Gussy up that trash-strewn concrete cesspool

PHILIP ENQUIST is a partner in Urban Design at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago. CRAIG WEBB is a partner at Frank O. Gehry Partners in Los Angeles.

FOR THE SHEER POSSIBILITIES of renewing dead-ended neighborhoods, opening fenced-off Mars-scapes and providing immense environmental, cultural and recreational benefits, few projects in the world match the potential of an ecology-minded and people-centric revitalization of the Los Angeles River.

Consider those “once-in-a-century” urban waterside projects that have defined the character and fabric of so many of the world’s great cities. Daniel Burnham’s Downtown Chicago Plan, which celebrates its centenial in 2008, transformed Chicago’s lakeshore into one of America’s most architecturally beloved and recreationally rich downtown districts.

In a similar way, the 1910 City Beautiful Plan helped Orlando, Fla., retain its downtown lakeside heart, and it gave the city an ongoing unity of architectural purpose. More recently, Tempe’s Town Lake development in Arizona, Chattanooga’s Riverfront District in Tennessee, San Antonio’s River Walk in Texas, Hartford’s Adriaen’s Landing in Connecticut, Shanghai’s Huangpu River redevelopment and similar plans have helped open decaying waterfronts to enlivening and civically healing uses, including the reconnection of fractured streets and isolated neighborhoods.


Truth in advertising: Our firms took part in a 2005 request for proposals to transform 32 miles of the L.A. River into what would be a multipurpose linear greenway running virtually the entire length of the city. Our proposal wasn’t chosen. We were, however, so taken by the project’s potential to serve as a grand civic unifier that we want to add our voices to those arguing that, with a balance of advanced engineering and imaginative planning, the L.A. River can be of comparable civic worth to, say, New York’s Central Park, Chicago’s Grant Park or Washington’s Rock Creek Park.

G.J. Griffith’s 1896 gift of 3,000 acres to Los Angeles included not only what is today’s Griffith Park but also five miles of riverside acreage for creation of a grand riverfront park. It is now mostly freeway. And most of the Los Angeles River and its tributaries are nature-taming concrete storm drains, sites that have become iconic symbols of a man-made wasteland. As you travel down the river, there are stretches that are little more than repositories for discarded auto tires or backdrops for filmic car chases.

Thanks, however, are due to groups such as the Friends of the Los Angeles River, California Native Plant Society and Unpave L.A., whose creative proposals, educational programs and pilot cleanup and replanting efforts are all working toward a comprehensive, long-term program on the scale and scope of Chicago’s Burnham Plan.

The overall L.A. River project is going to be a complex undertaking that will, like the Chicago plan, take most of a century to complete. Over time, it will need to include the “regreening” of dozens of miles of riverbank with native trees, grasses and shrubs, as well as the building of new types of user-friendly riverbanks. These thousands of new acres of green will enable the city to do its part to retard global warming.

Alongside the river or, perhaps as some plans have suggested, elevated above it, jogging, biking and skating paths would connect the entire length of the project. This would enable bicyclists to travel between Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles at speeds comparable to or faster than today’s auto commute. Interspersed along this green thoroughfare would be mixed-use developments, schools, museums, art installations and cultural centers. These elements are critical to strengthening the connection between the river and the communities that now coexist so uneasily alongside.

In Burbank, for example, the Walt Disney Co. has built its Imagineering headquarters virtually up to the riverside’s fencing.

Imagine if Disney was encouraged to integrate a campus into the newly planted and landscaped banks of a revivified section of the river. Even in its most industrial stretches, structures such as the beaux-arts 4th Street and Macy Street bridges stand as monuments that, if properly integrated, could become beckoning gateways to new riverfront communities.

It is probably inherent in human DNA to seek out and be near the water. This would explain why, along the banks of the Los Angeles River, the fences that wall off streets in Encino, Sherman Oaks and Frogtown have been cut open and graffitied in an ad hoc attempt to reconnect both with the river and nearby neighborhoods.

Art projects such as the “LA Rivercats” painted on storm-drain covers north of Los Feliz are also part of the natural desire by Angelenos to reclaim their river for themselves and posterity. These examples of riverine folk art are signals that innovative new programs need to be put into place to revivify and regenerate the L.A. River, transforming it from a concrete water slide into an ecological watercourse that ties together Los Angeles in a lush ribbon of green.

Los Angeles elected a new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, in part because of his eloquent vision of what the city can become. What better way to begin fulfilling that vision than through planning to make the L.A. River a civic asset and a global model for how a city can reclaim its open space and its heritage.