The LA River: A case study in civil-works permanence and changing sensibilities
September 24, 2009

The Los Angeles River is mostly a man-made project. The river, which at one time flowed unpredictably all over the Los Angeles region, was formalized and forced into concrete channels after floods early in the 20th Century led to death and destruction. The US Army Corps of Engineers undertook a multi-decade project to control the flow of the river and stabilize it so that occasional high-flow periods didn't disrupt life in the city. But the vast stretches of concrete that seemed modern and progressive in the 1930s and 1940s have attracted vocal opponents today; these people want the river naturalized in ways that would add vegetation and trees, and turn the river into a habitat to be used by people for canoeing and other recreational uses. The city is undertaking a master revitalization plan to take the river in that more natural direction, which goes to show not only how public tastes and perceptions can change over time (after all, in the 1930s, the river was a killer enemy to be contained, not a recreational opportunity), but also how permanent many civil-works projects can be. The man-made river remains, a remnant of a time when the Dow Jones Industrial Average included names like Nash Kelvinator and Woolworth. If projects being designed today last as long, perhaps they will be changed to meet shifts in public tastes in 2078.

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last revised September 2009