MONU #28 [Contested Grounds: Urban-Natures in Los Angeles]

Issue: Client-Shaped Urbanism, Spring 2018

In 2015 Los Angeles introduced the city’s first sustainable city plan, pLAn for short, a promise to address the city’s growth through three major frameworks: environment, economy, and equity. In an introductory letter that appears in the first few pages of the pLAn document, mayor Eric Garcetti reveals that he intends to “use the pLAn as a tool to manage the city.” The stated goals of the pLAn are meant to unfold across different scales and sectors of Los Angeles over the next twenty years, with regular assessments anticipated annually, accompanied with revisions to the pLAn every four years based on the progress in meeting its stated goals. Beyond providing a vision for a sustainable Los Angeles future, the pLAn aims to build policies, provide platforms for collaboration, and measure progress in a transparent manner using sustainability metrics.

With a specific focus on the pLAn’s goals surrounding urban natures, this paper asks the following question: what is the nature of the client-designer relationship when the client is the public, the designer is tantamount to policy, and the design is to capture the processes of non-static urban natures? We can’t address this question unless we understand the processes by which regulations and guidelines are imposed on the construction of such landscapes, in this case nature in an urban setting. Who counts in the making of that vision and how is that vision measured are questions consistently brought up by advocacy groups in Los Angeles. I answer these questions through the study of the processes surrounding the making of new urban natures guided by Los Angeles’s sustainability plan: the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project and the Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan.

The Ballona Wetlands Restoration

According to a National Wetlands Inventory commissioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the wetland acreage in the state of California decreased by 91% from the 1780s to the 1980s. Coastal wetlands, as opposed to inland ones, were most affected considering human appetite to dwell along a coast. Coastal wetlands exist along an environmental zone where land and the ocean meet, essentially mediating the movement from aquatic to terrestrial.

Incremental development in Los Angeles since the city’s inception encroached on the Ballona Wetlands until, in an effort to preserve what was left of its vast former ecology, the city purchased its last remaining acreage which now stands at approximately 600 acres, or 2.8 square kilometers. It is situated north of the Los Angeles International Airport and just south of Marina del Rey, in turn the largest man-made small craft harbor.

Today Ballona is fenced off, separated sharply from its surrounding urbanism. It is a space on which city planners, fortified with ecologists, engineers, and a large set of environmental groups, interface with everyday urban citizens and other environmental groups who are supported by their own set of ecologists. The former set of actors wants to restore the wetlands to a functioning, healthier, ecosystem to adapt to sea level rise. The latter set sees the wetland area as worthy of preservation in its current state, a habitat that houses an already rich biodiversity. Which side you’re on depends in large part on the level of human agency you think should be involved in shaping natural processes and for what purpose.

For decades discussions between and among federal agencies, city planners, scientists, and citizens involved debating whether the wetlands should be restored and, if so, what form that restoration should take – i.e. which of its myriad former identities are we restoring to? In the 1800s Mexican ranchers used the coastal marsh grass in this area for cattle grazing. Considered by to be the perfect spot to develop his ‘Venice of the America’ vision, businessman Abbot Kinney drained the swamps of the wetland area in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, when oil production in LA dominated the landscape, oil derricks proliferated on the site. During that time a series of floods in the city threatened to destabilize the LA economy to a large enough extent that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reacted by channelizing the city’s waterways, including the Ballona Creek. Howard Hughes purchased Ballona in the 1940, a large enough area of land to build aircrafts used by the U.S. military during the Cold War.

The subsequent construction of Marina del Rey, and the 3 million cubic yards of sediment that was moved into Ballona to accommodate its development, reduced the Ballona Wetlands to what exists today. After Hughes’s death in the mid-1970s, his corporation proposed a development on what was left of the wetland area, after which environmental groups mobilized to bring the plans to a halt. When movie studios announced their intent to run their production studios in this area of LA, environmental groups again made enough noise to convince the California Coastal Conservancy to purchase what was left from the developers and in 2003 the area was declared an ecological preserve by the state.

Projects such as the proposed Ballona Wetlands restoration one are as much a virtual stage for the public to contest the power of the state as they are a physical space with their own complex ecology. With a continued interest in constructing urban natures, several state agencies, scientific coalitions, and local non-profits who represent at least one set of the public interest, see in the Ballona Wetlands a dire need of restoration and active management. Plans to move ahead with its restoration resulted in the release of a draft Environmental Impact Report, a required step in the process of doing any work on the wetlands, restorative or otherwise, by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in late 2017. There was a 60-day comment period for the public to weigh in on the 1,242-page document.

Suspicious of state interference, which in this case is backed by well-established science advisory boards, grassroots environmental groups that do not have the resources and scientific qualifications of those of the state, and hence represent another aspect of the public, vehemently oppose all of the proposals listed in the Environmental Impact Report for the restoration of the wetlands. A history of human manipulation is exactly what degraded the wetlands in the first place. From this side of the debate a particularly infamous environmentalist, Roy van de Hoek, makes his way through the fence and into the wetlands intermittently, searching for plant and animal species that are endangered or threatened and, when successful, publicly exclaiming ‘Eureka!’ to put a halt on any discussions surrounding intervening in the area. Whether each finding is endangered or threatened, in the legal sense of those words, relies on scientific assessments. Similarly, on this side of the debate people see value in the wetland ecosystem as is, again a perspective grounded in science.

