“Green” Gentrification as an Environmentally Unjust Outcome of River Improvement
excerpt from :
Restoring a River to Reclaim a City?: The Politics of Urban Sustainability and Environmental Justice in the Los Angeles River Watershed , Kim, Esther Grace, 2017. UC Berkely PHD thesis https://escholarship.org/uc/item/46p657nv
“Green” Gentrification as an Environmentally Unjust Outcome of River Improvement
While case studies of successful waterfront revitalization trumpet the economic benefits created in targeted urban districts, they also often demonstrate that the conversion of blighted and derelict postindustrial spaces for greener, cleaner cities unfolds unevenly and reinforces inequality. Whether it is a cleaned up port or a re-vegetated river channel, the “postindustrial waterfront” is a somewhat constructed landscape that masks the specific steps required to present this sanitized, easily consumed appearance. As Hall and Stearn (2014) note:
deindustrialization has not removed the disordered image of the waterfront; that has come about only with the dispersal of disadvantaged residents and the reorientation of the waterfront to more aesthetically pleasing activities such as retail, recreation, and residence (601).
It is important to remember that green growth machines are not politically neutral players in the urban policymaking arena, but rather seek to “harness environmental concerns to generate publicly funded environmental amenities and restoration” that enable them to participate in “an urban redevelopment treadmill in which neighborhoods are destroyed by sustainability initiatives” (Gould and Lewis 2016, 148). As developers, property owners, and real estate investors capitalize on public investment intended to address environmental concerns, municipalities stand to receive increased tax revenues from higher-valued land. The resulting “urban redevelopment treadmill” inserts land into new cycles of accumulation and transforms neighborhoods, all at the cost of those who are displaced and/or unable move into more-desirable places. Therefore, urban greening and revitalization measures, including postindustrial waterfront redevelopment, catalyzes the “dispersal”—or displacement—of residents who cannot afford the rising cost of living in an aesthetically pleasing, mixed-use neighborhood. This paradoxical outcome—whereby revitalized neighborhoods lead to displacement of its poorer, most vulnerable populations—reinforces the unjust outcome of the most privileged residents living in ecologically healthful and recreationally enjoyable areas.
Additionally, the displacement of pollution, blight, and poverty from particular urban places reverberates on a larger scale, as select areas of the watershed become visible, successful examples of reclaimed nature and consumable leisure, while others remain polluted, congested, and largely invisible from the middle-class public. Vormann notes that:
While processes of marketization have led to seemingly more sustainable, leisurely and safe places on the post-industrial waterfront—sites of high visibility that have come to be regarded as representative of the city as a whole—this questionable utopian discourse obfuscates the infrastructures and networked mobility spaces that are necessary to maintain these sites and makes it easy to forget the unevenness of urbanization processes. [...] Poverty and pollution have been relegated away from the urban waterfront to other places within and outside the city (2015b, 362- 363).
The transition of sites that were active spaces of urban production into those that are now spaces of urban consumption (at least for a specific set of middle-class urban denizens) does not unfold uniformly throughout the entire region, but more closely resembles a patchworked spatiality. It should not be forgotten that there remain many locales throughout Los Angeles County where the industrial waterfronts are not relics of a Fordist past, but active sites of production which do not enter into the planning calculations of revitalization, reinvestment, and restored nature. This gets to the areas outside of the city of L.A., into those neighborhoods of Southeast Los Angeles County, along the lower stretches of the LA River.142
The rising land values in environmentally-improved neighborhoods, the rebranding of former industrial areas into middle-class commercial districts, and the displacement of low- income residents from greened, revitalized areas all indicate the workings of environmental gentrification, a phenomenon increasingly considered an environmental injustice. This form of injustice appears ripe for occurrence along the Los Angeles River, where gentrification has emerged as one of the most pressing concerns with relation to restoration agendas. Throughout the course of my fieldwork, the topic arose repeatedly during interviews, in meetings, and within planning documents. The overwhelming majority of stakeholders I spoke with recognized, to some extent, the possibility that ecological enhancements and improvements to the L.A. River could increase land values, thereby increasing displacement pressures upon low-income and renting communities living along the river. Environmental and community organization representatives directly identified the threat of gentrification as a potential downside to restoration, while city bureaucrats, whether during interviews or informal/off-the-record conversations, acknowledged the likelihood of gentrification and the difficulty of balancing revitalization goals with mitigating threats of displacement.143
This concern came about despite claims by city officials and official plans that river- induced gentrification could be tempered with continued outreach to affected communities, increased public participation of community stakeholders, and mechanisms to mitigate rising land values such as community development plans (LARRMP 2007). This attempt at a balancing act between cultivating economic conditions to foster real estate development and investments, and ensuring housing protections to existing working-class communities, is encapsulated in one city representative’s observations, where he recognized that “we should be fearful of [gentrification]” and “instill within the plan the capacity to build up affordable housing”, but without “scaring away the investment” since “it’d be a useless plan if no one activates it”(Interview #21, 2013). This balancing act, or what he termed as searching for the “sweet spot” between incentivizing investments and protecting affordable housing, was emphasized by other river proponents from the city and elaborated upon in plans such as the River Revitalization Master Plan and the Cornfields Arroyo Seco Plan (Interview #54, 2013).
Moreover, gentrification along a newly revitalized river emerged as a major concern throughout the planning and outreach processes for river projects. For example, one representative from the city planning department shared that throughout planning processes for
142 The issues of the lower Los Angeles River stretches will be discussed further in Chapter Seven.
143 For example, during an informal conversation with a high-ranking representative from the city’s public works department (which houses the office in charge of revitalizing the L.A. River) in early 2011, the topic of gentrification arose. The representative acknowledged that gentrification was a concern and highly salient issue in connection with restoring the river, yet wearily concluded that there was not much her office could do to address it adequately.
several river-related studies (CASP, RIO, LARRMP), stakeholders voiced their anxiety and fear of gentrification resulting from these various projects. During the development of the city’s river master plan (LARRMP), in particular, concern over gentrification was brought up multiple times in the public comment period for the draft LARRMP. Amidst the hundreds of comments submitted by stakeholders and members of the public in April 2007, gentrification was mentioned or referenced dozens of times, with close to two dozen separate stakeholder entities explicitly identifying gentrification as a matter of urgent concern; many others alluded to the matter by discussing related issues such as affordable housing and land use change (LARRMP Draft Comments 2007).
