Interview with Mark Rios on Los Angeles’ Ambitious Sustainability Plan

Mark Rios, FASLA / Jim Simmons

Mark Rios, FASLA, FAIA, is founding principal, and architect and landscape architect at Rios Clementi Hale Studios in Los Angeles.

This interview was conducted at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles.

In 2015, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti launched the city’s ambitious 20-year sustainability plan, which calls for increasing water conservation, generating renewable energy, achieving zero waste, investing in mass transit, and revitalizing the Los Angeles River watershed. Two years later, the city has already made great progress, but some of the big goals seem perhaps out of reach. For example, one is to reduce the urban heat island effect more than any other city in the U.S. — three degrees just within two decades. Currently, Los Angeles is about 40 percent rooftops and 20 percent roads. A new cool roof ordinance requires reflective roofs on new development and there are also tests underway to create cool pavement. The city also has goals to increase the tree canopy, and 18,000 trees were planted in 2016. Do you think these strategies are enough?

Our mayor is pretty incredible with his ability to articulate a road map towards being more sustainable. For a long time, landscape architects have been the voice for being thoughtful about water, drainage, and stormwater runoff. We’re happy to hear our political system is now actually enforcing, documenting, and requiring measures to manage water and fight the urban heat island effect. We can be strong advocates, but it’s sometimes hard to convince our clients of something that is more expensive. Now developers are being asked to step up to the table through enforceable obligations. As a community, landscape architects are happy about these efforts and really support the Mayor’s road map.

Los Angeles has already reduced per capita water use by 20 percent, meeting the 2017 goals. Eventual goal is 25 percent by 2035. In the city’s green building code, there are now water budgets for landscape irrigation, new incentives to remove turf in favor of residential gardens, and free recycled water deliveries for landscape use, along with millions for green street projects. Do these water goals go far enough? What else could be done?

This is a tough question for Los Angeles, because we always talk about the physical landscape, but the cultural landscape is also important. The whole dream of the backyard and the lawn is part of our culture. It’s really a culture that was described in the ‘50s and ‘60s through movies. In Hollywood, everybody had a front yard and backyard. The lawn was the default landscape.

We’ve made great progress to collectively redefine what the aspirational landscape is — it may no longer be a lawn and palm tree. It may be the beauty of the Santa Monica Mountains. Our native landscape has this inherent appropriateness and generates an emotional connection. We have been working really hard to replace the lawn. And if we can achieve that, it will be a huge step towards achieving these ambitious water goals. We’ve been irrigating grass for the last 50 years. We really need to change cultural expectations.

By 2035, L.A. seeks to add more transit infrastructure than any other city. The city seeks to pair this infrastructure with transit-oriented development. The plan calls for expanding zoning capacity and key transit nodes. How do you see progress going on that front?

Everybody in L.A. is really excited about this plan. We just moved our office to the Expo line. We’re right at the Crenshaw Station stop, and the Crenshaw Station is going to be the line that links LAX, our airport, with LACMA and Hollywood.

Rios Clementi Hale Studio’s offices along Exposition are adjacent to the Expo line, just steps from the station where the Expo light rail line will intersect with the forthcoming Crenshaw line / Jim Simmons

L.A. has been really behind in public transportation. Everyone is excited about the multiple new lines being built. We don’t have enough mass transit. Transit oriented developments are certainly going to change the face of the city, because they include higher-density floor area ratios (FARs), which help support new village neighborhoods. These developments will make the city more walkable and livable, because people will have these mini-centers around each station.

Looking ahead to 2035, the potential change created by autonomous or driverless vehicles is just wild. I went to a event sponsored by the Mayor’s office, where I was so proud to hear them conducting research on how our city form could change if we maximize transportation systems with driverless cars. Some of the predictions and studies on how L.A. could change are really astounding. We’re talking about maybe taking one freeway lane offline or creating green spaces by potentially eliminating a road lane. Can we transform them into greenways? Can we decommission parking lots because we don’t have much need for cars to be parked for eight hours while somebody is at work? Autonomous vehicles will change the character of Los Angeles.

By 2035, Los Angeles also wants all trips made by walking, biking, or transit to be 50 percent, up from 26 percent today. Measure M, a ballot measure that passed with 70 percent of the vote, will use a half-penny tax to raise $120 billion over the next 40 years for mass transit and bikeway projects. Los Angeles also launched a regional integrated bike share system plan and has set up more than 65 stations and a thousand bikes. Do you think this vision will come together? Will Angelenos bike share to the subway? Will the complete street infrastructure be there? I’ve heard there are neighborhoods that still don’t have sidewalks, let alone bike lanes.

