Taking Back the River: Los Angeles Seeks to Revive the LA River

Los Angeles is the second most populous city in the United States. Boasting a city population of 3.8 million and a metropolitan area of over 13 million, the city is well know for its importance in film, entertainment, and tourism. Along with the city’s population and attraction comes a heavy environmental burden that L.A. is slowly addressing. Los Angeles is considered one of the heaviest polluted cities in America. It was ranked third by CNN for the worst air pollution, with Bakersfield and Fresno in the lead.


The Los Angeles River. Photo by Mark Boster, L.A. Times, July 28, 2010.

Los Angeles’ pollution isn’t only airborne. The city’s pollution can also be seen on the ground with large amounts of trash being collected by the ton each year. One of the natural systems that have played an important roll in the city’s development throughout history is the Los Angeles River. The Los Angeles River flows approximately 51 miles beginning in the San Fernando Valley and ending at Queens Way Bay, ultimately the Pacific Ocean. It is a main tributary to the Queens Way Bay in South Beach and a main outlet for the many water systems within the Greater Los Angeles Area. The river flows through Los Angeles and 13 smaller districts within the area, carrying trash and debris through as it meanders southward. A report from the city of Long Beach estimated that an average of 6,000 tons of trash and debris are collected from the Queen’s Way Bay per year. It was also estimated that 95% of the debris comes from the LA river, a system a part of a vast watershed that stretches through most of the greater Los Angeles area. The pollution is said to have cost Long Beach $2.2 million annually.

Historically, the river has served a major purpose in the development and the growth of Los Angeles. In the city’s, early stages of development, the Spanish and Native Americans used the river for transportation and communication. The river’s importance as a corridor for transportation grew as industry and population increased in the 19th and 20th century. However, as Los Angeles began to expand, the city began to interfere with the river’s floodplain, resulting in major flooding within the city. After three devastating floods occurred in the city, the US Army Corps of Engineers along with the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, decided to convert the river into a concrete channel, allowing the water to flow out of the direction of the city. Industry began to develop along the river over time, eventually isolating the river from the public. The river became an eyesore, collecting trash and ultimately emptying it into the ocean.


The Los Angeles River Master Plan revitalization rendering. Image via TheLARiver.com.

However in the last few decades, there is an effort to revitalize the river and to create green spaces. In 1996, the board of supervisors for the County of Los Angeles created the L.A. River Master Plan. This plan was later adopted in 2002. Since the plan’s conception, the city as well as conservationists and state parks have facilitated the creation of new green open spaces along the river corridor, one of them being the Historic Park located at the Cornfields and the Rio De Los Angeles State Park at Taylor Yard. Many nonprofit groups, including the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), Tree People, North East Trees, The River Project, the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, the Trust for Public Land, and others have aided in the restoration of the river through educating the surrounding communities and institutions about the restoration project. In 2002 an Ad Hoc Committee for the project was approved and established to further develop the goals of the master plan through coordinating with community stakeholders on major revitalization efforts. They were also responsible for implementing policies, coordinating studies and plans on the river, and providing public outreach to the surrounding communities affected by the revitalization project. The plan overall would be a 25-50 year blue print to create a variety of improvements along the river with the goal of achieving a bold milestone for the city of Los Angeles.


This portion of the Los Angeles River is an icon in entertainment. Image via Walking In L.A.

Today the efforts of the LARRM are still active. After the efforts to revitalize the river were made to the public, tremendous efforts from architects, designers, and engineers have been made to restore the river and to provide access to the river from neighboring communities. The L.A. River Revitalization Corporation, a non-profit geared towards furthering the development of the LARRM, is working on several projects for the initiative. One of the projects includes a new bridge connecting two newly created parks via bicycle and pedestrian walkways across the river. Another project includes The L.A. River Greenway 2020, which is a plan to build a 51-mile bike path along the L.A. River by the year 2020. Today 26.2 miles currently exists. The development process for the river is ongoing and continues to manage and create new projects to restore vitality to the river and the surrounding communities. Today the efforts to clean the river have created some major changes. More projects for bigger green spaces, bike paths, and pedestrian pathways are either under construction or in the developing stages. Slowly but surely, the L.A. river is changing for the better and improving the lives of residence of Los Angeles one project at a time.

Feature Image: Los Angeles River leading into downtown. Image via the L.A. Times.

About The Author

Originally from the rural suburbs of Maryland, Jonathan Terrell Midgett has always had a curiosity for urban life. His exposure to city life in the areas of Richmond, Washington D.C and Baltimore, would later lead him to travel throughout his college career. Jonathan began studying at Virginia Commonwealth University and then later transferred to Towson University where he would gain his Bachelors of Science in Metropolitan Studies. While studying at Towson, Jonathan studied urban design in Denmark at the Danish Institute for Studies Abroad. Currently, Jonathan is a freelance photographer and is enrolled in the Graduate Architecture program at Morgan State. He continues to express his love for urbanism and sustainable design through academics, Research, and freelance photography.