Environmental organizations that were integrally involved in efforts to revitalize the L.A. River recognized gentrification as a serious issue; the Council for Watershed Health asked “How will the City ensure that the present occupants will still be able to afford living in and adjacent to these [restoration] Opportunity Areas?” (133-34) while the Arroyo Seco Foundation remarked that “the plan contains no viable mechanism for addressing the resulting gentrification and displacement of existing residents” (53). Other commenters expressed more critical stances to what they perceived was the city’s relative silence on addressing gentrification and complicity in favoring land developers. One commenter pointed to the “Orwellian” nature of the term “revitalization” (56), while another asserted that under the current plan, “underserved communities, also known disadvantaged communities, will become the target of developers and gentrification without the focus on their public health and public safety” (83). Meanwhile, a University of Southern California student astutely observed that:
There are many ugly parts to this project. The biggest threat and most likely negative repercussions of this project is the threat of gentrification. All the housing developments that are currently along the river are cheap, low income housing. But once the river is beautified this will entice many real estate developers to buy out these lots and build new developments which will displace all the poor families (93).
Still others, especially community groups, requested that the city establish a task force and investigate other ways to promote affordable housing in potentially impacted riverside neighborhoods. All of these comments, when considered as a collective whole, demonstrate the significant concern over gentrification along the L.A. River. This possibility was acknowledged by the city itself, which noted in the draft plan that: “Gentrification is potentially the most serious political issue associated with riverfront development. Its effects, both positive and negative, should be anticipated and mitigated consistent with public policy” (LARRMP Draft Plan 2007, 75).
It is important to clearly identify what groups are threatened with displacement by what specific restoration projects. While arguments from the ecological/environmental gentrification literature identify lower-income, poor, and renting populations as vulnerable to displacement should greening projects raise property values, the homeless population are at risk of being displaced merely by the presence of these projects themselves. The Los Angeles River has long been a place of residence for subsets of L.A.’s homeless population (River LA 2017). And, as briefly mentioned in the last chapter, the issue of homeless people who reside in the river channel is one that restoration proponents and city officials continuously grapple with (Interview #51, 2010). Though documentation of the numbers and type of homeless communities occupying the river does not appear to exist, there has been longstanding acknowledgement among government representatives, housing advocates, and environmental organizations that a sizable homeless population lives in and around the flood control channels. Community activists have further suggested that for many homeless individuals, the concrete river was preferable to other encampments, due to its quiet, somewhat unregulated state. With public attention redirected to revitalizing the river, converting its concrete stretches into lush greenways and bike paths, and with the continued narrative among riverside residents that ‘public safety’ is one of the most urgent issues for public agencies to contend with, the plight of the homeless who occupy river channels is an ongoing concern and debate among those involved in river restoration.
There is no doubt that the continued enhancement and ecological rehabilitation of the L.A. River will place increasing pressure of displacement for homeless individuals and communities currently encamped in its banks. Given this likelihood of displacement, local government agencies will need to contend with the host of problems associated with homelessness in certain public spaces—the safety of impacted communities, shortages of resources, overcrowding in other homeless encampments, etc. Moreover, they must be able and willing to address the mounting concern from members of the public who regard homeless individuals as dangerous or threatening to ‘normal citizens’ who use the river (Moore 2012). Sarah Dooling, one of the first academic researchers to coin the term “ecological gentrification”, described this phenomenon specifically in relation to the displacement of “the most vulnerable, the homeless” (2009, 621). While the issue of homeless displacement is beyond the scope of my analysis for this dissertation, I acknowledge that it must be discussed within the context of ecological gentrification and displacement of vulnerable populations produced through L.A. River restoration. While the term has since been applied to numerous contexts, Dooling’s original use of the “ecological gentrification” should be a reminder that the removal of the homeless from areas that will be transformed to be more amenable to public consumption is a critical aspect of sanitizing and reconfiguring urban public space.
Consistent with the city’s view that there are “both positive and negative” effects of gentrification (Jao 2014a), river proponents likewise express concern for gentrification-induced displacement while maintaining that neighborhoods receive substantive benefits when the river is improved. For these individuals, who represent public agencies and NGOs alike, gentrification via restoration remained a serious and pressing social matter, yet was still preferable to the alternative of not restoring the river at all. As one environmentalist shared with me, river greening did raise rents along riverside neighborhoods, and while “some things are hard to control, like property values, gentrification”, he questioned the alternative of inaction, asking “what are you going to do—leave [the river] a dump so that everyone’s rent stays cheap? Is that the trade-off?” (Interview #1, 2013). Meanwhile, a city representative observed that there were “concerns that really the city was just trying to develop along the river”, but those concerns could be somewhat assuaged by the fact that the master plan’s recommendations “doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get high rises along the river” (Interview #15, 2012).
Even among those who directly opposed the tendency for river-adjacent neighborhoods to gentrify, the conviction that, ultimately, the movement’s efforts would not allow gentrification to unfold everywhere, stood firm. According to one longtime river activist:
Hopefully [restoring the river] will not turn into a gigantic gentrification project. That would be a tragedy. And I would have to say to the city’s credit, if you look at the city of LA’s master plan, that’s certainly not the intention. [But] in the real life world of Los Angeles and Los Angeles politics, it will be unavoidable in certain areas. But hopefully it will not turn into that along the
144 She later went on to say that in Los Angeles, “renters make up the bigger number [of residents] but they have less voice”, recognizing that city policy often catered to homeowners and property owners (who “by default earn more money”), perhaps to the overall detriment of the interests of the renting population.
entire river. [...] Yeah, it’s a tough one ...There are particular areas, especially along central L.A., downtown—which is already gentrifying so fast—and Boyle Heights, where it’s going to be pretty hard to get the city and the county to really impose restrictions to keep that from happening there. But I think the river is big enough and long enough that I actually don’t think it’s going to become a gentrification project everywhere (Interview #33, 2012).