There is great potential to achieve these goals. The basic urban form of Los Angeles are these village centers. We have a very disperse urban pattern. If you look at Boston and other cities, there’s a symmetrical layout, a center city with suburbs. We have a dozen or two dozen village communities between downtown and the West Side. As people are encouraged to use bikes and walk more, the village form of land use will help realize that.

The city also wants to ensure that 75 percent of Angelenos live within half a mile of a park by 2035. The past seven years the city has added more than 35 parks covering 16,000 acres, including your firm’s Grand Park downtown, which brought much-needed green space. Is the city on track for this ambitious goal? Does the 50 Parks L.A. Initiative, which assists underserved communities, have enough funds? How can the city ensure everyone benefits equally?

Los Angeles has a disparity in terms of where parks are located. There are some well-served communities and some underserved ones.

Grand Park, downtown Los Angeles / Wikipedia
Grand Park, downtown Los Angeles / Happenings in DTLA

East L.A. and South Central do not have the kind of park density that they do in the Valley or other locations. It’s really hard for the city to acquire new land and buy space for parks. The problem is if you have a park desert, how do you find space there?

There have been examples of decommissioning public space and having communities take over ownership, at least as far as park development. For example, weird pieces of land next to freeways and other kinds of public spaces can be decommissioned and given to community groups. It’s a way of creating parks in neighborhoods without empty spaces.

There are also ambitious efforts underway with the L.A. River, and the plan Mayor Garcetti calls restoring 11 miles of the river, making accessible all 32 miles in the city by 2035. What do you want to see happen? How can the city ensure the revitalization doesn’t create a new High Line and become an agent of gentrification?

The L.A. River is on everybody’s mind. People have been working passionately on it for a long time. The first goal is to make it a great circulation system for biking and moving through these different regions. Any new projects along the river have to build in bike lanes and pedestrian walkways along the river. What’s important right now is zoning that allows for greater density along the river. If we can create more dense villages along the L.A. River, then we’ll see a built-in park system for these villages and good connective tissue besides the roadway network.

The transformation of the former Lincoln Heights Jail and surrounding area would create the Lincoln Heights Makers District, an area anchored around the Los Angeles River and the historic complex, using the river frontage to create a broad promenade that stitches together new and historic buildings with the river / rendering by Kilograph, courtesy Rios Clementi Hale Studios

There’s a whole contigency who wants to return the L.A. River to a natural form, a landscaped waterway. In some places, it may be possible and still maintain the flood capacity, but I don’t think it needs to be done everywhere. I look at the land art movement. They had very architectural spaces that were really beautiful to experience. We need a whole series of solutions over the course of the river that also address the hydrological issue of maintaining the flood protection system. It doesn’t need to be all the same.

Gentrification is a big problem. Think of all the residential communities around the L.A. River that are going to suffer, because it has historically been viewed as an industrial landscape. Now, it’s going to transform into this positive, landscape-driven set of places. All the communities currently around it may be pushed out, so how we mandate keeping existing people in place through affordable options is going to be essential.

With your firm’s work at the Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico, your firm has demonstrated its commitment to sustainable design. The project was an early Sustainable SITES™ Initiative (SITES®) pilot project. So looking big picture, how can a sustainable, ecological landscape approach like you demonstrated in that project be applied to Los Angeles? What would an ecological Los Angeles in 2035 look like?

The most important thing that we learned with the Domenici project and the SITES® program is the critical need for documentation and ongoing monitoring, so you can really understand how a landscape is performing seasonally and over time. If we remove lawns and instead use native plants across the city, it’s going to cut down on irrigation.

The Pete V. Domenici Federal Courthouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The site employs the ancient tradition of harvesting rainwater for irrigation by using a system based on Pueblo drainage canals called acequias. / Robert Reck

Landscape architects need to become more proficient at quantifying every drop of water and being able to predict how new landscapes will perform. It’s our responsibility to go back and monitor landscapes, so that we have a database and can understand how water is being used.

What We Can Learn from Hollywood’s Iconic Landscapes

Griffith observatory, Los Angeles / ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting

Film makers and landscape architects may ask themselves the same question: “How can we make a landscape iconic?” Movies can make places magical, imbuing them with deeper meaning. Landscape architects can shape the contours of a place, heightening the impact. In a session at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting, Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, explored the dynamics of iconic Hollywood landscapes and what designers can learn from them.

Like landscape architects, film makers “start with the program first — in this case, the script.” As location scouts hunt for the perfect places to tell their story, they “measure everything on site, and note where the sun and moon are, where north is; what the noise levels are; they observe everything.”

