A deeper purpose

Sara Catania lives in Silver Lake, teaches journalism at USC and blogs at seehowweare.blogstream.com

Surrounded by freeways and bombarded with billboards, we green-seeking Angelenos take pride in our nature-ish things. East L.A. has Evergreen Cemetery; West L.A. has Venice Beach; Silver Lake has its reservoir. Or had, anyway.

After a rare photochemical reaction created carcinogens in the "lake," the Department of Water and Power pulled the plug, draining its entire 600,000-gallon supply. By the standards of municipal thirst, that's not very much. It wouldn't even satisfy a single day's need. But in terms of land, the space required to hold that water is massive. The reservoir and its environs occupy the equivalent of 96 football fields.

The drainage is temporary. By June, the DWP aims to refill the concrete basin, which at the moment resembles an abandoned quarry. But its drinking-water days are numbered. After more than 100 years, the DWP is phasing out the Silver Lake Reservoir -- and the adjacent, smaller Ivanhoe Reservoir -- to comply with stringent water-safety laws banning the use of uncovered supplies. By 2015, the lake in Silver Lake will exist primarily as eye candy for passersby and the 1,000 or so residents with a view.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Residents should continue to have something lovely to look at, but why should all that prime urban space be buried under ornamental water? Unlike other imperiled urban waterways, such as the L.A. River and the Ballona Wetlands, the reservoir is a fabrication, a hole dug in a prairie to accommodate our water needs -- needs that will soon be met elsewhere.

The end of the reservoir provides us with a rare and potentially brilliant opportunity to rethink the concept of an urban park for the 21st century. Nearly every sizable open space in Los Angeles was designed long ago, for a town of citrus groves and open plains that looks nothing like the city we live in today.

This reservoir-turned-park could offer a model of urban sustainability, continuing to provide sanctuary for urban-adapted wildlife while addressing the neighborhood's pressing human needs. New Yorkers pay astronomical sums for apartments facing the green of Central Park; a new Silver Lake Park could offer a similarly sylvan respite. What if the "lake" -- complete with some islands and wetlands -- were reduced to the size of five football fields, with a chunk of adjacent land fenced off as a sanctuary for birds and other animals? The remaining acreage could intersperse meandering walking paths with groves of Western sycamores, coast live oaks and other native plants.

The park could support a community garden, a neighborhood composting center and cisterns to capture rainwater to keep the grounds green -- a park-sized sustainability project that might inspire visitors to try a thing or two at home.

The will is there. One neighborhood advocacy group has made major strides in landscaping the perimeter of the reservoir, creating tree-lined walking and biking paths. It is on the verge of gaining park status for a six-acre fenced-off area known as the “Meadow.” It took thousands of volunteer hours and years of meetings, studies and contentious negotiations to win those improvements, which were outlined in a reservoir master plan. But now that the DWP is taking its water elsewhere, much more could be done.

A true rethinking can't stop with paths and gardens. As the human population of Los Angeles continues to increase, we need to get creative about melding green space and human space. Imagine low-slung, affordable bungalows skirting the grounds. To forestall an increase in the neighborhood's already horrendous traffic, residents would be barred from owning cars as a condition of occupancy and given access to a few collective cars, available for rent by the hour. A long-overdue DASH shuttle route could provide transport to nearby shopping and subway stations.

This may sound far-fetched; OK, it is far-fetched. But isn't fencing off a massive open space in the middle of the city in desperate need of parkland and housing even more cockamamie?

The people-park idea is not entirely original. One model of such urban faux-nature was created for the city of Copenhagen by architect Bjarke Ingels. His is a swath of garden-topped housing enclosing a succession of soccer fields. The effect is urban hobbit. In Los Angeles, the nonprofit group TreePeople -- a pioneer in recognizing the need to integrate humans and urban nature -- has spearheaded several projects involving the greening of existing homes and schools and is sitting on blueprints for new, sustainable development.

There are, no doubt, urban planners and community activists with other, better ideas about how to use the reservoir space. Let's hear them. The draining of the lake has laid bare a trove of public land that belongs to us all.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday, May 07, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 21 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction Silver Lake Reservoir: An article on Tuesday's Op-Ed page said that the Silver Lake Reservoir was drained of its 600,000 gallons of water. The reservoir contained 600 million gallons of water.
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