As seen in her complicated and uncertain thoughts on the issue, her concern that areas such as Boyle Heights and the central city/NELA areas (which I discuss in later sections/chapters) are already gentrifying and could be accelerated by river restoration, was somewhat ameliorated by her hope that other neighborhoods would be greened but not gentrified. For another environmental and community activist, the gentrification issue was, likewise, inextricable with the ongoing developments at the L.A. River. He warned me that those who claimed that gentrification was properly “addressed” were incorrect, as “you can’t stop it, but you can slow it down” by expanding rent control, affordable housing, and programs to promote home ownership (Interview #51, 2010).145 These perspectives, held by a diverse range of pro-restoration organizations and entities, illustrate the complexity of the gentrification issue with regards to improvement plans for the L.A. River.
Indeed, the degree to which gentrification will unfold along select stretches of the Los Angeles River, and the projected number of residents displaced from impacted neighborhoods, is difficult to calculate at this point. There are, however, indicators that greening urban streams without implementing restrictions to development and measures to preserve affordable housing along these streams can and probably will result in gentrification. Converting brownfields into urban greenspaces, as well as daylighting urban streams and revitalizing postindustrial waterfronts, have resulted in neighborhood gentrification in other major cities around the world (Essoka 2010; Gould and Lewis 2012, 2017; Hagerman 2007; Lim et. al. 2013). One consultant who worked on the city’s river master plan shared with me that during the course of conducting outreach efforts for the plan, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce expressed “interest in housing” as a corollary to river restoration. His statements, as well as his own questioning of whether “affordable housing or loft housing for people with money” would be promoted by the master plan, indicate the high interest among certain private sectors to capitalize on public investment into the river with housing development (Interview #18, 2013). Real estate data since the mid-2000s illustrate the rising interest among private developers in the (re)development potential of riverside properties is materialized in rising real estate values. According to data compiled by a real estate investment firm, the average price in 2010 for land along the L.A. River was $98 per square foot; that figure has risen consistently, with the average price sitting at $193 per square foot in 2015 (JLL 2015, 7).146
Furthermore, significant land uses changes in select neighborhoods undergoing urban greening and/or sustainable planning initiatives indicate their current gentrifying states. For example, in areas around Chinatown and Lincoln Heights, the completion of major environmental/sustainability projects, such as the creation of the L.A. State Historic Park
145 He also discussed the related issue of displacement of homeless people from the river, sharing with me that he had spoken to many homeless individuals who lived in the river channel, and their awareness of the changes that could come their way as river projects accelerated. To his surprise, however, many of these individuals were also greatly concerned with ecological disturbance brought about by projects and increasing public access to the river.
146 The JLL report provides a list of recent property acquisitions, available leases, and vacancies, some of which show riverfront industrial buildings near Northeast and Downtown L.A. being purchased for millions of dollars. One building was purchased for close to $3M by a locally famous artist who is known to acquire industrial warehouses, indicating the trend of these buildings being converted for creative, mixed-use uses.
(formerly known as the Cornfield) and the opening of a new MTA light rail line (the Gold Line) in 2004 contributed to the rise of residential development in a historically significant industrial district (City of LA DCP 2011; Lin 2008). According to the city’s planning department, these projects triggered a worrying trend towards residentialization in these neighborhoods, a trend that could be exacerbated by future improvements made to the L.A. River. In one report to the planning commission, the planning department staff found that:
Over the past 10 years, investments in transit infrastructure, the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan (LARRMP), and the Los Angeles State Historic Park (LASHP) have increased redevelopment pressures in this area (City of LA DCP 2012, p.A1).
With current—and projected—public investment directed toward developing transit, providing greenspace, and creating all of the amenities outlined in river restoration initiatives, these once- working class neighborhoods in the urban core will likely become more desirable places to live. According to one city planner, the ecological improvements and provision of urban amenities combined with the relatively cheaper land of these neighborhoods to produce the redevelopment pressures. As she explained it, with “housing prices continuing to increase [in the mid-2000s], developers want[ed] to look for cheaper land. And here was some cheaper land that happened to be near transit and not far from downtown. So it was opportunity” (Interview #15, 2012).
Additionally, an industrial land use study completed by the city planning department and redevelopment agency in 2007 reached similar conclusions on why industrially-zoned districts were increasingly overrun with residential-commercial development. Documenting the dwindling amount of industrial land in the city, the report stated that:
Because nearly all non-industrial uses can outbid the industrial users of the relatively inexpensive industrial land, industrial conversions are causing market speculation that is driving up industrial land costs and ‘pricing out’ industrial tenants [...] When land owners and developers raise their price expectations based on a perception that land is marketable for residential, commercial or other non-industrial uses, property values will rise above an economically feasible level for typical industrial users. This real estate speculation ‘prices out’ industrial tenants. ...[Also] industrial land owners may hold industrial zoned land without investing in industrial operations—with the expectation that more lucrative land uses would be allowed in the future. The lack of regular maintenance accelerates the obsolescence of the structures and perpetuates the cycle of disinvestment (City of LA DCP 2007, 20-22).
Not only did land speculation price out existing and potential industrial tenants and drive disinvestment in industrial districts, but did little to provide more affordable housing. According to the industrial land use report:
Arguments have been made that allowing residential development on these less-expensive industrial lands will result in lower home prices and help ease the City’s affordable housing crisis. Yet evidence to the contrary is clear... Less than 3% of housing on industrial land since 2001 has been affordable—and that occurred only as a result of a requirement to do so and because financial assistance from the CRA/LA or other public entities was provided. Despite claims that industrial land is needed to help assuage the City’s affordable housing crisis, the fact is that industrial land typically sells for roughly one-third of the cost of residential land, while units sell at nearly the same rates as high-end condominiums in nearby South Park (23, original emphasis).
As urban scholars have noted, gentrifying neighborhoods not only displace lower-income residents, but also existing industrial land uses, which then create the conditions for further gentrification (Curran 2007; Zukin 1989).Therefore, the residentialization of these historically industrial areas near the L.A. River and the Cornfield state park carry the double negative outcomes of pricing out both industrial tenants and lower-income residents, as market-price units are made available on greatly inflated land.
