I recently had the privilege of interviewing Michael Atkins with the Friends of the Los Angeles River, or FOLAR. I wanted to learn more about the importance of green space in an urban setting, especially after realizing how much redlining has dictated parks and trees in LA.
Most of the year, there is what amounts to a trickle of water moving through the concrete channel we Angelenos reduced the river to. And while I’d always think of the LA River for the racing scene in “Grease” or those epic chases in “Terminator,” the river is profoundly more than that. Michael covered so many facets of the river, I realized there was no way to sum it up into one article. Instead, here’s the first portion of our conversation.
FOLAR is an environmental nonprofit which has been active for over thirty years, and their work is based on the notion that we can have a green revival and inclusive open space along the fifty-one miles the Los Angeles River charts. There is no one true path of this river, unlike the Mississippi, Delaware or Hudson Rivers. Over time it has shifted and snaked along routes that would look foreign to us today. The Arroyo Seco – Spanish for “Dry Creek” – is its main contributor, and the first highway in the nation, the Arroyo Seco Parkway (aka the 110 Highway), tracks immediately aside this tributary’s path.
The river’s watershed intersects mountains which shape its unique, present-day course. These ranges are among the fastest growing in the world, something which makes a lot of sense when you contemplate our earthquakes. This growth in turn causes the river to experience even higher elevation changes than the Mississippi River.
Rich sediment from these mountains was deposited into the area’s valleys by way of the river; it’s how our soil became so rich and could support such abundant agriculture. It also means that most of the city was built directly in conflict with the river doing what it wants to do naturally – hit the flatlands starting around Downtown LA, and then race as widely and quickly as it can towards the Pacific Ocean. No surprise, it’s precisely this geographic recipe which led engineers in the 1900s to seek complete control of the river in order to keep floodplains from being, well, flooded.
Counterintuitive though it might seem, LA is one of thirty-five United Nations-recognized biodiversity hotspots around the world. We have a mix of plant and animal species which can only exist here, and we are important waypoints on the migratory paths of a number of birds, butterflies, and other animals who pass through the city.
Taken together, the Los Angeles River represents a whopping 900 sq. mi. of watershed and it efficiently moves water from the Valley to the ocean in about 60 – 90 minutes. Combine this with the roughly 2,000 miles of County-controlled storm drains underneath our streets and you can get something to the Pacific faster through our waterways than by driving there yourself. Being connected this way essentially made our LA River the world’s greatest storm drain. It’s also meant that the LA Fire Department has, by necessity, become one of the world’s premier units for swift water rescues. They even helped Houston as its high-velocity floodwaters swept through in the aftermath of strong hurricanes.
All of this to say, the very banal and bizarrely Martian landscape of the Los Angeles River is a false pretense. Millions of people look at the river today and see nothing much at all, unaware of the geologic majesty this river represents. It, like much of what our environments used to be, has been trampled into a strange submission. But it is eons more than that. The key to learning from our predecessors is understanding how we thought about our priorities while tamping the river down. We must rethink our assumptions if we’re to actually (re)build the world and environment we say we want.
Let’s challenge ourselves to think critically about our assumptions,
Natalie & the MagicLinks Team
PS Stay tuned for Part 2 in about two weeks.