In crafting a place, film makers may also take away elements of a landscape to achieve a facsimile of the era of the film. “They engage in urban removal, painting over street striping, putting up a barrier to hide glass towers, fixing things up.”

Some landscapes in Los Angeles are iconic because they are so flexible and open to interpretation. For example, Griffith Park, the largest urban park in the country, is “filmed every day.” The park, home to the famous observatory filmed in Rebel Without a Cause, has been featured in a diverse shows and movies, such as the original Batman TV series, StarTrek, Star Wars, The Searchers, and dozens of other classic films.

Bat cave in Griffith Park / Meetup

LA LA Land, which almost won an Oscar for best picture, itself plays tribute to Griffith park and its observatory.

LA LA Land / Daily Dot

But Sullivan wondered what exactly makes an iconic landscape, and how can they be designed. “Why are some so important that film lovers will make a pilgrimage to the site? How can we make a timeless landscape?”

Sullivan described how parts of Scotland are now overrun with Outlander fans, and New Zealand capitalized on Lord of the Rings mania by creating a real Hobbiton that draws tourists from around the globe. “There’s now a hobbit hotel you can stay in, so you can live like how they live in the film.”

Hobbitton / Hobbitton tours

At King’s Cross train station in London, Harry Potter super-fans now wait in line for hours to have their photograph taken on the fake platform 9 3/4. “They are there all day and night. What does that mean???”

Harry Potter platform at King’s Cross station / The Independent

Sullivan joked that these destination landscapes for movie pilgrims may offer the foundation of a contemporary religion. And if so, “how do we get people to go to our landscapes and chant?”

In iconic film landscapes, Sullivan sees some common design elements, which can be translated into real-world landscape architecture:

“Contrast is a powerful design tool — moving from big to little, macro to micro.”

“Make focal points distinctive and fantastic.”

“Manipulate perspective, use radical curves.”

“Organic forms are ideal.”

“Everyone is into dreamscapes. There should be strangeness and fear and then compression and release.”

And clearly inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Paterson, which is about a poet who is bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, Sullivan said: “It’s about place — the genus loci. Find the poetry around us every day.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 16 – 31)

WATG’s Green Block Proposal / WATG

For the First Time, MacArthur Foundation Has Given ‘Genius’ Award to a Landscape ArchitectThe Washington Post, 10/18/17
“The New York landscape architect Kate Orff, 45, grew up in Crofton, Md., a place she remembers as the type of suburban community built around the automobile and molded on the tenacious idea that the lifeblood of modern settlement is oil.”

Cleanup Begins in NYC’s Most Polluted Waterway Next City, 10/18/17
“Now, a long-anticipated cleanup has finally begun. Preliminary dredging began the first week of October, and the full project is anticipated to cost around $500 million, the Architect’s Newspaper reports.”

Greenspace Takes Over London with WATG’s ‘Green Block’ Proposal Arch Daily, 10/25/17
“London Mayor Sadiq Khan proposed the challenge — how does London become a designated National Park City– and WATG, London-based landscape team, headed by Demet Karaoglu, accepted the challenge.”

Memorializing Tragedy in an Era of Constant Mass AssaultsCityLab, 10/24/17
“July 22, 2011, still stands as the bloodiest day in Norway’s history since World War II. Twin attacks that day, first a bomb in Oslo and then, two hours later, a gun massacre on the island of Utøya, claimed 77 lives.”

Instead of Fighting Sea Level Rise, This Town Is Embracing ItSlate, 10/27/17
“Five years after Hurricane Sandy, Staten Island’s Tottenville community is trying something different.”

Lawrence Halprin’s L.A. Projects Star in Landscape Architecture Symposium This Weekend Architect’s Newspaper, 10/30/17
“The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) will be holding a day-long symposium on November 4 at the Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles in conjunction with the opening of The Landscape Architecture of Lawrence Halprin, a photographic exhibition based on Halprin’s body of work.”

New Technologies Promise to Upend the Design Process

A spectrum of new augmented, virtual, and mixed-reality technologies promise to fundamentally change how landscape architects and designers plan, design, collaborate, construct, and manage projects. At the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, Matthew Wilkins, ASLA, KTU+A Planning and Landscape Architecture; David Leonard, ASLA, Parsons; and Ryan Deane, ASLA, the Slam Collaborative argued that of all these new technologies, perhaps mixed-reality technologies, like the HoloLens, may have the greatest potential to change how designers work.