Chinatown clearly exemplifies this pattern of environmental gentrification. While temporarily set back by the recession caused by the 2008 housing crisis, the onslaught of new development and redevelopment projects in Chinatown, the rising number of tourist attractions, and the transit access to the Metro Gold Line signals the transformation of this once industrial and working-class neighborhood (Lin 2008). In 2013, a Wal-Mart “Neighborhood Market” took over vacant retail space in the neighborhood, generating strong protests from housing and community activists for the economic and social harm the mega-retail company would wreak upon the area (Hsu 2013). Though the market closed several years later due to Wal-Mart’s mass closure of California-based stores, development projects in the last several years are unabatedly proposed and filed in Chinatown. In October 2016, a proposal for a 1.1 million square foot mixed-used development project was submitted to the city; the project would construct over 900 apartments and 21,000 square feet of commercial space on a narrow piece of property abutting the Cornfields state park (Sharp 2016). A month before that proposal was filed, a 237 apartment complex opened near the Gold Line station, of which only twenty percent is designated as affordable housing, and where monthly rents for units start at almost two-thousand dollars (Wattenhofer 2016). The architecture firm which designed this new complex is also proposing a mixed-use construction project itself; located only blocks from the state park, the residential and retail space complex will add over one hundred new apartments (Barragan 2017b).
Numerous other development projects await at various stages of the permitting process with the city, forecasting the transformation of the existing Chinatown landscape with each new dense, mixed-use, and high-rise construction project completed (for list of projects, see Barragan and Chandler 2017). With the official opening of the Los Angeles State Historic Park in 2017, real estate value in the neighborhood is expected to rise, as demand for commercial and residential space next to a desirable urban environmental amenity could increase. This could threaten the existing industrial uses in surrounding properties as well as residents no longer able to afford the high land values in the flourishing historic neighborhood.147
Boyle Heights is another example of how river revitalization projects can exacerbate an already gentrifying neighborhood. Located on the east side of the Los Angeles River, across from the notoriously redeveloped and revitalized Arts District, Boyle Heights has long been known as a Mexican American enclave, a tightly-knit neighborhood that formed as one of the few places where Mexican residents could settle in a racially segregated city. Over the past decade, gentrification has unfolded in this vibrant yet underserved neighborhood, which is increasingly becoming a desirable place to live due to its proximity to downtown, relatively low housing prices, and reputation as a “hip” and culturally “authentic” neighborhood (Nazaryan 2017). However, in the past few years, the conflict over gentrification—namely, the influx of artists, studios, and gallery spaces—has become acrimonious, with community activists decrying the rising rents and “yuppification” of the neighborhood (Delgadillo 2017; Mejia and Saldivar 2016; Miranda 2016). Given this volatile place-based struggle over the culture and socioeconomic makeup of Boyle Heights, there is little doubt that a restored, revitalized Los
147 Other key informants confirmed that gentrification in Chinatown was underway. One longtime environmental activist and writer described the gentrifying of the neighborhoods surrounding the Cornfields state park; meanwhile, a representative of a state environmental agency who had worked in Chinatown for almost a decade, also concluded that areas around the park were undergoing gentrification, leading to a different group of stakeholders that used the park and attended meetings for its future design (Interview #33, 2012; #54, 2013).
Angeles River will intensify gentrification trends. In particular, the city’s plan to construct a new Sixth Street Bridge—which spans the Los Angeles River to connect the Arts District to East Los Angeles neighborhoods—comes with massively ambitious plans for constructing a complex of parks, bike paths, public art spaces, and pedestrian walkways around the much celebrated viaduct (City of LA BOE 2017) (Figure 4.2). The proposed 12-acre urban feature, known as the Sixth Street Park, Arts, River, and Connectivity Improvements Project, will bring a host of environmentally-friendly amenities to Boyle Heights. These projects, while beneficial to building safer, more sustainable, and transit-oriented neighborhood spaces, could also compound gentrification already underway in Boyle Heights (Daniel 2016).
Another major indicator of the river’s role in gentrifying neighborhoods is the rise of real estate transactions after the release of the Army Corps’ ARBOR Study. With the announcement that the city and federal agency both endorsed a restoration plan with a $1B price tag, there was a documented rise in property exchange along certain stretches of the river. While I will be discussing this issue in greater detail in Chapter Six, it is worthwhile to note here the intensified real estate activity observed and documented within one particular neighborhood in the ARBOR study area. Recently, a local architecture firm documented that of the thirty riverfront properties sold in the riverside neighborhood of Elysian Valley, fifteen of those property exchanges occurred during the year after the ARBOR report’s release (Lubbell 2014). In addition, the recent spate of real estate transactions—both along the ARBOR Study area and in other riverfront neighborhoods—have intensified the public and policy-related discussion around gentrification, re-centering the issue within narratives of the river’s promising future. In particular, media attention and coverage of environmental gentrification increased since the latter-half of 2013.
Ultimately, the likelihood of river restoration projects to create and/or accelerate environmental gentrification, combined with the lack of specific programs/measures to alleviate the negative impacts of gentrification, reveal the limitations of the L.A. River sustainability agenda to substantively promote environmentally justice. Green and sustainable urban policies, increasingly adopted by the local state to encourage economic growth in a manner consistent with principles of environmental protection, often fail to serve the equitable spatialization of these urban places (Pearsall and Pierce 2010; Warner 2002). The incorporation of environmental justice language to frame the issue of parks and urban greenspace are also likely to confine notions of EJ, as keeping the focus on greenspace achievement obscures other processes which contribute to injustice. Celebrating specific parks, such as the Rio de los Angeles State Park or the South Los Angeles Wetlands, as environmental justice achievements can place too much emphasis on single victories; meanwhile, according to Pulido et. al., “focusing so heavily on specific victories can potentially obscure the larger structural dynamics that systematically oppress vulnerable communities” (2016, 14). Parks and greenspace alone, without attending to the larger structural dynamics of urban segregation, real estate speculation, and unfair housing markets, no longer contribute to more just environmental places, but rather become “green LULUs” in their potential to drive gentrification and displacement (Anguelovski 2016b). What is initially regarded as an environmental good/benefit to be redistributed, when disconnected from the processes driving urban/spatial change, can paradoxically become harmful to vulnerable communities and exacerbate spatial injustices.
In the case of green gentrification, placing the central focus on creating discrete urban parks as environmental justice achievements may conceal the “structural dynamics” of capital accumulation through urban land valuation that expose communities to new injustices. The set of sustainability initiatives attached to the L.A. River are poised to create unjust spatial relations through gentrified neighborhoods. According to Gandy, the looming threat of environmental gentrification due to the restoration of L.A.’s urban waterways calls for a continued addressing of environmental justice through policy and activism: “The specter of ‘ecological gentrification’ lurking behind the greening of Los Angeles suggests that the arguments for environmental justice, first articulated in the 1980s, remain vitally relevant” (2014, 183). This “lurking specter”, I contend, is all the more insidious as this form of environmental injustice gets masked in theappealing discourse of sustainable urban development, livability, and “green” cities (Hall and Stern 2014; Vormann 2015b).
