Re-Envisioning the Los Angeles River was an ambitious, multifaceted, year-long project organized by Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute in partnership with the community-based environmental organization, Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR) during 1999-2000. Often framed as a hostile environment, an urban wasteland that posed a threat—environmental and otherwise—to the community, the project invited citizens to re-examine and re-imagine the river as a community space and a resource for the city. Over 40 related events, ranging from mayoral candidate debates to poetry readings, film screenings, and art exhibits to interpretive walks and bicycle tours, re-introduced Angelenos to the river in new ways.

“Water is such a powerful statewide issue,” says Project Director Professor Robert Gottlieb, but “the debates around water have been technical and obscurantist.” Re-Envisioning the Los Angeles River responded to the complex social and political problems embodied in the Los Angeles River by using a humanities-based approach in which “words make action possible,” as Professor Gottlieb describes it, and enable the public to better understand and engage with the issue. 

Re-Envisioning the LA River bridged the technical and the personal by engaging multiple sectors and multiple publics in critiquing, expanding, and ultimately, transforming the language, images, and concepts available for thinking about LA’s river. The innovative project was honored by the Federation of State Humanities Councils, which awarded it the annual Helen and Martin Schwartz Prize for Excellence in Public Humanities Programming in 2001. As Lewis MacAdams, co-founder and President of Friends of the LA River, explains, “the river has been trashed by the media as much as it had been trashed by the city.”

Los Angeles is often a microcosm for what happens across the state. The discussions about the LA River helped to spark conversations about urban rivers in other parts of the state and stimulate fresh and creative thinking on the part of planners, designers, politicians, and the general public. In part owing to the attention this project brought to bear on the subject, 15 years later the Los Angeles River remains transformed for Californians from a “concrete coffin” into “a very, very pretty duck,” as journalist Jennifer Price first noted.