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Can L.A. Survive?

Our region's fragile environmental balance demands changes in the way we live

October 19, 2003|William Deverell And D.J. Waldie | William Deverell is an associate professor of history at Caltech. D.J. Waldie is a Lakewood city official and author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir."

Is Los Angeles sustainable? It depends.

The city, like many in the semiarid West, is poised on an exceedingly narrow environmental ledge. It's maintained there by elaborately engineered systems to import water, manage flood protection, move goods and make daily life predictably ordinary. A major earthquake, a prolonged drought or (paradoxically) an era of increased flooding would sweep the city and the region into chaos. It could take a trillion dollars, after the worst of these environmental disasters, to put L.A. back together again.

Catastrophic earthquakes, fires, floods and droughts have ravaged the Los Angeles Basin before. On the scale of thousands of years, they're bound to happen again; we just don't know when.

What we do know, thanks to new scientific studies and increasing sophistication in interpreting their data, is a great deal more about the fragile environment of Los Angeles and the complex ways the environment has been shaped to answer the demands of our collective desires. The natural history of L.A. contains monsters -- like the floods of 1914 that turned the southern half of the county into a vast, shallow lake -- but it also contains all of us, uneasy figures in the landscape, trying to become native to our place.

It doesn't help to pretend -- and it's mostly pretending -- that California's Native Americans lived in undisturbed harmony with the environment. They put a lighter footprint on the landscape, but native peoples were still people, behaving as people always do. When conditions harshened, it appears that they took the stress out on one another -- the bow and arrow, a relatively late arrival here, exacted a hard toll on the limbs and bodies of native peoples as they tried to fit themselves into natural systems that their presence irrevocably altered.

Just as unhelpful is easy contempt for L.A. as the "capital of sprawl." Angelenos have always tried -- and always failed -- to balance competing metaphors of "opportunity" and "livability" to improve on the nature they've found. The rough compromise they worked out, beginning in the 1880s, was mostly rows of suburban houses on a grid of streets extending to the limits of a region that now is just about built out. You might call Los Angeles our ruined paradise and our home.

If we're to make Los Angeles sustainable, one thing we must do better is connect the region's remaining nature with the home we've made. We have incomparable beaches and mountains, but they're separated from poor, urban neighborhoods by an inadequate and wearying public transit system. Schools in urban neighborhoods stand empty through too many hours of the week, their asphalt playgrounds baking in the sun. Homeowners struggle to maintain landscapes better suited to the English Midlands, where the annual rainfall averages about 30 inches. (The average in Los Angeles is less than half that.) The city of Los Angeles imports water from Northern California and the Colorado River at significant environmental cost and flushes treated wastewater out to sea along with nearly all the runoff from winter rains.

There are better models. On the southeast side of the county, for example, 37% of the water that recharges municipal wells comes from reclaimed wastewater, and nearly 30% comes from capturing and reusing rainfall. And there are other signs that hopeful things are happening throughout the county. The Taylor Yard State Park along the Los Angeles River is being developed, with benefits for the neglected river environment as well as downtown neighborhoods. Then there's the new 32-acre Cornfield State Park, jutting into Chinatown nearby, where a collaborative process with community members has begun laying out a plan for this new open space.

The 52-mile Los Angeles River greenway project, linking the river, new state parks and the Arroyo Seco with bike and walking trails is moving forward (although more slowly than most had hoped). Environmental repair of the Arroyo Seco got a boost from the recent ArroyoFest that closed the Pasadena Freeway and let walkers and cyclists travel the historic corridor from Pasadena to downtown. A project for a Los Angeles heritage trail, connecting all these sites and more than a dozen other "places of memory" in downtown and East Los Angeles, is being vigorously advocated.

Every bit adds up.

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