This concept and discourse of urban sustainability has come to “represent an archetypal postpolitical construct” that:
simultaneously opens up opportunities for scientists and experts to devise technocratic solutions to urban problems; provides a political platform for a broad range of social and environmental groups to find common purpose; enables businesses to publicly showcase their social responsibility credentials; and allows governments and policy makers to establish new grounds for the construction of partnerships and consensus-based forms of politics at multiple scales (Raco and Lin 2012, 195-6).
Despite, or perhaps due to, the desirability of sustainably planned and managed cities, the post- political aspect of the discourse of urban sustainability sets about perpetuating “paradoxical” urban changes, including environmental gentrification (Checker 2011). With newly greened urban locales boasting the reversal of previous patterns of unsustainable urban practices, critical engagement of possible adverse outcomes are brushed aside as overly conflict-ridden or uncooperative.
THE MAKING OF “BIG PLANS”: FORMALIZATION AND COORDINATION IN THE LATTER-2000S
During the second half of the 2000s, the involvement of government agencies, especially that of the city and county, increased significantly, predominantly through the creation of formal planning reports and studies. These reports, which required multi-stakeholder advisory committees, agency oversight in existing conditions and activities along the river, and millions of dollars of public funding, signal the full formalization of river restoration agendas by coordination of state actors. State involvement also signified a shift in the river movement, which until now was largely driven by the work of environmentalists, activists, and community organizations. The development of such large-scale, costly, and ambitious plans for the Los Angeles River demonstrate the success of the river movement, as agencies, seeing the economic, ecological, and political value of restoring the river, no longer resist activists’ efforts to draw plans and implement improvement projects. On the other hand, the further formalization of the Los Angeles River watershed revitalization enrolls earlier efforts in bureaucratic and institutional processes (which place emphasis on technical aspects of projects and limits those who can participate) while constraining the free-form and creative uses of the river through the state’sdesire for greater legibility and control over river space. This “institutionalization of the movement”, which involves solving problems identified by the movement through “new government regulations and agencies”, marks a common pattern for social movements that reach a certain level of political success (Dunlap and Mertig 1991, 211).
The City of Los Angeles Becomes the “Biggest Player in the Room”
The mid- to late-2000s was marked by the city of Los Angeles assuming a much greater role in the agenda of river restoration and watershed management. The formation of the city
council’s Ad Hoc River Committee (chaired by Councilmember Ed Reyes) in 2002 established a formal governing body intended to deal exclusively on planning and implementation of projects on the Los Angeles River. The most important river project undertaken by the city during this time is the creation of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan (LARRMP). The master plan, conceived of and approved by members of the Ad Hoc River Committee, endorsed enthusiastically by the newly-elected Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and funded by the Department of Water and Power (with a $3M grant disbursed over a three-year period), was launched in 2005. Principally carried out by the Bureau of Engineering (BOE) within the city’s Department of Public Works (and supported in various degrees by multiple other departments), the LARRMP set out to create a fifty-year template for ecological rehabilitation, economic redevelopment, and cultural revitalization along the thirty-two-miles of the L.A. River within the city’s boundaries (City of LA Council Motion 2005). A massive undertaking that hewed closely to the multi-issue agenda originally outlined by the 1990 Task Force Workplan, the LARRMP identified four main objectives to river revitalization: 1) Revitalize the River; 2) Green the Neighborhoods; 3) Capture Community Opportunities; and 4) Create Value (LARRMP 2007). The entire planning process took two years to complete, involved eighteen public outreach meetings (and numerous other stakeholder input and outreach events), and enlisted the aid of several private consultant firms (City of LA LARRMP Website 2017). The final master plan identifies five “opportunity areas”, or targeted sites along the thirty-two-miles of the river’s mainstem, where a combination of geographic and economic factors recommends them as particularly promising for revitalization.
During this relatively short period, the city of L.A. embarked on numerous other projects dedicated to the restoration and revitalization of the Los Angeles River. In 2006, the city’s planning department began work on a river improvement overlay district (RIO), which sets out to impose design and landscaping standards along 1⁄2-mile borders on either side of the river. The same year saw the launch of the one of the biggest endeavors along the river, the $10M Army Corps of Engineers’ ecosystem restoration feasibility study. Through a partnership between the Los Angeles District of the Army Corps and the city’s Bureau of Engineering, the restoration study examines a slate of habitat restoration alternatives for an eleven-mile stretch of the L.A. River, from Griffith Park to downtown.100 Meanwhile, in 2008 the city’s Department ofTransportation completed a crucial portion of the L.A. River bikepath in the Glendale Narrows. A year later, based on analysis of the LARRMP and an industrial land availability study, the planning department undertook the creation of the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan (CASP), a new zoning plan for a community area encompassing key river sites such as the Chinatown Cornfield, Arroyo Seco-Los Angeles River confluence, and several riverside neighborhoods (Interview #15, 2012). Proposing completely new zoning standards and design requirements to promote high-density, mixed-use, transit-oriented urban development, the CASP has been celebrated as an innovative and equitable alternative for future green development in Los Angeles (Fraijo and Emmen 2013; Jao 2012).
Moreover, based on suggestions outlined in the 2007 LARRMP, the governance structure overseeing the L.A. River restoration was re-shaped and adopted into practice two years later. Upon recommendation that a multi-agency Joint Powers Authority be formed, the city, county,
100 Another Army Corps restoration feasibility study for the Arroyo Seco tributary began in 2001. However, that study is not completed as of writing this chapter due to federal budget cuts. More information about the ongoing study can be found at the website for the Arroyo Seco Foundation, the tributary’s chief restoration advocacy organization (http://www.arroyoseco.org/corpsstudy.htm).
and Army Corps signed a joint memorandum of understanding (MOU) to form the River Cooperation Committee (RCC) in 2009. The RCC is a governing body designed to update and coordinate watershed undertakings among the city, county, and federal agencies assigned primary jurisdictional authority over the L.A. River watershed. The city, working through the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA-LA) then created the River Revitalization Corporation (RRC) in 2010, a nonprofit organization charged with facilitating the implementation of the LARRMP through economic development and property acquisition (Interview #9, 2010). A third branch of the governance structure, a River Foundation, has yet to be formed.