Augmented reality (AR) comprises technologies that layer location-based data on existing reality. Pokemon Go, the popular game that had thousands out searching their neighborhood for pikachus, is a prime example. Virtual reality (VR) is an “immersive interaction” using 360 video, explained Leonard. 360 videos can take the form of games, animations, or videos of the real world.

In contrast, mixed reality, or hybrid reality, is about “merging virtual and real worlds so you can interact with the world in real-time.” This technology enables a landscape architect to don glasses and create a SketchUp model overlaid on the scene they are looking at in real time, all with the swipe of their hands or pinch of their fingers. Other designers nearby or on the other side of the globe can join in and collaborate as well.

According to Leonard, “creating a hologram of a design on-site is where things are going. The technology won’t stop until that happens.” He also warned that “other professions will dominate this technology fast if landscape architects don’t get on board.”

Within these virtual worlds, landscape architects can appear as avatars, working together or with engineers or construction managers to “create SketchUp models, make changes to design parameters, or solve issues.” Working together in a virtual model, “they can get a sense of the size and scale of objects.”

Leonard noted that the HoloLens is still “first generation, with a limited field of view. It’s like looking at a little pane, so it’s not fully immersive at this point.” Magic Leap, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s new media company, is expected to take mixed-reality up a notch, given they’ve already raised $1.9 billion in funding.

Leonard went through many of the leading hardware and software options for AR, VR, and mixed reality, but noted “these technologies are just now coming out of their infancy.”

On the software front, Leonard discussed the benefits and drawbacks of AR Media for augmented reality, which costs $300 and uses geo-reference tracking technology so you can mark designs and data in real-world locations.

For virtual reality, he then discussed Lumen RT, which is “integrated into a lot of software and offers moderately-high-end quality, with a plant factory that enables you to make your own plants;” Fuzor 2018, which is “widely used in the construction and design industry, very powerful, and allows you to do ‘drag and drop rendering'”; Revit Live, which is “easy to navigate but doesn’t offer animations of designs”; and Autodesk 3DS Max, which offers “superior rendering, but is challenging to work with.”

For mixed-reality, Leonard mentioned SketchUp for HoloLens.

On the hardware front, for virtual reality, there’s Google cardboard glasses, which are cheap but have major latency issues that can cause fatigue; Samsung Gear VR, which cost around $100 and offers much better quality than the cardboard lens; Oculus Rift, which goes for $399 and is “very high quality;” HTC Vive, which is similar to Oculus Rift; and the just-announced Oculus Go, which will have a “high-resolution LCD screen and no cables or phones — the video will be accessed via WiFi.”

As for bringing these technologies into a design studio, Deane called for “assuming the start-up costs internally — don’t charge clients for this.” But then, moving forward, these technologies can be used to “reassure clients.” And, of course, firm CFOs will say “don’t do it for free.”

Wilkins demonstrated how KTU+A is already using these technologies, creating models, which are then rendered in virtual reality. As part of engagement, community groups are now reviewing proposals using headsets before they are designed and built.

It’s Time to Measure the Performance of Landscapes

Coast Guard headquarters, Washington, D.C. / GSA

How can landscape architects ensure the spaces they design perform they way they were intended? Landscape architects need site commissioning to accurately determine the performance and impact of their designs.

Site commissioning is the process by which performance standards are established, then measured and verified overtime. The topic has been gaining traction within the field and was the focus of a discussion at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles put together by Jose Alminana, FASLA, principal at Andropogon Associates; Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director of landscape architecture at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA); Lauren Mandel, ASLA, landscape architect and integrated researcher at Andropogon; and Maureen Alonso, regional horticulturalist with the U.S. GSA National Capital.

The discussion comes on the heels of a comprehensive new report released this summer by the GSA with Andropogon that makes the case for site commissioning. 

“This is something long overdue — it’s a logical follow up to the kinds of values and capacity we expect to obtain from the work that we do — the impact our profession can really have on the systems on which we all depend,” Alminana said.

Currently, buildings are analyzed and commissioned to ensure the quality and function of a project. “Landscapes, if they are going to play that kind of role, also need to be commissioned,” Alminana said. “But it gets complicated, because its not about moving parts and on and off switches. It’s about life, and life that is always evolving and changing.”

Site commissioning pushes the integration of building systems and site systems and establishes a role for the landscape architect early on in the project. Alminana said designers need to first define the goals and objectives of the project and the standards they are trying to meet. The expected environmental and economic benefits of a landscape project need to be clear, and there needs to be metrics to measure performance in achieving those benefits.

