Restoring Lost Streams: A Conversation with Jessica Hall, Landscape Architect

Guest Post by: Melina Sempill Watts

Jessica Hall gave a talk back in 2003 about The Lost Streams of L.A that changed how I see landscapes forever.

Hall’s premise: if you want to have a living ecosystem, restore and sustain the natural hydrological systems –even in an urban setting. Since then, Hall has been advocating for, planning, and designing creek restoration projects for over two decades.

What inspired you to become a landscape architect? What led to your interest in creek restoration?

Even before I knew that landscape architecture was a profession, I was thinking about outdoor space – I didn’t have a car for a long time, for an angelena, and walked everywhere. That simple act affected me profoundly. As an architecture student, I often dwelt on the streetscape or exterior context of a project. I also was interested in design as an expression of power. My undergraduate thesis in the early 90s posited a redesign of Hawthorne Blvd to better express the cultures of the people living in my hometown, rather than the priorities of the people passing through, or profiting from it. That was a student project expressing a need for equity in open space. But back to your question, I had an architecture professor tell me once that I was actually a landscape painter. I don’t think he meant it in a dismissive way, he was picking up on my interest in exterior spaces. I thought I might be an urban designer. But I didn’t think of landscape architecture until I actually met some landscape architects – and they were a lot happier than my peers and I in architecture seemed. That got my attention…

Stream restoration evolved out of a graduate research project – it was a passing moment of chance that I learned of streams flowing in some LA backyards, which touched this deep child part of me, that knew creeks and nature from visits to my grandparents – but not from my home environment in the greater LA area, which lit a fire of curiosity to find these lost streams as well as awakened a deep sense of loss for all of us who grew up too far or too poor to drive to the beaches or mountains. I started mapping these streams, seeking their remnants, their ghostly imprints on the land, and was surprised by the springs and fragments that I found, and that generous people also pointed me to. Learning of restoration and creek daylighting elsewhere, and of debates at that time about the LA River, gave me an urgency that we must do better to protect our remaining streams, and that restoration is technically possible – I have learned over the years that the bottom line is actually political will.

Photo by Lou Moerner

That presentation on “The Little Lost Streams of L.A.” that you gave in 2003 or 2004 became central to how I think about sustaining biodiversity. Can you describe what a little lost stream is? How do you use ecological history to understand the original natural hydrology of L.A.?

Well, they’re not all little, but the alliteration is fun! The LA Basin had (has- the streams are still there, entombed) over 100 miles of streams, including many perennial ones. These streams spanned different terrains and social and cultural populations. I’ve heard oral histories of steelhead trout on, for example, a stream in Los Feliz, that also had tiger lilies on it, recalled by a Japanese-American centenarian; of a stream whose banks young Black and White boys would jump on their dirt bikes, dare devil style, red winged blackbirds swooping at them; of a stream fed by a spring that still flows today next to a Tongva village site, of two White neighbors drawing guns because they were both “throwing” a stream into the other’s property to prevent their own from flooding; of a popular riverside beach that was where Mexican Americans could swim, being excluded, along with Black residents, from public swimming pools. Streams are part of our collective history, if not our memory, but they could also be part of our collective present and future: climate change surely begs us to start thinking about them that way.

These stories help us to understand what was here (freshwater shrimp! artesian wells! grizzlies!) but they also give life to the character of the many different kinds of waterways the region had, and help to build a picture of how ecologically diverse the basin itself was, and could be.

What’s the difference between a storm drain and a creek?

Well, that’s kind of a trick question to me: on a superficial level, storm drains are engineered conveyances of surface runoff. But some storm drains are streams locked in concrete, replacing their path and all the life they support, with buried tubes (culverts) or open canal-like channels. If I know that storm drain #5202 replaced Arroyo del Cal, then I’m calling it Arroyo del Cal. It’s in a creek crypt, but for us it would be a creek, and it could again be a creek.

Creeks, streams, arroyos, rivers – they all do the same basic things: they convey water (if only seasonally in some cases), sediment, and they dissipate energy. Those simple acts cause them to form a bed, banks, channel and floodplain, and of course to act as a springboard for so much more life.

I also gotta say: that floodplain is really really important, ecologically and hydrologically. It provides free passive groundwater recharge and flood storage. But it’s the first thing to get squeezed.

What does it mean to daylight a buried stream? Do you have an example project?

Daylighting in stream restoration jargon means specifically to remove the culvert pipes of a buried stream – to dig down to where the pipes are, regrade a natural channel, and pull those pipes out. Think of it as, “Arise, Lazarus”. (Jargon: channelized streams are naturalized, culverted or “buried” streams are daylighted)

Examples – there’s a famous example in Providence, RI where daylighting of a river under a parking lot drove the rehabilitation of a commercial district. More recently, the removal of a multi-kilometer section of freeway and daylighting of the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul demonstrated what political will can achieve.

Shortly pre-pandemic, I had a revegetation design role in a daylighting project here in Eureka where the City decided the benefits of daylighting were greater than replacing a failing stormdrain that was undermining a road.

The mother lode of daylighting that I know of is in the SF East Bay, including in the median of a street, through a school, and as part of multifamily housing developments. Sometimes daylighting is required as part of the approval process. I’m saying this to point to, again, the role of political will. Advocates can demonstrate possibility but it takes institutions to institutionalize change. Policy with follow through matters.

How do you see creek restoration work impacting local water quality and biodiversity?

So this is both really simple and really complicated.

The famous “swimmable, fishable, drinkable waters” phrase referenced in the Clean Water Act [in the United States] preamble describes our relationship to rivers, and their centrality to the intent of the Act. Rivers and streams are supposed to be one of those things whose value we shouldn’t have to quantify. It troubles me that what in the early 2000s was a recognition of the inherent connection between healthy watersheds, open space, flood management, and water quality benefits – which should have made rivers and streams central to the planning process, and opened up opportunities for more green space in LA’s dense under-parked communities of color – became distorted in the LA area by the centrality of test tube water quality results.

That shift from a watershed-based discourse to a test-tube results-based discourse has also largely removed the role of land use planning decisions and their impacts (and discussion/policy about the consequences of “highest and best” use approaches to land use) from the conversation. Our public works managers are then left to shoulder the effects of all those land use decisions.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For example, there is real difference between how different Regional Water Quality Control Boards – the entities in California that regulate water quality (under the auspices of the State Water Resources Control Board) implement clean water policies with the result that, for example, streams get restored in the San Francisco Bay Area, and as mentioned earlier, restoration can be built into development approval conditions. The LA area needs to step outside of “impossible” thinking when it comes to streams and start to use the tools that other regions have championed.

Jessica Hall is owner and principal at Wildling Design Studio, Hall has clients from Humboldt to L.A. County. She is also the Restoration and Policy Director at the California Urban Streams Partnership. Hall has a BA in architecture from Princeton and an MA in landscape architecture from Cal Poly -Pomona.

 

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