Can the L.A. River Avoid ‘Green Gentrification’?News Type: Regional Source: City Lab
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The river, which once rampaged in wet winters, was tamed by concrete beginning in the late 1930s. People forgot there was a river. It became a flood-control channel.
Now the Los Angeles River is roaring back. There are plans to revitalize the river and its relationship to surrounding communities all along its 51-mile course through the city. And with those plans come fears of green gentrification: that as the city greens and embraces its river again, people will be pushed out.
Both plans and fears center on an 11-mile stretch in the middle of the river’s run near downtown, where the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have agreed on a vision for giving the river back some room to be a river again—and to become an icon for the future Los Angeles. That future isn’t clear yet, but it is coming into focus on a 42-acre contaminated tract of a former rail yard that the City of Los Angeles bought for $60 million last year.
Taylor Yard video courtesy of KCET. You can also explore the history of the site via an interactive map comprising map layers from 1897 through 1966.
It will sweep up Rio de Los Angeles State Park, a park next to the G2 parcel jointly managed by state parks and the city, and sweep through an expanding housing development nearby along San Fernando Road. It will extend downriver to Los Angeles State Historic Park, and to a 14-story, 920-unit development proposed for the bluff above that park. Eventually, the struggle will reach up and down the river.
Los Angeles is in its pre-High Line moment right now. When an old piece of railroad infrastructure, an elevated line running down the west side of lower Manhattan, was turned into an attractive post-industrial park, the new High Line, which opened in 2009, was the spark that lit a bonfire of gentrification in and around the Meatpacking District and Chelsea.
Will Los Angeles suffer—or enjoy, depending on your perspective—the same fate?
What happens on the banks of the Los Angeles River as it takes a big turn into downtown, on its journey to the Pacific Ocean, will set the stage for what comes to pass up and down its banks. Angelenos in communities all along the river have an opportunity to decide which direction to go and inflect the arc of history—or let it be decided for them.
It’s okay. Nobody can. Certainly not me.
What happens at the G2 parcel is closely connected to the future of the Bowtie parcel and any development that occurs next door to the state park land, if, indeed, it is ever built. The proposal for a mixed-use development adjacent to the Bowtie will be undergoing a public environmental impact review beginning this year.
And that’s the question: Do we want the river and its parks to become like Central Park or the High Line, both surrounded on nearly all sides by some of the most expensive real estate on the planet?
The High Line is a model of public engagement and innovative programming. Since its opening, it has been overwhelmed by visitors from near and far. Will our river parks be so attractive to visitors and Angelenos?
Those will be important, but relatively easy questions to answer compared to the much harder question of what the future holds for the communities surrounding these parks as “revitalization” of the river proceeds. For better or worse, Los Angeles is now on the world stage in a primetime drama called Green Gentrification.
At the center of this drama is the claim that parks trigger gentrification. Therefore we should be wary of new parks, because they could lead to rising property values, higher rents, and displacement, people being forced out of neighborhoods where they have long lived, such as Atwater Village, Glassell Park, Cypress Park, Mount Washington, Northeast Los Angeles, Frogtown, Elysian Valley, Lincoln Heights, Solano Canyon, Chinatown, and Dogtown—park-poor communities that advocated for green space in the first place.
There is some evidence for this claim, of course. Improved parks, like other positive amenities—cool retail, coffee shops, fresh produce—are correlated with gentrification, in some cases. But it’s also clear that parks are just part of a bigger picture. So then the question becomes: what role should parks play in this bigger picture?
And now we’re really getting to the heart of the challenge. If parks, including G2, become synonymous with gentrification, all of us will be worse off. We’ll be left with “just green enough,” a rather anemic but widely touted academic argument that we ought to figure out ways to allow communities to keep on keeping on just as they are, with maybe a bit of clean-up and additional green space, but not so much as to attract gentrification.
In this version of the future, Taylor Yard would continue to be an industrial yard, perhaps with better waste management practices, some cleanup, and a bit of riverfront access—but not too much.
Guess what? That ain’t gonna happen.
Will they be re-wilded? Will the river be allowed to flood them? Will they have recreational facilities? Community gathering spaces? Will their history be erased, or become part of designs for the future? Some of the same questions as well as others will be important at every new park and public space along the river.
What becomes of this collaborative, and what becomes of parks and communities on the Los Angeles River, will shape the future of our city and will be watched closely as an example by the whole world. Right now, we don’t have any really good models for inclusive green development that can lift up communities in place while providing the access to nature, open space, and recreational opportunities that we know are so important to the health of people and their neighborhoods.
Los Angeles will host the Olympics in 2028. The city wants the Los Angeles River and Taylor Yard to be an iconic centerpiece of the new story that it tells the world about itself. What if it were a true story about developing a real model for equitable and just greening of the city, a model that other cities around the world could learn from and build upon? That would truly be worth celebrating.
This essay is presented in partnership with KCET and the Laboratory for Environmental Strategies (LENS) at the University of California, Los Angeles. The first installment in a year-long storytelling collaboration focuses on Taylor Yard, an abandoned and contaminated rail yard that is also a valuable resource for the future of diverse communities in Los Angeles. More content will be available at https://www.kcet.org/