Environmental science is a body of knowledge the reflects our understanding of natural processes, but nature resists, revealing a multiplicity of scales and timespans. The various public actors in the Ballona Wetlands restoration debate, in other words the clients of this project, take up science to support the legitimacy of their perspectives, generating competing visions of a proper ecological restoration. Significant funds have been allocated to this restoration project, with the purchase of the land alone costing taxpayers 140 million in US dollars. The public, the clients of this restoration, either uphold the absolute preservation of the wetlands as they stand or propose to restore the wetlands in a way that reinforces the resilience of the city. Both of these are reactions to the unpredictability of climate change, one through respectful preservation and the other through active management, though both are arguably similar approaches. Divergent perspectives held by the public on how to design this urban nature sit firmly in distinct understanding of nature and in human agency’s role in shaping that nature.

The LA River Revitalization

If we agree that politics reflect specific concentrations of power in terms of decision-making, we must also agree that place-making undertakings are not benign. They shape spatial relations in a way that reflects power affiliations and normative perceptions of nature. In much the same way, the LA River is a history of a socio-ecological process, an artifact of urban-nature relations that continues to guide its transformation. Manipulating, securing, in short designing, the LA River is a story that posits the city of LA and its citizens as clients, and federal and state policies as the manifestation of their design intent.

The LA River is a nearly 48-mile (77 km) concrete channel that meanders through Los Angeles county, from the western edge of the San Fernando Valley to the southeast end of Long Beach, where it ends on the Pacific Ocean. Throughout the history of Los Angeles the problem of water was defined through the need to secure urban growth. In LA County property value as a whole increased 2,600 percent from 1914 to 1931. The flood control plans before the 1930s included provisions for permeable grounds that allow the water to percolate through and replenish the underground aquifers. Runoff and debris was managed through the use of basins and check dams. A particularly harsh flood in 1934 cast the perceived inadequacies of LA in managing floods onto the national stage, and in 1941 $268 million was approved through the federal Flood Control Act of 1941. Federal money started to flow unencumbered into Los Angeles, at least in part because of the county’s strategic geolocation as the U.S. was entering World War II. Project supervision was placed in the hands of the US Army Corps of Engineers, and emergency relief funds continued to pour into the channelization project over the next few years. So did a tremendous amount of concrete.

What made the use of concrete particularly appropriate was its ability to draw an unambiguous line between river and profitable land. Subdividing the land adjacent to the river was too profitable to simply subsume into a gradual edge for the sake of flood control measures. The motion picture industry began moving its operations close to the river and farmland owners adjacent to the river sold their properties for the more profitable residential uses that the city had approved through zoning. Meanwhile, industry in the form of slaughterhouses, steel plants and stockyards, continued, in partnership with LA planning administrators, to develop adjacent to the river.

Unsurprisingly, given these urbanization patterns, flood control projects on the LA River called for incrementally narrower and deeper concrete channels that had to be ever more detached from the surrounding land. This approach to water management, highly controlling and enmeshed in the politics and morphology of continued urbanization, remains in place today. The paradox of urban growth in environmentally vulnerable land, whereby land is secured against environmental risk in order to promote its continued urbanization, is not a symptom of climate change alone but has been historically present in urban growth patterns more broadly. It is a symptom of elevating property rights as a means for capital accumulation over the environmental risks such accumulation poses. Each wave of development alongside the LA River throughout its urban history engendered continued flood control measures, which in turn allowed continued development, and so on. The cycle remains equally vigorous today.

The perpetual creative destruction that geographer David Harvey frames as a tool for neoliberalism is, in the case of the LA River, not willfully imposed by society in order to promote economic growth. Instead, it’s a cyclical process that grows out of necessity precisely because of the manner in which we manipulate the land in order to support economic growth. The LA River is a loop, constantly rehearsing the push and pull between people and landscape along the socio-natural continuum.

What river, one might rightfully ask? Transforming the river into the concrete channel we see today began in 1938, and demanded thirty years and over 3.5 million barrels of concrete. The resulting piece of infrastructure moved far enough from the image of a river to be renamed LA River Flood Control Channel. Years of mobilization and advocacy by a number of non-profit and other environmentalist groups culminated in the US EPA’s decision in 2010 to regard the LA River as a ‘navigable waterway.’ Doing so repositioned the LA River under the protection of the Clean Water Act while opening it up to recreational activities such as biking and kayaking.

Today, the project of transforming the LA River into an urban park in the name of revitalization and restoration is currently in the hands of River LA, a non-profit organization that is comprised of developers and public officials. River LA is working with the Mayor’s Office in conjunction with Frank Gehry, world-renowned architect whose work, at least in this context, might call to question the private nature of public space. Gehry is said to be working off of the LA River Revitalization Master Plan that was completed in 2007, an effort that involved active public advocates and other stakeholders, in what is affectionately downgraded to participatory design. Having worked on the LA River plan since 2015 without active and systematic public participation in envisioning the river’s future, and without revealing any of the design ideas currently underway, Gehry nevertheless points out that the research his office has undertaken with LA River and the Mayor’s Office is necessary in producing a necessary common language.

The LA River’s revitalization and restoration promoted by various stakeholders, city planners and developers working together, suggests a green oasis that we can revert to. Images of a tame and ecologically vibrant river are conjured up, an Eden of sorts. The promise of plants and wildlife taking over the concrete, competing with it, hiding it, providing a sanctuary for lost species and people recreating in the middle of industrial Los Angeles, perpetuates the myth of the sustainable city.

What does it mean for planners and policy to manage nature in the city? In both of the urban-natures discussed here, planners, as both makers and representatives of policy, are overlooked designers and the urban public is the dismissed client. This despite the fact that by most measures planners, and the civic institutions they represent, are active managers of new urban form, agents who rely on specific scientific tools and technology in the making of environments. And the implications for urbanism are nearly absolute if we were to take seriously the position that the management of the environment is the making of the environment. Revitalization and restoration are as much nostalgic calls to futuristic urban-natures as they are tools for the ongoing securitization of property rights and, by extension, the persistent perception of the sustainable city as a depository for wealth.