Apr 11, 2013
THEME: Sustainability

The Los Angeles River: a Second Chance for Positive Impact

The much-maligned Los Angeles River flows 51 miles from its headwaters in the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach, capturing water from an 871-square mile region. Its path through the Los Angeles basin has varied widely throughout history, but in the 1930’s its current course was cemented – literally – by the Army Corps in an attempt to control seasonal flooding of the rapidly developing central city. As we face a growing number of examples of how this type of single-purpose man-made infrastructure ultimately fails to contain major storm events, it makes sense to explore a different approach to managing the River, specifically one that addresses flooding without exacerbating other problems. With this in mind, many Angelenos are actively lobbying for a transformation of our river into a valuable amenity that is integral to the welfare of the city as opposed to a “back-of-house” component of flood control infrastructure.

River-adjacent projects such as the PiggyBack Yard and the adaptive reuse of the historic Lincoln Heights Jail have helped Perkins+Will Los Angeles experience these issues first hand and given us the opportunity to illustrate how holistic sustainable thinking – both environmentally and socially – can enrich a site and a region. The massive PiggyBack Yard vision viewed Hurricane Katrina and other global storm events as a wake-up call to modernize city infrastructure to make it work with natural systems, not against them, while also creating a multivalent urban oasis in the process. On a smaller scale, the Lincoln Heights Jail is envisioned to be a transformative force in the neighborhood and region. It seeks to connect and incubate at multiple levels, with a focus on regenerating resources and sustaining economic and social viability.

Take water, for example. The Lincoln Heights Jail adaptive reuse concept couples program proposals with physical proposals in order to allow for the utilization of on-site water for the majority of its water use needs.  Two on-site loops are put forth: a food loop and a stormwater loop. The food loop showcases leading-edge urban agriculture strategies by combining aquaculture and hydroponic vegetative crop production into a highly sustainable aquaponic system. The stormwater loop begins with collecting water on the jail roof and surrounding site, then funneling it into a storage cistern. Separately, grey water from the domestic lavatories and showers – and potentially also black water from toilet fixtures – is treated in a biofiltration tank before joining the stormwater in the cistern for reuse in toilet fixtures as well as for irrigation of non-edible planting areas.

While these techniques help the Lincoln Heights Jail maximize its on-site water use, Southern California’s low rainfall rates makes this approach to water management an even more high-impact solution. In the long-term, site boundaries for the water system do not end at the property line. The Lincoln Heights Jail envisions itself fitting into a larger watershed framework that incorporates water run-off from surrounding streets, the city water supply, and the Los Angeles River.  For example, in a significant flooding event, a portion of the site is designed as a detention basin to absorb some of the peak river flow. Detained water is then stored to recharge the aquifer, with the possibility of reuse for site and public way irrigation.

While issues of water management are paramount to the design of any environmentally sensitive project, river adjacent projects should be especially proactive in taking advantage of the opportunity to also enable access to the waterfront, provide valuable open space, and support the re-stitching of a neighborhood’s social fabric. As both environmentally and socially regenerative solutions to disturbed ecosystems and blighted built environments, the overall “riverly” visions of projects such as the PiggyBack Yard and the Lincoln Heights Jail is to enable multifaceted natural and cultural growth.

In the end, the revitalization of the river can be argued from many viewpoints, from issues of water conservation to issues of flood control, from issues of social justice to issues of economic development. Why it should happen is obvious. What should happen becomes clearer with every project proposal. In the near future, the key to success will be defining how to effectively engage a multitude of voices in search of a shared solution with a multiplicity of purpose.  We encourage you to share your thoughts below.

This post was co-authored with Shawn Godkin.

  1. Mark Lawrence
    2:17 pm on November 2, 2013 | Reply

    Interested in following status of this project.

  2. Leigh Christy Leigh Christy
    7:38 pm on January 13, 2014 | Reply

    Mark: There are actually several projects up and down the Los Angeles River to follow. Twitter may be the best way to receive regular updates. You can follow me @leighschristy, our client for the Lincoln Heights Jail Reinvention project @larivercorp, or our client for the Piggyback Yard Master Plan project @FoLARtweets.

    Thanks so much for your interest, and go River!

Leave a Reply to Mark Lawrence