Urban Geography: Touring the L.A. River

When taking a geography class, you get to do a lot of fun things, such as go on field trips. For my urban geography class, we went on five and they were not only fun but also eye-opening, showing how the urban landscape is changing and ways to be sustainable. Our first trip was one I’d been looking forward to for months. We visited the Los Angeles River, seeing it all in its many forms from soft bottom to concrete channel. Of course these forms of the river and people’s perceptions of it are what make the river so fascinating.

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Photo by GeoMaster

The Los Angeles River has been a part of the physical and cultural landscape of Los Angeles since its earliest days. It’s the very reason people settled in the area and how they continued to not only thrive but also grow into today’s extensive Los Angeles City. Despite its initial importance as a water source, the river’s level of importance and usefulness has changed with the changing attitudes of the people that live in its vicinity. A great deal of debate about the function of the river and the alternating views of the river, even the view that there is no such thing as the Los Angeles River, have led to today’s current blend of the Los Angeles River as a flood channel and as a river in need of being brought back to life.

Photos by GeoMaster

The fieldtrip showed me multiple features of the river and what can be done to it to change people’s perceptions of it. At the first stop, North Atwater Park, I got to view the river in its more naturalized state. There it has a soft bottom bed because of the high water table, which did not allow for concrete to be put in. This has made this section of the river more attractive to the community, creating a desire to build things like North Atwater Park. This community-based effort led to a park that does more than provide green space for the people. Its creation stems from multiple desires to improve the environment and create a place for society to play and relax.  There is also a chance you might see some “river cats” there.

Photos by GeoMaster

An article from the LA Stormwater contained information about how the creek was “forgotten” and deposited polluted water into the Los Angeles River. The restoration of the creek helps to recharge the groundwater and filter storm runoff by removing pollutants that would otherwise flow to the ocean. Other features such as nets to catch trash and permeable parking spots also contribute to sustainability. Funding for this park, resulting from two lawsuits concerning violations of the Clean Water Act, shows how politics, society and the environment play important roles in establishing how and why some things are revitalized and others are not.

When visiting other locations along the river, such as the concrete portions farther south, I saw how such different notions of the Los Angeles River can be accepted. I was able to understand why some might have such difficulty in seeing the river as anything more than a flood control channel or just a sewage drain. These areas certainly did seem to invoke a sense of abandonment, danger and anti-nature at first glance. In class we read an article from Reinventing Los Angeles, talking about how the Los Angeles River has become transformed within our culture and media when seen through the eyes of Hollywood films. What I no longer agree with after viewing the river in person is the thought that it can only be a place of negative images. In fact, I found beauty in the river even in its concrete form and I saw the possibilities for how it could be made more sustainable.

Photos by GeoMaster

The historic bridges that span the width of the Los Angeles River are also a part of this beauty and show how society has changed from one that walked to one that drives everywhere. This was evidenced by the extended areas on one bridge that allowed people to view the river better. This also shows how people’s perceptions of the river were different. It was not completely disassociated with its river status at the time. However, today these bridges appear as derelict as the river itself, but hopefully that might change with such measures as the decision to rebuild one bridge due to earthquake safety concerns. This reinvention of the bridge could help bring more awareness to the river and what it could be besides a flood control channel. The downside is the loss of a piece of history and what some might say was a better looking bridge.

Photos by GeoMaster

The history of the Los Angeles River has never been an easy and simple one. Politics, society, nature and culture continue to intertwine, centered on the ever-changing but always vital Los Angeles River. It is not just a river or a flood channel but part of the culture and landscape of Los Angeles, regardless of opinions to the contrary. The river is one of the central reasons Los Angeles exists today. Failure to recognize that is for Angeleos to fail to know key historical facts about their city and its cultural heritage. Just imagine how much different California and even the world might have become with no Los Angeles.

There are also several organizations working to return the L.A. River to a more natural state. Check out these sites for more information: Greenway 2020 and 2020 IPA.

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Photo by GeoMaster

Note: The majority of this post comes from a paper I wrote for the class dated March 18, 2014.

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