“There has been, over the past few decades, an interest in developing site-responsive projects, but there is less definitive knowledge as to what we are actually achieving, how we set our goals, and how we factor processes into broader project delivery methods in design and construction,” Gabriel said.

“The time has come to reinvest in our own processes,” he said, adding that site commissioning could result in a paradigm shift in the field, “and a return to landscape as prime method for conceptualizing new opportunities.”

Mandel explained the process of developing the report, which included learning from case studies of commissioned projects or those with robust site monitoring. One example is the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts by Reed Hilderbrand, which commissioned a complex hydrological system.

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Clark Art Institute, Reed Hilderbrand / Tucker Bair

“Site commissioning offers strong triple bottom-line benefits,” she said, listing social benefits, like worker productivity; environmental benefits, like stormwater management; as well as financial benefits, like fewer construction errors.

“What we also learned in our research is these benefits are intertwined,” Mandel said. “So when you start to pull out these benefits, like efficient site management, what also gets pulled in is stormwater management and wildlife habitat.”

Alonso underscored a critical need for a continuous management within the site commissioning process to ensure performance and maintenance of the landscape. Project turnover is another instance where communication and management continuity are crucial.

Alonso said metrics the GSA gathers on projects “make the business case for landscapes we are building.”

How 3 Cities Are Addressing Homelessness

Homeless encampment in San Francisco / Broke Ass Stuart

Over a half of a million people in the United States are homeless. In major cities, homelessness is on the rise, due in part to increasing rent costs and a lack of affordable housing.

Officials and landscape architects addressing homelessness in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver shared insights and lessons learned from their cities in a discussion at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. Panelists included Scott Gilmore, deputy executive director of Denver parks and planning; Joe Salaices, city of Los Angeles department of recreation and parks; and Guneet Anand, ASLA, SITELAB urban studio. 

“You’re not going to end homeless,” Gilmore said. “There’s always been homelessness, and there will always be homelessness.”

“It can be a very daunting task,” he said about addressing the issue. “But I have hope. There are positive actions to be taken.”

Gilmore noted a series of initiatives in Denver, like the Denver Day Works program, which provides work experience in parks and public spaces for people experiencing homelessness. Gilmore says the program has been an effective recruitment tool for full-time employment with the city. The program also offers storage units for homeless individuals to keep their belongings while they access social or healthcare services.

Storage locker in Denver / Colorado Public Radio

“People think when you’re homeless you might be a drop out from high school or you don’t have everything together,” he said. “About 25 percent of these people are college educated. That gives you a sense that anybody in this room making the wrong step, or just having bad things happen, can be homeless at anytime.”

In Los Angeles County, homelessness jumped 23 percent last year. Salacies says that trend will likely continue, given the area’s expensive housing market. “We have situations where people become homeless because they miss a paycheck or two.”

Salaices said Los Angeles is working to collect data on the city’s homeless population.

“By collecting data we are able to go back and use it for budget services,” he said. “Without the numbers, the justification to share with elected officials, we’re never going to get the budget and money to improve our situation.”

In San Francisco, the leading cause of new homelessness is eviction. “Even though 44 percent of the homeless population does have a job they are not able to afford homes,” Guneet said.

She explained how SITELAB urban studio has been working with Lava Mae, which repurposes old buses into showers and toilets to serve homeless populations in San Francisco. Together, they developed the Lava Mae popup care village, which explores how the design of public space can better serve vulnerable populations.

SITELAB with Lava Mae Pop Up Care Village / Image courtesy SITELAB

“Care is the most important when you’re doing work that relates to the homeless, ” she said, adding that we are “sometimes desensitized because it is so present in our cities. We often walk past encampments and don’t think twice about what we can change or what we can do differently.”

Brie Hensold, ASLA, a principal at Sasaki and moderator of the session, noted a common thread between each of the cities is an effort to listen to the individuals and build relationship with the homeless communities, pointing to examples where “key individuals in the homeless population have become ambassadors and problem solvers.”

One such instance is found Gladys Park in Los Angeles, which has a large homeless population.

Gladys Park / City of Los Angeles

“A couple of the individuals started taking charge,” said Salaices. He added that the city has started hiring these people to help with maintaining spaces like the restrooms and grounds within the park.

Using Film to Tell the Story of a Sustainable Future

Solar landscape / Huffington Post

“Principles of sustainability have to be at the center, not at the margins of design,” according filmmaker and eco-activist Shalini Kantayya, particularly in our era of dramatic population growth and resource scarcity. “Sustainability can no longer be a thing of the privilege, but something that is accessible to all sectors of society and the masses.”

She spoke at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles about her films, which explore efforts to bring clean water to all and the global transition to clean energy. 

