River visions from landscape architecture grad students

March 5, 2010 § 5 Comments

Bridges and attractions are part of this LA River design concept, the result of a playful workshop with urban planner James Rojas. Photo: J. Rojas

As many creekfreaks already know, the proposed high speed rail (HSR) line has made some LA River advocates nervous. Fortunately, the HSR folks, Army Corps, and City of LA have been meeting to discuss how best to address this future alignment while allowing the City to move forward with its ambitious river revitalization.

In the meantime, I thought I’d take the question to my graduate level landscape architecture design studio at Cal Poly. But why not go further, and challenge them to resolve all the infrastructure barriers between the river and communities: can the high speed rail be a means to this end?

The students have been examining the site, gathering data on hydrology, land uses, toxics, rail and road infrastructure, while also surveying the site by foot, car, and bicycle. It will be no surprise to you that they found electrical transmission towers, freeways, freight, metrolink, railyards, fences – and in the Elysian Valley, a dearth of bridges – isolating communities from the river and each other.

To kick off the design phase, back in February, urban planner James Rojas dropped by the studio to lead a hands-on workshop. Rojas, a planner with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, was teaching-by-example, letting the students be the “community” in a community design process where they use household objects to build abstract models that represent their sites – and also try out solutions to resolve the conflicts with infrastructure they were grappling with. The students gravitated to it naturally. A gentle murmur of intense focus and playfulness buzzed in the studio as students sifted through Rojas’ found objects, selecting mardi gras beads, wooden cubes, plastic hearts – whatever  objects spoke to the students’ interests and feeling of the site. In 20 minutes, all the students had models of the river or adjacent areas that needed design resolution and were able to describe their concepts in 2 minutes or less. And the designs were impressive: inventive, fun, light-hearted, and mostly feasible. It turned out that many students explored similar concepts in their models – land bridges over freeways or trains, waterworks varying from partial restorations of the river channel to daylighting stormdrains or creating canals, intricate bridge systems to provide multiple viewpoints, opportunities for mixed-use development, and wildlife connections. One project focused on the river as a theme park experience, with a bridge/slide, ferris wheel and aerial walkway. The consistency of solutions provides guidance towards the development of design concepts.

In the weeks that have followed, I’ve enjoyed watching my students develop their concepts – and come March 18, they will be presenting their final concepts to the public. Come on down, and share your thoughts about their work.

Final design review:     

Thursday March 18, 3-7pm
Atrium Room
Los Angeles River Center & Gardens
570 West Avenue 26, LA 90065

Thanks to James Rojas & Andrew Althorp for speaking to my class, and special thanks to Barbara Romero for helping us to reserve the atrium at the River Center!

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