As a resident of Los Angeles, CA—a megalopolis with the dubious distinction of having one of the lowest percentages of public green space for any city of its size or stature—I find what little nature that does remain to be indispensable. One of the places I return to again and again to escape the chaos of the city is the Los Angeles River—Southern California’s most poignant symbol of human efforts to alter the natural environment in the pursuit of development.
Because the river is prone to intense flash flooding during the wet winter season, in the early 20th century the 51-mile-long waterway became increasingly problematic as the city expanded. In the late 1930s, the L.A. River was channelized in what was proclaimed a triumph of man over nature, transforming it into the giant concrete scar that winds its way from Canoga Park to the Pacific Ocean.
Surprisingly few Angelenos are even aware that the massive man-made drainage ditch they see from the freeway was once a verdant habitat for a diversity of birds, mammals, and fish; or, that today there are still several soft-bottom stretches where natural springs prevented the concrete from taking hold, offering a rare chance for nature to thrive amidst the sprawl. One has to know where to look, but a sense of what once was here—before all the cars and people—can still, to some extent, be found.