The city’s amplified involvement with plans for the L.A. River now positioned it as the central actor among the body of restoration supporters. It also reveals the municipal state’s continued subscription to environmental agendas for earning political goodwill, as well as redoubled attempts to standardize and make legible the numerous yet decentralized improvement efforts on the river. Additionally, the city’s greater role was also encouraged by the proliferation of other urban waterfront redevelopment efforts undertaken by municipal governments in numerous other cities, an outcome of the “territoriality and relationality” of a particular urban environmental program/practice (Cook and Ward 2012). With the failure of the proposed river conservancy in the late-90s and no signs of abatement of restoration efforts, city representatives identified the need for coordination and centralization of these activities. After speaking with representatives from various city departments and council offices, I conclude that the planning documents and governing bodies formed by the city in the latter-2000s signify the juncture in which the formal state, in this case the city, gained control over the agenda to restore the L.A. River watershed.
While state agencies participated in processes of re-envisioning the river since the 80s, it was not until twenty years later that the county and especially the city assumed more than a reactive role in determining how the river was to be re-configured, re-scripted, and redeveloped. One environmental policymaker, who worked on putting together the LARRMP, explained the necessity of the river this way: “There needed to be some sort of city assistance because so many things were happening piecemeal and there certainly needed to be some place where you could focus on the river as a system as opposed to just ‘oh, lemme buy this piece of property here, lemme do this here’. There wasn’t any sort of comprehensive planning” (Interview #45, 2012). According to one city official, the LARRMP was a step towards scaled-up, multi-stakeholder and multi-issue planning:
[T]here was no focal point to address the layers of issues that go with the river corridor. ... The stage needed to be big enough to fold in not only local, municipal concerns, but state, county, federal, and layer in all the different stakeholders who feel that sense of ownership and who feel they know what’s best for the area and for the corridor” (Interview #21, 2013).
Amidst the ongoing work of river NGOs, activist groups, and community organizations, the city concentrated its efforts and funds in order to proactively organize and oversee the institutional and spatial modifications to the river. One environmental consultant summarized the city’s actions—and the ramifications—in this way:
The L.A. River is by far the biggest focal point of this environmental movement in Los Angeles. ...[And] the biggest player in the room is the city of Los Angeles. Even though the county and the corps and everyone else have their roles, the biggest player is the city of Los Angeles. ...The L.A. River is a very political creature...and the city itself is a political creature (Interview #46, 2013).
Integrated Water Management and the Scaling Up of Plans to the Watershed
Other branches of local government increased their presence within the river agenda by tackling a series of issues. At the county level, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District became involved in agendas targeted toward multi-purpose water management at the scale of the watershed. One of the most important projects for the county was the formation of Los Angeles’ Integrated Regional Water Management Plan in 2005. The prior year saw two California water agencies—Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board—forming a program incentivizing regions throughout the state to generate integrated regional water management plans (IRWMPs) designed to implement water resources management at the regional scale, through collaborative processes and institutional arrangements, and in an integrated, comprehensive approach (Hughes and Pincetl 2014). The County’s Department of Public Works, which houses the Flood Control District, became the lead agency in the plan produced, titled the Greater Los Angeles County Integrated Regional Water Management Plan (GLAC IRWMP) and approved by the Department of Water Resources in 2006 (and funded through Prop 50). The GLAC IRWMP laid out strategies “to improve water supplies, enhance water supply reliability, improve surface water quality, preserve flood protection, conserve habitat, and expand recreational access in the Region,” which encompassed multiple watersheds, including the Los Angeles River watershed (GLAC 2006, 1-4). Incorporating analyses from over thirty existing (and ongoing) studies/reports for the L.A. River (including those outlining river restoration), the GLAC IRWMP was created as a planning tool to address the interconnected problems of the watershed.101 Key participants in committees that planned and vetted the IRWMP drafts included many agency and NGO stakeholders who also involved in river restoration efforts, such as the MRCA, Council for Watershed Health, Arroyo Seco Foundation, and individual consultants.102
Establishing IRWMPs throughout California was part of a much broader change in water governance, one centered on the prominent rise of an integrated water management (IWM) framework as a dominant paradigm. Beginning in the 1990s and throughout the next decade, North American and European nations increasingly adopt IWM as a framework of water governance, which stresses comprehensive treatment of water resources, collaborative stakeholder engagement, and privileging the watershed (or catch basin) as the superior spatial unit of planning (Cohen and Davidson 2011; Mitchell 2005; Molle 2009). In Los Angeles, the dominant discourse of IWM provided agencies with the tools, language, and procedural mechanisms necessary to demonstrate an evolved water regime, a departure from the single- purpose, engineering-focused one responsible for projects such as LACDA. For example, the creation of the Watershed Management Division within the county’s Flood Control District in 2000 was in response to environmentalists’ outcry against LACDA; the WMD, according to their 2008 Strategic Plan, “rather than focus on single-objective solutions for...Flood Control District priorities, uses an integrated, multipurpose approach that is consistent with watershedmanagement principles” (LACDPW 2008, 19, emphasis added). With regards to the Los Angeles River movement, the ideas and language of the integrated water paradigm were utilized by environmental NGOs in their insistence that restoration plans handle the river not just as a linear
101 For a full list of existing plans and studies on the Los Angeles River Watershed at the time of the IRWMP planning process, see Section Two: Analysis of Existing Plans and Studies, in the Integrated Regional Water Management Plan for the Los Angeles River Watershed (2005. 2-1—2-16).
102 For a list of participants in the IRWMP leadership and steering committees, see Section 1-5 of the GLAC IRWMP Final Report (1-8—1-18).
channel but as an integral part and expression of a dynamic and multidimensional system. Organizations such as the Council for Watershed Health, FoLAR, Tree People, and The River Project pointed to the Los Angeles River as a stark illustration of the region’s deleterious and ineffectual water governance regime: spending millions of dollars importing water while disposing of local sources and degrading existing resources through continued armoring of single-purpose infrastructure.
