Greening Los Angeles

A typical concrete channel of the Los Angeles River. Photographs courtesy of North East Trees

A typical concrete channel of the Los Angeles River. Photographs courtesy of North East Trees

The Los Angeles River is a strange thing. Most of the time it doesn’t have enough water for most people to consider it much of a river. Before reclaimed water was pumped into it year-round, it used to dry up completely during the summer months. In periods of hard, sudden rainfall, the river is awesome. Brown, rushing torrents travel at fifty-five miles per hour in a mad dash from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Yet, as the water swirls closer to the top of the huge channel, it doesn’t seem so large. This brief but dramatic change in the river’s character accounts for construction that seems, at first glance, to be massively overbuilt. However, after the devastating floods of 1938 in which eighty-five people lost their lives, the Army Corps of Engineers was called in and the current 400-mile system of channelized flood control was built. Part of this system is what we now know as the Los Angeles River.

In a few areas along the river, a concrete channel bottom was not feasible due to the high water table. In these areas the bottom is soft and riparian plant species have established themselves in slower moving, shallow water. Wildlife, including twelve species of birds and ten species of mammals, plus fish and reptiles, call the Los Angeles River home. Usually ignored by passersby, this waterway has, in recent years, received some deserved attention in the creation of several new public spaces from which to view the river. Parks are springing up from waste areas along the top of the channel—among the train yards, bridges, freeways, industrial buildings, and residential areas that cluster along the rim. Tiny, barren corners are becoming green, shady, oases again.

Scott Wilson in front of the cistern being constructed to hold rainwater to irrigate the future turfed area at Multnomah Street School

Scott Wilson in front of the cistern being constructed to hold rainwater to irrigate the future turfed area at Multnomah Street School

Scott Wilson, Visionary

This transformation along the rim of the river is taking place largely because a shared vision is being implemented through the efforts of a team lead by Scott Wilson, president of North East Trees (NET), a small, non-profit, environmental planning and design group. For the last seven years, they have been tackling areas along the sides of the river. Working in conjunction with various government agencies and other non-profit organizations, Scott’s team has designed and installed several small pocket-parks. The land has become available through purchase by other environmental groups such as the Mountains and Recreation Conservation Authority (MRCA) and by Los Angeles County through recently passed bond initiatives. To date 11,000 trees have been planted along ten miles of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco, a major tributary.

Scott, now seventy-eight, has spent the better part of his life contributing to the betterment of Los Angeles. He taught environmental science, urban forestry, landscape design, and construction for thirty years in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). In his hands-on classes at Eagle Rock Junior and Senior High, Crenshaw High, and North Hollywood High schools, students learned skills that would help them get jobs and develop a better understanding and appreciation for the natural world around them. Scott is still strongly committed to ongoing education and helping at-risk youth find work. After his retirement, Scott decided to get serious about giving back to the community. He went back to school and earned a second masters degree, in landscape architecture, from California Polytechnic State University at Pomona, working with the school’s Regenerative Studies Design Team. (His earlier degree was in agricultural education from California Polytechnic at San Luis Obispo in 1953.) He vowed to plant five trees a day for the rest of his life. He is currently about three years ahead of schedule.

At Osos Park, artist Michael Amegua and Congressman Xavier Becerra pose beside a cut-out sculpture of a grizzly, once a resident of the Los Angeles River area

At Osos Park, artist Michael Amegua and Congressman Xavier Becerra pose beside a cut-out sculpture of a grizzly, once a resident of the Los Angeles River area

The philosophy that has guided his career and now guides his team at NET is simple: approach a manageable-sized problem with team effort and see the project through to completion. Hence the name North East Trees; tackle one area at a time, then move on to another area. He began in his own backyard by planting thirty-five trees plus a number of palms. This living laboratory served him well during his career in teaching. He now employs twenty-six high school-aged students in various capacities, always teaching them his philosophy of teamwork and getting the job done, as well as passing on his obvious love of trees and making places better for everyone.

