Revitalizing the LA River – Ecological Urbanism & Green Gentrification

Revitalizing The LA River

If you ask a resident of Los Angeles where the LA river is, they may not know that there is one and if they do, they most likely have never seen it. Before the Europeans and Spanish arrived the LA River was home to the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe for centuries (Christensen, 2018). The LA basin was full of thick reed forests, abundant wildlife, plentiful fish, and was even used as LA’s primary water source until 1900 (Gruen, 2018). 


The LA river fluctuates from being a stream to a raging river due to potential heavy rains in the San Bernardino mountains from where the water flows directly into the river. As LA grew, the encroachment of residential development near the river was a cause of concern. In 1938, heavy rains caused a great deal of flooding and destruction; homes were demolished, bridges caved in and there were even associated deaths (Gruen, 2018). The Army Corps of Engineers proposed that the only solution to prevent flooding was to channelize the river with concrete (Gruen, 2018). Although it solved the potential problem of flooding, the ecosystems of the LA River were completely destroyed. The Army Corps sectioned off the river with fences; the public no longer had access and soon the river was forgotten. As development continued, the freeway passes, train tracks and other industries surrounded the river leading to pollution. The river once had significance to surrounding communities, however, channelization rendered it unidentifiable as a river. A couple of generations later, the LA River is now undergoing transformation known as the revitalization of the LA River project. 


A non-profit group called Friends Of The LA River (FOLAR) has spearheaded the revitalization project and recurring river cleanup. They are known for the first instances of activism in the LA River. When FOLAR began the vision for the revitalization project they were met with opposition. The Army Corps of engineers deemed the river unsafe and unnavigable which prompted two environmental activists to kayak the LA river in its entirety. In 2008, George wolf (a satire writer) and Heather Wylie (Army Corps biologist) successfully proved that the LA River is navigable which lead to the EPA giving the LA river official recognition (Gruen, 2018). From this point on, the project was met with support from other non-profits, community members, urban planners, and eventually the city of Los Angeles.

From under section “LA river ecosystem restoration” 


The revitalization project faces many challenges because it requires the involvement of over 15 cities as well as governing state & federal agencies. As the project moves forward, community involvement is required to voice the desires and needs of those who currently live in the surrounding areas. The revitalization project aims to recreate the identity of the LA River as a public space by including public access points, mixed-use development, parks, greenways, recreation, bike transport routes and community bridges (LA Master plan, 2019). River revitalization aims to improve connectivity, increase open space, and restore habitat. The revitalization master plan includes the creation of pocket parks, natural areas, urban plazas and civic spaces (La master plan, 2019). Revitalizing the river is a project that may set an example for large cities with channelized rivers and represents the possibility of redemption from a past void of environmental planning. The revitalization project depicts the future of the LA River as an enjoyable and innovative ecological urban landscape.

From the river revitalization master plan 2007


One of the major concerns of the surrounding communities is that of Green Gentrification. The concern is that new parks, urban centers and civic spaces could lead to rising property values, higher rents, and displacement (Christensen, 2018). For instance, a NY developer, Pam Am Equities, has proposed a high-end mixed use development near Atwater Village that includes 419 apartment units and only 35 of them would be reserved for low income tenants (Hahn, 2018). The development project is focused around the revitalized public park nearby which is confirmation that green gentrification should be a concern for the revitalization project. 

In contrast, a non-profit developer, WORKS, proposed a community-oriented plan that incorporated the concerns of low-income communities by centering them in the development goals. The plan included 122 units for low and middle-income families, a day care center, 39 units for homeless and a creative arts space (Hahn, 2018). Unfortunately, WORKS lost to a competing developer despite community support. However, this model could be used in future planning for the development projects surrounding the river.

People who currently live and work around the river need to be considered in the revitalization project so that the project does not result in unfavorable or unintended consequences. This project serves as a model of how complicated ecological urbanization can be, however, the revitalization of the LA river is necessary to improve the health of LA and it’s people. A multi-disciplinary approach can help planners complete the project with social equity in mind. This revitalization project has the profound potential to be a model for equitable ecological development.


Christensen, J. (2018). Reviving the L.A. river without ‘green gentrification’. In Citylab.

Guerin, E. (2018). LA explained: The Los Angeles river. In LAist

Hahn, J. (2018). Efforts to restore the Los Angeles river collide with a gentrifying city. In The national magazine of the Sierra Club.

Los Angeles revitalization master plan team. (2019). LA river revitalization master plan (Bureau of Engineering, Department of Public Works, & City of Los Angeles, Comps.). Retrieved from

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