Aside from the GLAC IRWMP, other policies and institutional changes occurring during this time indicate the region’s adoption and implementation of IWM and watershed approaches. On the local level, the city responded to the demands among water activists for better waste- and stormwater infrastructure. In 1999, the city embarked on their Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which involved multiple L.A. city departments jointly coordinating and negotiating a long-term comprehensive water resources management plan.103 Environmental activists who pushed for the IRP campaigned on familiar arguments drawn from the integrated water resource paradigm: that the region’s current urban water regime was not only deleterious but also ineffectual, as millions of dollars were unnecessarily spent importing water while ecologically destructive and single- purpose stormwater/floodwater infrastructure disposed of precious local water sources. Several years later, one of the IRP’s major participants, the city’s Bureau of Sanitation’s Stormwater Division, changed its official title to the Watershed Protection Division in order to better reflect the programmatic—even paradigmatic—changes the agency was undergoing in their approach to achieving water quality compliance.104 In 2008, the LADWP, the city’s water supply agency, created a Watershed Management Group (WMG) tasked with “developing and managing the water system’s involvement in emerging issues associated with local and regional stormwater capture” they understood that by doing so, “other watershed benefits can be achieved including increased water conservation, improved water quality, open space enhancements, and flood control” (LADWP 2010, 138). The forming of the WMG reflected, according to one city representative, a markedly evolved approach to local water sources, where:
[T]he mentality of the department was just recently getting involved in these new technologies of watershed management. [...] Around the same time, that’s when we had some pretty heavy droughts in the city. ...So they were ramping up the water conservation at the same time they were ramping up the water resources group. ...And on top of that add the watershed component to it (Interview #6, 2013).105
The LADWP’s reasoning reflects the statewide motivations for implementing programs such as the IRWMP, with periods of little rainfall and problems with existing infrastructure contributing
103 According to one watershed activist: “The IRP is the Integrated Resources Planning process that began more than a decade ago and it started out initially to deal with wastewater. Some of us, Dorothy Green and myself and Mark Gold pushed the city to include stormwater into it since it sort of came out of issues arising from the interface of stormwater and wastewater, as well as wastewater infrastructure that needed adjusting. We asked them to also include stormwater planning in the process that became a big, big component of it and ultimately laid the groundwork for the low impact development ordinance that passed” (Interview #48, 2012).
104 As one BoS representative shared with me, the name change came through water quality permits: “[T]he watershed concept was more emphasized [in water quality compliance permits] than before. ...This was the first permit that talked about actual development planning, construction planning, and watershed. Obviously, watersheds do impact our water bodies immensely. ...So the name we used to call [ourselves], ‘stormwater management’ became... ‘watershed protection’.” This change, according to him, was not just a new name but a reflection of a “paradigm shift” (Interview #63, 2013).
105 Another city representative gave a similar combination of reasons for the formation of the Watershed Management Group, claiming that: “Knowing how much water just gets wasted out into the ocean, I think there was a realization. As MWD prices kept increasing and continued to increase, I think the department at the management level made a decision, like, we need to change direction here and actually out of necessity make a change and look at this [problem] and see what the benefits are” (Interview #56, 2013).
to growing awareness of possible water shortages in the future. Mounting pressure also came from environmental groups, who rallied behind the adoption of integrated and watershed-based management approaches as worthwhile solutions to California’s (and Los Angeles’) water crisis. One environmental activist succinctly told me that: “If you ever hear the city say ‘watershed’, it’s because we made them say watershed. When you hear DWP talk about getting off of imported water, it’s because we’ve sort of forced them in that direction” (Interview #48, 2012).
The overwhelming amount of work carried out by the city and county of Los Angeles during this period should not detract from the continued activism and river advocacy of NGOs and nonprofit environmental organizations. Organizations involved with both the Taylor Yard and Cornfield land use conflicts continued to participate in the design and creation of the Rio de los Angeles State Park and Los Angeles State Historic Park. Partnering with academics and professional design firms, these organizations produced reports on the cultural, economic, and ecological significance of these new park sites and pushed for plans reflective of community demands/needs (Garcia et. al. 2004; The River Project 2002).The Council for Watershed Health embarked on an urban water capture and augmentation study that resulted in green infrastructure retrofits in the neighborhoods of Sun Valley and Frogtown and new data on stormwater capture as feasible local water source (Figure 3.3). In 2009, FoLAR and a local school partnered with a local television station, KCET, to launch the Los Angeles River Departures project, a “web- based resource that gives people amazing access to the L.A. River” via “interactive maps, interviews with River advocates and stakeholders, and stunning images of the River’s past and present.” (FoLAR website; KCET Departures website). KCET continues to provide extensive coverage of the most recent developments at the Los Angeles River, cementing itself as one of the strongest media advocates within the river movement (Interview #39, 2012).106 Water quality NGOs continued pushing for better standards, compliance, and monitoring at the Los Angeles River, filing a lawsuit against the county in 2008 (discussed in later sections). Like the earlier efforts of the 1980s, the activist work behind the Los Angeles River remained diverse and loosely affiliated, emphasizing different aspects of how the river could be improved.
106 The Departures coverage, however, is partly funded through the city. One city policymaker told me: “We funded KCET for them to do the Departures part of the LA River, so they did a lot of the interviews with people” (Interview #45, 2012).
From Instigators of Change to Professional Partners: The Changing Role of Environmentalists
The latter half of the decade was a period within the L.A. River movement marked by the city assuming a dominant role in plans to restore and revitalize the river. It also saw further formalization of new practices in water governance, through the institutional enrollment and operationalizing of integrated water resources management principles and concepts (such as watershed-as-unit). As the momentum behind efforts to restore and enhance the Los Angeles River became an undeniable political force, the city asserted control over its direction by channeling dollars, technological expertise, and bureaucratic labor power into plans outlining how that restoration was to proceed. It additionally set up new institutional arrangements, such as the formation of the River Revitalization Corporation and a formally established procedural space to coordinate with other invested agencies (such as the County Flood Control District and the Army Corps of Engineers). This unfolded during the time the city undertook other environmental projects through Mayor Villaraigosa’s Green L.A. Plan, which would reduce the city’s climate change impacts and create a “cleaner, greener, sustainable Los Angeles” (City of LA Office of Mayor 2007, 4). The Los Angeles River, then, fully became an item within the city administration’s sustainability agenda. In addition, the incorporation of the L.A. River watershed into watershed-management plans such as the GLAC IRWMP strengthened the discursive and institutional connection between the river and other major regional water issues, such as managing water supply, enforcing the Clean Water Act, and promoting green infrastructure. Through these developments, the L.A. River movement shifted from a primarily activist-led effort to a formalized suite of state-directed programs targeted to a host of environmental issues within the region.
