A River Runs Through Los Angeles

Written by Scott Kratz

The Los Angeles River is more often associated as a backdrop for post-apocalyptic film scenes than a home for urban wildlife, but plans are underway to turn this 51 mile concrete infrastructure into a series of parks that has the potential to unite a long fractured city.

During a recent trip to Los Angeles, I walked along the river’s banks to see what we can learn as we build the 11th Street Bridge Park. Just north of downtown, I strolled along the LA River bike trail through the neighborhoods of Frogtown, Atwater and into Griffith Park. In this section of the river, the bed is earthen due to a high water table. Nature demonstrate just how resilient she can be as willow trees, oaks and reeds stubbornly push upward creating habitats for white egrets, blue herons and even fish stirring in shallow eddies. These hidden urban oases showcase the potential for turning the river into a desperately needed 51 mile string of parks from Canoga Park to Long Beach where the river joins the Pacific Ocean. The Army Corps of Engineers recently recommended a $453 million plan to restore native habitat along the river. The city is working with a number of non-profit groups including Friends of the LA River to realize this ambitious plan. During my stroll, I was reminded of three lessons common to many great public spaces.

Use Public Art to Create Unique Spaces – I began my tour at Red Car Park, home to unused bridge piers that once supported the famed LA streetcars. It reminded me of the old piers of the 11th Street freeway bridge that will soon become the foundation for our Bridge Park. Talented painter Michael Escamilla created a stunning large scale mural of the old Red Cars that not only makes a striking image, but also transports visitors back in time. Back here in D.C., we are working with the Capitol Riverfront BID to explore installing large scale public art along the Navy Yard wall showcasing the rich history of the region. These art interventions will also help to connect the Capitol Hill communities with the Anacostia River.

Provide Visible and Attractive Entrances – The LA River is surrounded by numerous freeways, busy surface streets, power lines and even train tracks. Over the last several decades, the city, state and surrounding industrial businesses have created numerous barriers to accessing the river’s banks (sound familiar to the Anacostia River?) Providing beautiful and visible entrances to the river walk like this large metal gate by local artist Michael Amescua signals to visitors where to go. Similarly at the Bridge Park, we are working with the Anacostia Arts Center to create large scale murals under the 295 Good Hope Road underpass to reconnect the nearby historic Anacostia neighborhoods to the river.

Activate the Space with Temporary Interventions! While strolling further downstream, I ran across “Frog Spot” located along the Elysian Valley river bike path. During summer months, this new and simple space provides a launching point for kayak trips, bike rides, community gatherings and even weekly music concerts.  Friends of the LA River staff offer poetry readings, yoga classes and food service (tacos and beer along the river anyone?) at this scenic and sweet little spot. This inspired me to think about our second annual Anacostia River Festival in partnership with the National Park Service that will bring thousands of residents down to the Bridge Park site.

We continue to learn so much from our park peers around the country as we build our new D.C. civic space. And as a former resident of Los Angeles many years ago, it’s wonderful to see residents and tourists alike discover this hidden natural treasure. Very soon, this Southern California infrastructure will be ready for its own close up.