Her films demonstrate the power of storytelling in inciting positive change. “The stories we tell as a culture have the power to shape the future,” Kantayya said.

She began with a clip from, A Drop of Life, her film about two women, on opposite sides of the world, and their access to water.

Kantayya used the film to underscore the fact that global potable water scarcity is an increasingly dire situation. Today, more than 2 billion people lack access to clean and safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization.

“80 percent of illnesses in the developing world are due to water-related illnesses,” she said. “There are just no borders on this crisis.”

Kantayya pointed to the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico where millions of American citizens are still without electricity, healthcare, and clean water a month after Hurricane Maria hit the island.

“This is a failure of a story. That somehow we have failed to frame this story as an American crisis, that this is happening to our fellow citizens,” she said.

In light of the lack of environmental leadership at the federal level, states, cities and communities can act to advance a more sustainable future. 

Her film Catching the Sun is about the global transition to a clean energy economy. She tells stories of people working in the solar industry to illustrate the economic, social, and environmental impact of the movement.

Globally, the transition is moving rapidly ahead. China is the leader in solar with over 43 gigawatts of solar capacity, compared to the United States capacity of just over 27 gigawatts. 

“You have seen China, in the last ten years, move from the factory of the world to the clean tech laboratory of the world,” she said, adding that the United States needs to better capitalize on this movement.

“What we need is smart policy, decisive leadership, and visionary landscape architecture that bring sustainable solutions into public spaces and to scale,” Kantayya said.

Visions of a Renewed Los Angeles River (Part 1)

Los Angeles River / City of Los Angeles

Over the past decade, the Los Angeles River has become a source of excitement, inspiration, and concern for residents, city officials, and planners and landscape architects as renewed attention is being paid to its revitalization.

At the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, Barbara Romero, deputy mayor of city services for Los Angeles; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder and president of Studio-MLA; and Teresa Villegas, office of Los Angeles County supervisor Hilda L. Solis offered background on the river and planning and design efforts already underway.

Historically, the Los Angeles River, a 51-mile stretch of waterway, served as a vital water source for agriculture, but its constantly-changing course led to massive flooding that killed 115 people in 1938; and its unpredictability hindered development. By the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers began channelizing the river, encasing it in concrete.

As a result, today, “the river resembles a freeway more than a waterway,” said Frances Anderton, host of DnA and moderator of the panel. 

The river is at the center of complex jurisdictional overlays, with a number of organizations and agencies, like the city of Los Angeles, the county department of public works, and the Army Corps of Engineers, to name a few, sharing responsibility over its maintenance and future plans.

Thirty-two miles of the river falls within the boundaries of the city of Los Angeles. Romero explained how the city is working to implement their 2007 master plan, focusing on reconnecting people, particularly in adjacent neighborhoods, to the river.

“The scale of this is enormous,” Romero said, underscoring the jurisdictional complexity of the revitalization efforts. Within the existing master plan there are 240 projects that incorporated community engagement, representing some $500 million in investment.

Romero pointed to the city’s collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers to restore ecological function and public access to an 11-mile portion of the river. Within this segment is Taylor Yard, a 42-acre parcel, purchased in March from Union Pacific Railroad Company for $60 million. Work is underway with Studio-MLA and WSP to make it a public park, after cleaning up the contaminated brownfield site.

Taylor Yard G2 project / City of Los Angeles

“If we’re really going to revitalize the river; if we’re really going to change the course of the river; if we’re really going to look at this ambitious plan, we needed to get this parcel into public ownership,” Romero said, referring to how acquiring Taylor Yard fit into the city’s revitalization plans.

Lehrer and her studio is designing public spaces in Taylor Yard, which is at mile 25, almost half way down the river. Her design studio is also situated on the river, and its revitalization has been a “passion project” of hers for three decades.

Lehrer said there is an opportunity to connect neighborhoods to the river while addressing environmental concerns like soil contamination and incorporating green infrastructure and creating new wildlife habitat. Lehrer also said there is an opportunity to use the river to create green infrastructure projects that recharge groundwater and get more water down into underlying aquifers.

“We think it’s good these 51-miles of infrastructure were kept away from any other kind of development. It has become an opportunity to bring the communities together to address environmental ills.” She added that “we want it to be resilient, inclusive, and an inspiration for Los Angeles.”

Villegas is coordinating revitalization efforts at the county scale. “We will be dusting off the old plan, opening it up, and adding to it,” she said, referring to the county’s master plan, which was last updated in 1996. They have created a stakeholder group of about 40 people.