This philosophy can be seen in the small parks along the soft-bottomed areas of the river. In the Zanja Madre Park, signs tell the story of the river’s history and its original human inhabitants, as well as describing the flora and fauna a visitor to the river might see today. Low, curving, river-rock walls create pleasant spaces to sit and view the river. There is no lawn; it would not be sustainable here and therefore it does not belong. Decomposed granite forms the walks and the road to a small parking area. Graceful steel benches and sculptures invite repose and contemplation. The plantings are simple and are composed of native species that would have been found along the river before the encroachment of the city. The sculptures, by artist Michael Amescua, depict various types of wildlife along the river, either present today or, as in Osos Park, only of the past. Located at the corner of Riverside Drive and Oros Street, Osos Park has larger-than-life steel cutouts of mule deer, a mountain lion, and a grizzly bear, all part of the early Los Angeles River fauna. Steelhead Park is enclosed with a fence, designed by Brett Goldstone, that celebrates the much hoped-for return of steelhead trout, which once swam in the river. This park, at the end of Oros Street, has an informal amphitheater where the surrounding neighborhood can gather for events and recreation.

Along a softer section of the Los Angeles River, visitors relax in the shade of a young, native sycamore (Platanus racemosa) in Zanja Madre Park. Interpretive signs behind tell the story of the river.

Along a softer section of the Los Angeles River, visitors relax in the shade of a young, native sycamore (Platanus racemosa) in Zanja Madre Park. Interpretive signs behind tell the story of the river.

Planting a Better Urban Forest

Creating a better, denser urban forest in the northeastern section of Los Angeles has taken Scott and his colleagues at NET into other types of joint ventures as well. His long career with Los Angeles schools and his goal of establishing more urban tree cover have coalesced in projects involving several local schools. At Glassell Elementary School, it meant building raised planters for students to cultivate flowers and vegetables, installing drip irrigation to help conserve water, and teaching the grounds maintenance staff proper pruning and plant care techniques. Scott has been a certified arborist since 1995; tree care, as well as planting, is important to him. Some schools, including Esperanza Elementary, Dahlia Heights Elementary, Ann Street, and Eagle Rock Elementary, have had trees planted on their grounds. In these projects, usually concrete and asphalt are removed to help make the playgrounds or lunch areas more pleasant in the warm months and more healthful year round.

Other projects have been much larger and more complex in their conception and realization. At Multnomah Street School, NET partnered with LAUSD and Hollywood Beautification Team in a sustainable landscape project funded by the Department of Water and Power. A 21,000-gallon underground rainwater cistern collects water during the winter months; solar panels power a pump that lifts the water to a subsurface drip irrigation system, which waters the lawn above the cistern during the summer months. This area used to be covered with asphalt. At that school alone a total of 30,000 square feet of asphalt were removed. Productive trees, including nuts and citrus, were planted. Some impermeable paving was replaced with semi- or permeable surfacings so that winter rains can recharge the soil. Recycled materials have been used whenever possible; concrete removed from one place was used to make low retaining wall seats for the students in another area. The Multnomah Street School project took two years from planning to implementation and serves as a model for a sustainable landscape as well as for interagency cooperation.

Currently NET is beginning another long-term project: a master plan for the Arroyo Seco, from the river’s headwaters in the San Gabriel Mountains to its confluence with the Los Angeles River, where there is to be another park, now in the planning stages. The Arroyo Seco covers twenty-two miles, eleven in the urban area and the other half in the mountains. This project is still in the early stages, but already public meetings have been held.

It takes a special kind of gardener to see a larger community need and work through all of the steps it takes to make that vision a reality. It can be frustrating, but highly rewarding. The Southern California Horticultural Society honored Scott Wilson with its Horticulturist of the Year award for 2000, in recognition of his ongoing work for the betterment of the city’s environment.