles back to lo-fi landscapes and our research for productive alternative practices. If you work within the system, how else do you do it? Outside the system…? Speaking of which, did anyone catch the Greenaid seed bomb installation on the LA River that Fletcher and Common Studio put in place recently?

  16. […] given that we’re talking about the Los Angeles River, lo-fi landscape interventions, and that Brett Milligan brought it up again, it’s probably worth taking a moment to mention the Greenaid seedbomb vending machines. […]

  17. I like some of the concepts shown, but I think it would be interesting/beneficial to show these same renderings under flood conditions. When that thing is running at full capacity, those nice little gardens in the river are going to be ripped to shreds and littered with street trash accumulated in the gutters over months. And I’m sure the citizenry will insist on swift cleanups to get these areas back in order, which I think would be no small task.
    I rather like the idea shown above (aerial color illustration with the curved water falls and train running at the lower right) where they make a separate lake area outside of the path of the river, diverting water from the river into a separate lake area, then back to the river again. This seems more controllable, as they can likely close the gates to/from the river during flood conditions to prevent the river’s flood waters from ravaging the lake area, and preventing large post-flood maintenance for the city.

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