The group is focused on the southern portion of the Los Angeles river. A park needs assessment completed last year showed a critical lack of access to green space. “We know we need additional park space in the lower Los Angeles River because it is densely populated.”

Revitalization efforts will coincide with the city’s preparation to host the 2028 summer Olympics. Romero said the major event can serve as a framework to invest resources. “This is not about bringing the world here for two weeks — it’s about reframing the discussion we want to have in our city,” she said.

Visions of a Renewed Los Angeles River (Part 2)

CalEnviroScreen of Los Angeles River area / LA River Index

As revitalization efforts reach a new stage on major sections of the Los Angeles River, including the creation of a new park at Taylor Yard, an old railroad station, a team of architects, landscape architects, and civil engineers are building off of the approved 2007 Los Angeles River revitalization master plan and 1996 county master plan guiding city, county, and Army Corps of Engineers work. The team comprised of Gehry Partners, OLIN, and Geosyntec  — who are now working “pro-bono” and claim to have volunteered $3 million in time — is undertaking a multi-year, “data-driven” research effort to better understand the trade-offs involved in greening the concrete culverts that now define the Los Angeles River in much of its 51-mile span. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the non-profit River LA, formerly known as the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, have lent support to Gehry’s new planning effort.

At a session at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, civil engineer Mark Hanna, Geosyntec, explained that the Los Angeles River is highly variable in its outflow, which makes it dangerous. In 2007, some 48,000 acre feet of water flowed out of the mouth of the river, while just two earlier, there had been 950,000 acre feet. “The variation is extreme.”

Along the course of the channelized river, there are different zones designed by the Army Corps of Engineers to move water rapidly through or hold it. “The channel morphs — there are culverts and also reservoirs. There are narrow box culverts and wider trapezoidal ones. There is a ‘soft bottom reach.’ And then the river widens out as it reaches the estuary by the sea.”

However, Hanna cautioned, even with all the engineering, there are still flood risks. The Los Angeles River was originally channeled because it used to meander and spread wide across the flat flood plain, damaging properties and even claiming more than a hundred lives. The current system has been designed to handle the 100-year storm in most parts, but there are still around 3,300 homes at risk if that level of storm hits the city.

While there are plans underway to return more ecological function to the river zone, there are more calls to make the actual concrete culverts green. “There’s 2,000 acres of open space that is now hot and unwelcoming.”

The problem is any greenery added to the culverts “create friction and therefore slows water down.” Hanna said replacing all the culverts with natural systems would in turn require widening the river by five times, an impossibility given communities now line the concrete channel. Greening the culverts without widening could then in effect create a major flood risk.

“Just adding trees to the banks would reduce flood capacity by 60 percent; turf, grasses and shrubs along the bottom of the culvert would reduce by 45 percent; just grasses, 25 percent; trees in the middle band alone, 20 percent; and grass along the middle stretch, 5 percent,” explained Hanna.

For Richard Jackson, former head of environmental health for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and professor at University of California at Los Angeles, adding more green is the goal, but not at the cost of future flood deaths. Still, he wants to see a revitalized river become a positive change agent, instead of a contributor to health problems, as it is now.

Using California’s EnviroScreen, a tool he helped develop, he found those communities “most at risk of severe health problems are near the river.” High levels of asthma and obesity are co-located along the river because many of the communities near the river lack parks, access to healthy foods, and are also near pollutant-spewing highways and freeways.

Richard Roark, ASLA, a partner at landscape architecture firm OLIN, also wants to see a new Los Angeles River creating a healthy environment for both people and wildlife. “If restoring the ecological function of the Los Angeles River costs $100 million a mile, at a total cost of $5 billion, think about what it could be preventing in terms of healthcare costs.” Indeed, Jackson estimated the total public health costs of a poor environment in Los Angeles to be around $25 billion.

Roark called for using “designed ecologies” to improve the quality of life for the communities near the river, by creating fresh air and cleaner water and wildlife habitat. But he cautioned that “we can’t think about restoring the river to its original form; we can’t free it. Within the urban matrix, we have to control it.” Roark also called for a green infrastructure network in the neighborhoods surrounding the river and its primary tributaries.

When landscape architects in the audience questioned why the team didn’t look more closely at distributed options that could make greening the entire river a viable option — including more upland green infrastructure, including reforestation; using structural soils to slow down and store water; or building underground channels to convey water — Hanna cautioned that the models show these systems would help with regular storm events, but not the 100 year storm the culverts are designed to handle.

Still, many of the landscape architects called for much bolder thinking and a renewed effort, given the LA River now functions as “a giant urinal.”

