The Los Angeles landscape architecture and design community was surprised by the recent announcement that Frank Gehry is creating a new masterplan for the redevelopment of the 51-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River that runs through the city. Before The Los Angeles Times published the details of the new Gehry-led team, there were no public discussions about this new approach or the selection of the new design team. Also, it’s not clear what will happen to the approved 2007 Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan (LARRMP). The LARRMP, led by engineering firm Tetra Tech, included three landscape architecture firms: Civitas, Mia Lehrer + Associates, and Wenk Associates. The plan is deeply rooted in hydrology and ecology, aims to strengthen communities, and features parks, trails, bridges, public and private facilities, and more. The LARRMP was approved by the Los Angeles City Council and provides a blueprint based in watershed management, as plans move forward.
The LARRMP guided the development of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Los Angeles River Ecosystem Feasibility Study. The study’s ambitious “Alternative 20” plan, which will ecologically restore a 11-mile stretch of the river and improve public access, was unanimously approved by the Corps last month.
Local landscape architecture professionals have voiced concerns with Gehry’s appointment by the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation. In addition to threatening Congressional approval of the Corps’ billion-dollar-plus Alternative 20 plan due to confusion with this new, unclear planning effort, there is concern about:
The Lack of a Public Process
The project’s grand scope means the potential impact on the City of Los Angeles and the eight southern gateway cities to the south is immense. The LARRMP was born out of grassroots efforts and planned with intense community participation. During public outreach, specific projects were identified and championed by the neighborhoods most impacted. Any plan aimed at building on the LARRMP and Alternative 20 must seek public input from the beginning to gain support and assure meaningful outcomes.
The Lack of Transparency
Any project of importance requires a transparent process, regardless of who leads the effort. A transparent process ensures the decisions made, and funding sources dedicated, are clearly communicated and understood. To succeed, the design process must be overseen by all stakeholders and experienced practitioners. The process should include community outreach and well-publicized opportunities for involvement by all, especially local landscape architects who are experienced in local climatic, ecological, and community conditions. Any efforts made in the revitalization of the river should result in new places for public recreation, improved ecology and hydrology, and opportunities for local design professionals.
The nation’s second largest city faces two significant challenges: First, our communities lack significant public open space; and, second, drought conditions and climate change make water management critical to serving our current and future populations. The Los Angeles River can be transformed into green infrastructure that provides solutions to both these challenges.
The Los Angeles River is a dynamic natural system that reacts differently to each ecological and climatic condition and community with which it interacts. Landscape architects are uniquely educated in how to best traverse the nexuses between ecology, community, and design. A green infrastructure project as important as the Los Angeles River revitalization requires an engaged process with design professionals of different experiences and expertise, with knowledge of the unique environmental, social, and political conditions of the Los Angeles River watershed.
Architects such as Frank Gehry can certainly be valuable in this process, but even he admitted he isn’t “a landscape guy” when Mayor Eric Garcetti compared him to famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The Los Angeles River deserves the attention of landscape architects who have experience analyzing and then creating visions for regionally-scaled landscape systems. This kind of experience is needed to build on the work of the 11-mile Alternative 20 plan to address the river’s full 51-mile stretch.
Local landscape architects look forward to seeing the preliminary studies from the Gehry-led team. We ask for a transparent process with plenty of outreach to stakeholders and the community to ensure the foundation of previously-approved work, which reflect the public’s needs, is firmly in place. And we ask for help from our colleagues nationwide to respectfully demonstrate to Mayor Garcetti the important benefits landscape architecture provide to our lives every day.
This guest post is by Duane Border, ASLA, PLA, principal, Duane Border Design, and president-elect, Southern California Chapter ASLA.
Irrespective of the quality of the design — and in a landscape like this LARs are likely to do better than architects — the lack of a public process should be the concern here. Enormous projects like this are expensive, take a long time to build, and must be maintained for decades. Including the public in the design of them — as the LAARMP did —creates an enormous fund of good will that can take the project through all of its difficult phases. Disregarding the public will result in lots of future contention that at the least will delay the project, and, at the worst, will result in it never being completed.
Just too many fingers in the pie!
The LAR corridor, albeit in an urban setting, is a ‘landscape feature.’ Yes, you could say that it is an urban green infrastructure from an environmental engineering perspective, but undaubtly falls in the realm of landscape architecture. I am at a loss as to what Frank Gehry, albeit famous for his avant-garde iconic architecture, can bring to this vast riverscape and open space master plan? Comparing Gehry to Olmsted is, well, should I say it—ignorant!