February 1, 2002 - From the February, 2002 issue

L.A. River Studio Builds Upon & Advances A Crusade To Reclaim A Neglected Regional Asset

For quite some time, the L.A. River has been nothing more than a concrete lined drainage basin, filled with litter and the occasional shopping cart. However, if you can look past that, you can see an urban river with the possibility of bringing life and open space back to the urban core. In hopes of rekindling that movement a studio at the Harvard Graduate School of Design undertook the revitalization of the river as its project. TPR was pleased to talk to three members of the team--Kathleen Bullard, Lewis MacAdams and Prof. George Hargreaves--in hopes of visualizing the students' proposal and the future of the river.

Let's begin by giving our readers some background into what inspired the L.A. River Studio. Who are the authors of the idea? What inspired the studio?

Kathleen Bullard
Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy

The L.A. River Studio was truly a meeting of the minds, people and agencies working together to develop a new vision for the L.A. River.

Basically what happened was Lewis MacAdams and Mia Lehrer approached Joe Edmiston with the idea of using the L.A. River as a venue to invite a Harvard Landscape Architecture Studio to do a design charette. Joe thought that was a great idea, found some funding through a number of planning and design grants and directed his staff to make sure it happened.

And what made this project interesting to Harvard? Why did this project pique your interest? And what about the L.A. River's potential caught the graduate students' imagination?

George Hargreaves
Harvard Graduate School of Design

I've done several studios that involved water bodies and polluted or derelict industrial land and I firmly believe that if we can resuscitate them and truly make them integral parts of the inner city again, then we can foster a rebirth of the urban cores. These types of experiments are some of the most valuable work that can be done in landscape architecture today.

I believe that the students are of the same mindset. Many of them are interested in reclaiming landscapes and the issues that that reclamation brings. And nowhere is that type of project more important than in a metropolitan area like Los Angeles. These students had the choice to go to Milan or even China to work on park projects, they chose L.A., that says a lot about this particular area and the importance of the linkage between the urban fabric and the river.

And FoLAR's role in sponsoring the studio. What did you hope would come from such an exploration?

Lewis MacAdams
Friends of the Los Angeles River

Over the past five or ten years there has been a lot of talk about the reclamation of the L.A. River. What I was looking for in this experience was to really take another step towards that reclamation and begin to show Angelenos what the future of the most unattractive and inaccessible part of the L.A. River might look like.

William Carlos Williams said, "A new world is a new mind." And I wanted to begin to forward that new mindset, that new image of parkland and a restored riverfront to the people of this city.

But, this is just the first step in a long-term process which should involve the entire Los Angeles basin. As we begin to go deeper into this, as we begin to flesh out this vision, we must also begin to form a coalition and build political strategies so that these wonderful designs can be refined and truly implemented.

Let's focus again on the students and the studio. The educative process for a studio project like this is an iterative one. Students typically begin the program assignment by creating assumptions and then work through optional design solutions. Give us a sense of the iterative processes that these students progressed through as they prepared for their final presentation here in Los Angeles.

George Hargreaves

Because of all the factors involved-be they environmental, social, political, etc.-we began researching this project as really "a blind person trying to understand an elephant." We did that for about three or four weeks to get a general understanding of the project and then began to make assumptions.

We made assumptions about water flow, land use characteristics and railroad movement. From those hypotheses we began to create connective strategies and begin to really flesh out the character of the place. That aspect requires a lot of give and take. Some ideas work, some don't. But just the fact that we experimented with a bevy of ideas leads to intriguing and creative design possibilities.

After all that, what we found was that aesthetics played the most important factor in the design. And I'm not talking about visuals, I'm talking about sustainability-the way it feels, looks and lives. And that is what drove our final plan.

Being located in Massachusetts and along the Charles River, Harvard students might be presumed to have East Coast prejudices about Los Angeles. How, if this is true, were they able to break through such sterotypes and embrace the challenge that this river presents to metropolitan L.A.?

George Hargreaves

The Charles River is a dammed river. From that perspective it's difficult to point your finger at the L.A. River simply because it's channelized. Both municipalities have manipulated our rivers.


Another reason is that the composition of the Studio is not mired in the East Coast bias that you speak of. I am from San Francisco and the students have lived much of their formative years in places ranging from Oregon to Colorado to China and even Japan.

As a class, they approached this with a very open mind. They are very smart people. They don't come with a lot of prejudice against L.A. And in fact, L.A. seemed to hold a high level of fascination to them because of the immense diversity of its culture. To them, this was a project where they were simply able to free a river from its current tomb.

There was interaction between the Studio and local proponents of this riparian area. And of course there were site visits. What was that interaction like as they began to hone in and get a sense of the challenges that this particular river presents?

Kathleen Bullard

There are a few things that strike you when you initially see the river. Foremost is the fact that the L.A. River-in contrast to projects like the Glendale Narrows-is completely channelized. It is completed encased, not merely by an enormous amount of concrete, but by freeways, rail lines and an entire history of industrial development. It's not merely a river trapped in a concrete channel, it's really a channel trapped by an entire city. That was one of the facts that the students realized during their exploration.

The other was that-while the Conservancy and even the Dept. of Public Works were excellent in briefing the students and being a true catalyst for change-not all agencies are behind this type of exploration. And as Lewis eluded to earlier, that political hurdle is something that must be overcome if this project is to continue to evolve.

Let's return to the students' work product. What should our readers take from their final report?

Lewis MacAdams

The key lesson is that there is an enormous amount of opportunity here. This project provides the opportunity for the City to begin to envision the river as an active recreational zone, as a way to provide needed open space and as a way of prioritizing this region's biodiversity.

This project really offers the City a way of progressing on issues of community development and sustainability. If designed correctly, this channel could be a new mechanism, not merely to provide open space and aid in runoff, but truly begin to address the dire need of L.A. to increase its water cleansing venues and replenish its aquifer.

Finally it's important to realize this is a long-term project. It will take time to see it to completion. And because of that, we must begin to think of implementation strategies. As has been stated above, we will need a strategy to get everyone onboard and supportive of this project. I believe this Studio goes a long way toward formalizing some of that support.

As the proponents of revitalizing the L.A. River know, implementation of the studio's recommendations won't be easy. Give us a sense of how this report contributes to realizing the sponsors' dreams.

George Hargreaves

This particular project isn't being done in a vacuum. At the very same time that we were examining the L.A. River, so was the University of Pennsylvania as well as all nine architecture and design schools in L.A. This study is just a piece of a much larger community interest in the Los Angeles River project through downtown. And that collaboration has built a strong foundation for the subsequent steps necessary to implement a new vision for the L.A. River.

Kathleen Bullard

This type of exercise begins to give you a roadmap of which parcels are really important and which are crucial to the end-result of a naturalized, integrated L.A. River. And as this process begins to gain momentum, what begins to happen is that you reduce these ideas to a site-specific basis.

We don't want to continue making the same mistakes that L.A. is known for. We can no longer do things on an ad hoc and piecemeal basis. Sites must be integrated and they must be used to create a sense of community and scale. So finding those individually important parcels, purchasing them and turning them into parks is the next step.

Lewis MacAdams

There has been an acknowledgment that the Los Angeles River is emblematic of many things that have gone wrong with river management all over the United States. And because of that, the restoration of this corridor is not only a local issue, but a national one as well. That fact has only been further codified through the findings of this Studio.

This Studio was the first step in bringing people together and beginning a process that should help this river evolve and shape the future of how the city, the state and even the federal government deal with these kind of resource issues.


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