View the team’s full analysis at LA River Index.

Solutions for the Affordable Housing Crisis

Ministry of Housing infrastructure development program / Parsons

“Housing is where jobs go to sleep at night. Affordable housing is where essential jobs go to sleep at night,” explained David Smith, CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. The farther apart a home is from a workplace, “the more stress” is placed on the transportation system. As essential workers are forced to look farther and farther from the urban core for affordable housing, they reinforce patterns of sprawl, increase traffic, and reduce economic efficiency, not through any fault of their own. A few solutions, according to the panel, are building new affordable housing in smaller lots and through more “moderately-dense” infill development.

As the world urbanizes, particularly the developing world, meeting the housing needs of rapidly-growing urban populations has become increasingly difficult. According to Smith, almost every city in the world is now experiencing an affordable housing crisis. This is reflected in the fact that “every fast-growing city has a slum.” Those slums tend to formalize over time, but their appearance reflects a housing marketplace out of synch — they reflect a community that can’t give essential workers jobs near their employer.

Smith defined affordable housing as “quality accommodations affordable to a target population, secure in tenure, affordable over a duration that operate independently as a business.”

Interestingly, the challenges facing seemingly vastly-different regions are similar. In the case of southern California and Saudi Arabia, for example, both “fetishize horizontal growth; are infatuated with car-based transportation; depend on immigrant or expatriate workers, but don’t acknowledge them; underuse verticality; and demonstrate a massive cultural resistance to affordable housing.”

Looking at Saudi Arabia, landscape architect Charles Ware, ASLA, explained how “development patterns are sprawling, wasteful, and alienating.” Beyond the 9 million temporary workers brought in from South Asia, who must live in basic dormitory conditions, some 85 percent of Saudis “can’t afford basic housing.” But amid great social change, a growing youth population is “demanding a better quality of life.”

According to Ware, estimates run from half a million to two million fewer homes than what is needed. Land development costs are high, so there are low financial returns for developers. And it’s difficult for them to access finance. “Saudi Arabia is in trouble.”

To address these problems, King Abdullah, who passed away two years ago, created a national strategy of economic diversification, with affordable housing as a central component of a sustainable future path. For Ware, this means smaller lots than what Saudis are currently accustomed to, which would use less water, energy, and land.

Working on a Parsons-led project with the Saudi Ministry of Housing, David Keenan, City Lights Design Alliance, explained how the kingdom is undertaking the development of 500,000 new housing units, set in brand-new sustainable, compact, walkable mixed-use communities. These communities feature “smaller lot sizes, reduced street sizes, and smaller public spaces.”

Delving into the details of Parson’s project in Dammam, found in eastern Saudi Arabia, landscape architect David Carlson, ASLA, detailed walkable 300-meter-radius clusters centered around a mosque, kindergarten, park, and retail zone. From the onset, the community was designed to reuse grey water from homes to irrigate the landscapes of public spaces, and light-colored building materials were used to reduce the urban heat island effect.

University of Southern California professor and architect John Mutlow then discussed affordable housing challenges in the Golden State. Beginning in the 80s, the focus was on creating family housing, but that shifted to create homes for those with special needs, and then HIV, veterans, and, now the homeless. Homelessness has exploded in the past few years, with nearly 60,000 homeless on the streets and in shelters in Los Angeles county today. The situation has gotten so dire that “homeless are now creating shelters for themselves in residential neighborhoods.”

To address the lack of affordable housing for homeless, California government put Measure H on the ballot, which was approved by voters and provides some $355 million, but mostly for “social services instead of financing for actual new housing.” Another 15 more housing bills designed to speed up the housing review and approval process and increase density have made their way through the legislature and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, but these actions just “nip at the edges of the problem.” Mutlow said another $4 billion affordable housing proposal coming up next year.

More than 60 non-profit community-based housing corporations have sprung up in southern California alone to make up for the lack of government action and bring together state and federal funds to make projects happen. However, for Mutlow, the main problem remains the high cost of building affordable housing in California. With not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) concerns, high labor and material costs, affordable housing is “$200 per square foot in California, at a minimum; it’s about $100 per square foot in the Deep South.” Still, he saw “moderately-dense” infill development as the solution, at least in his case studies.

La Brea affordable housing, West Hollywood, Los Angeles / Patrick Tighe Architecture and John V. Mutlow Architecture / The Architect’s Newspaper

Smith had the last word: “Every government wants more and more affordable housing. And they have the means to create more. They have money, own land, can upzone, use taxes and incentives — they have the means. Unfortunately, governments seldom have the will.”