This state formalization process of river restoration efforts did not spring up suddenly, but rather developed over the course of twenty-five years, beginning with the mayor’s creation of a river advisory committee in 1989. Activists and environmentalists sought legitimacy for their new vision of an ecologically-restored, recreationally accessible urban river through appeals of support from political and governing bodies. Through gains of political support for a river restoration agenda, the movement experienced increased government oversight not only of the river itself, but of the plans and projects for its improvement as well. Plans such as the LARMP, LARRMP, CASP, RIO, and the USACE’s Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study signaled state investment into restoration through participation of local, state, and federal agencies, but they also established formal, even bureaucratically ensconced avenues of planning/implementing restoration projects. Though the work of activists, environmentalists, and community oriented NGOs remained vital to the movement, their primary role as instigators of change diminished as a result of the intensified procedural and institutional presence of state actors during this period. Instead, the role of the environmental organizations and NGOs underwent an alteration from provocateurs, in a sense, to consultants and collaborative partners in government-led programs. This pattern, according to Keil and Boudreau, is commonly found in environmental mobilization; this “‘mainstreaming of local environmentalism”, comes about as:
the political astuteness of the environmentalists...while highly successful in changing the urban metabolism of [the city]...became more accommodationist in the process. The protest/activist mode of urban political ecological groups was slowly moulded into a more policy/consultantmode. The growing professionalism of...environmentalists was at once a necessary outcome of the changed political landscape after amalgamation, a function of the career of environmentalist
organizations, and the willingness of urban bureaucracies—which at that point contained many environmentalists themselves—to lend an open ear to the complaints of the movement (2006, 50).
The willingness of urban bureaucracies to respond to environmental demands, and the subsequent professionalization of environmental organizations, both clearly occurred with regards to the Los Angeles River during the latter half of the 2000s. These shifting roles have not entirely gone unnoticed, however, as river advocates commended the local government’s expanded role in greening the watershed while also criticizing some of the ways it has attempted to wrest full control of the process in order to standardize and make legible the spaces and uses of the river.
Making the spaces of the Los Angeles River legible have come with costs. The creative—and illegal—uses of the river, such as boating, fishing, encamping, and graffiti-making have always been and remains an integral part of the river’s rich social history since channelization. With increased attention to the river, both by political actors and the broader public, however, these uses became increasingly monitored, regulated, and policed. The tagging of channel walls, once prevalent, began to be removed en masse in 2009 through the Army Corps of Engineers’ use of stimulus funds from the American Reinvestment and Redevelopment Act; policing of graffiti activities also intensified through the LA County Sheriff Department (Burns 2009). Fishing in the river, an activity largely unregulated in previous decades, became increasingly enforced through the requirement of permits by the California Fish and Wildlife Department. For many longtime fishers (who are low-income and dependent on caught fish for supplementing diets), who fished in the river without permits, enforcement of this activity represented financial burden and exclusionary state intervention.107 Moreover, homeless encampments in the riverbed came under intensified threat of removal as police departments engaged in more aggressive patrolling of the L.A. River.108 Even with activities considered beneficial to the river, such as creating greenspaces along the tops of the channels, the bureaucratization of river improvement resulted in complicated planning procedures that excluded actors who lacked the resources and/or access to continue their work in restoration efforts. According to one environmental consultant I interviewed, projects such as the pocket parks in the Glendale Narrows were “the projects that Northeast Trees pioneered over ten years ago.” However, she continued that:
It says something about the way agencies work that this has now been adopted and mainstreamed by local, county, federal agencies as the kinds of projects to do. So you have these little pioneer organizations who now are actually struggling to remain funded and in business to continue doing
107 Also, author communication with residents, recreationists, and fishermen from March to August 2013.
108 The issue of the homeless population in the Los Angeles River is an ongoing and complicated one. Many homeless people have expressed preference for living in the river due to its spaciousness and quiet relative to other encampment areas, such as Los Angeles’ notorious Skid Row. City, county, and federal agencies with jurisdiction over the river claim that the primary reason for removing homeless encampments from the river is safety, as the river can flood quickly and unpredictably. Numerous cases of rescue teams pulling out homeless individuals during storm events do impart truth to these claims. However, there is no denyingthe fact that removal of these camps is also partly motivated by a desire to placate “legitimate” users of the river who find the presence of homeless populations unwanted and/or dangerous. In numerous meetings/gatherings I attended, the topic of the homeless was brought up by residents in river-adjacent neighborhoods who feared that new parks or greenways along the river would attract undesirable segments of the urban population, including homeless people. Moreover, when the Army Corps razed part of the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve, one of the presented reasons for doing so was clearance of the area to prevent criminal and/or unwanted human activities from being established/carried out. The homeless population is indeed part of the broader discourse of public safety, danger, and crime associated with the L.A. River specifically, as well as the general discourse of waste, undesirability, and dirt attached to homelessness and public space. It is a deeply political and contentious issue that has yet to be resolved, and I cannot fully address the complexities of the issue in this chapter. See Bodago 2015; Goffard 2009; Moore 2012.
the kinds of projects that they do. While these big fat agencies and big engineering companies and landscape architecture firms that are well-established now taking on the kinds of projects that the little guys did (Interview #34, 2012).
Thus, though river proponents during the latter half of the 2000s received political support from city, local, state, and federal agencies, the amplified role of the formal state in restoration agendas marked a change in the movement’s progress. State agencies exerted control over how restoration would unfold via development of formal plans (LARRMP, USACE study), establishing new institutional bodies (RRC, Cooperation Committee), and compiling projects under a massive rubric of watershed management (GLAC IRWMP). In attempting to formalize and make legible the management of the river/watershed and its future possibilities, these state actors reinforced the boundaries between permitted and unsanctioned uses of the river, formalized, bureaucratized mechanisms for implementation of changes, and physically altered the spaces of the river to conform to legitimate management schemes (Scott 1999). This formalization and institutionalization, though not totalizing, resulted in excluding certain actors from not only accessing the river but also procedurally participating in its restoration and redevelopment.