“I wanted to see what their work could teach us about the practice of civic visioning, and whether it can be reimagined for a transformative time.”
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was surprised to hear that it has a river. Such is the gulf between the image conjured in my mind by the word “river” and the concrete engineered gulley that is LA’s only natural waterway.
But the LA River won’t remain in its current state for long. The new LA River Master Plan, adopted by the City Council in 2021, sets the intention of turning the river into “51 miles of connected public open space.” This project has implications cutting across a who’s-who of civic issues facing twenty-first-century local governments the world over: flooding and drought, public health, water quality, and affordable housing, to name a few. On December 7, I joined our Fellows as they spent the day with a handful of local luminaries who have contributed to plans for the river’s future. I wanted to see what their work could teach us about the practice of civic visioning, and whether it can be reimagined for a transformative time.
Our day began with USC Professor Alex Robinson at his workshop near the river in the Elysian Valley. Robinson had built an enormous wooden surface to model the landscape surrounding the river, and an augmented reality app through which users could visualize different futures for this physical environment. Demonstrating his tool, he looked through the viewfinder of his iPad at the forty-foot-long plane of lumber. With a few swipes he superimposed different images of the river’s channel and possible buildings, pathways, bridges, and other built environments around it.
Watching Robinson and the Fellows play around with his tool, I was struck by its implications for the idea of “vision.” Used in political or civic contexts, vision usually refers to abstract ideas about the future held by a few prominent community members. With Robinson’s app, a larger number and variety of people could have the means to communicate their vision and inform governance by creating rough drafts of the river’s visual landscape. I was watching our Fellows experiment with a fundamentally new form of civic dialogue and deliberation.
One of Robinson’s pre-demonstration remarks heavily foreshadowed the second part of the day’s outing: a riverside bike ride through the Elysian Valley and into Atwater Village. Commenting on the possible integration of urban and natural spaces in the river’s future, Robinson said that “engineering plus vegetation is so much more interesting than a fully resolved river park.”
We certainly saw plenty of vegetation intermixed with engineering as we cycled along, led by local artist, activist, and business owner Steve Appleton. On this section of the river, the human and the natural blended. The sharp concrete foundation remained; but through it ran a wide braid of water, meandering around a long chain of islands, mud shoals, and rocks. Populating these spontaneous embankments of earth was more life than I’d seen ever before in LA County. Not only trees, grasses, bushes, and ferns; but a lively and chipper community of birds from white egrets and great blue herons to American coots and many others.
During our mid-cycle lunch break, Professor Natale Zappia of Cal State Northridge delivered remarks about his efforts with the master plan and shared a profound insight that gave weighty context to the mix of nature and human spaces we had just seen. From his discussions with Chumash and other indigenous peoples with roots in Southern California about the LA River, he observed that there were many “different levels of indigeneity” to the river and any other space. Hearing this, I thought back to Professor Robinson’s words about engineering and vegetation. Human development and natural landscapes are so frequently held at odds; according to this binary, the most just plan for the river would be to return it to some nonexistent original state. Instead, perhaps the LA River is an opportunity to serve the welfare of humans, other forms of life, and the planetary systems we all rely on at the same time.
“Perhaps the LA River is an opportunity to serve the welfare of humans, other forms of life, and the planetary systems we all rely on at the same time.”
Our day concluded in dialogue with renowned landscape architect and urban designer Mia Lehrer at Studio-MLA, in Pico Gardens. Lehrer is part of the design and environmental team for our Scholars’ Campus project in the Santa Monica Mountains. We were due for a presentation of the many different projects in which she has practiced this kind of inclusive vision for Los Angeles’ future landscape. Lehrer wanted us to see what the river was like in this much denser, more industrial part of Los Angeles. Following her lead, we squeezed through a gap in the fence bordering Studio-MLA’s garden and clambered across twelve functional freight rail tracks to arrive at the river’s edge. Here the LA River took its characteristic form: an enormous concrete channel with a thin zipper of a stream splitting it down the middle.
Back inside the studio, Lehrer took us through her vision for how this image of the river might transform. She showed us architectural renderings featuring riverside cityscapes that were both verdant and functional. Greens and grays were woven together on these overhead-view images, illustrating parks and pathways interspersed with businesses and amenities. All of it designed to cultivate, restore, and enhance the Mediterranean biome of the Los Angeles Basin, with its distinctive flora and fauna. The landscapes looked populated, but not only by humans.
Driving home on the freeway that evening, I felt grateful to be in Los Angeles. The Institute is dedicated to envisioning new kinds of futures. And in addition to its singular power in broadcasting creative vision, Los Angeles’ very landscape can teach us a lot about how to imagine the decades of local and global transformations to come.