Skip to main content.

Health and the River: How Restoring Urban Rivers Can Revitalize Cities

Health and the River: How Restoring Urban Rivers Can Revitalize Cities

Picture of Andrea Kobrinsky Alday

los angeles river, reporting on health, environmental health

What stretches 51 miles, provides a home to 200 species of birds and 19 species of reptiles and amphibians, appears in dozens of movies, but remains largely invisible, even to people who pass by several times a day? It's the Los Angeles River, the longest paved waterway in the world, which runs through 13 different cities as it winds its way from Canoga Park to the Pacific Ocean.

"The most extraordinary thing about this extraordinary river is that no one seems to know where it is," says Jenny Price, an author and river activist. "How does a city lose its river?"

Historically, the Los Angeles River sometimes has been maligned as nothing more than a gigantic drainage ditch and ignored by the vast majority of those who live and work along its path. But these days, it's the focus of a new federal effort to address blight and ill health in some of the country's densest neighborhoods by creating parks and bringing back wetlands along major urban rivers. By restoring their rivers, cities can restore the health of residents, the thinking goes among planners from agencies as diverse as the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

All across the country, federal and local partnerships are taking up the cause of restoring and revitalizing rivers. The health and well being of millions of people who live near the riverbanks or benefit from local watersheds are at stake. In every region, the challenge is to balance a need to protect homes and businesses from storm surges with protecting watersheds and underground aquifers. The river revitalization movement also promises new opportunities for local residents to access riverfront trails, parks, and bike paths.

Environmental officials for the county and city of Los Angeles have been cited as leaders in this effort. In the mid-90s, they adopted and began to implement ambitious master plans to develop parks, walkways, bike paths, and watershed improvements.

We took our 2011 National Health Journalism Fellows on a field trip that put them up close -- and in some sections, right into the Los Angeles River -- to examine both the challenges and possibilities of urban river revitalization. Our river guides were Joe Linton, author of "Down by the Los Angeles River," the official guide of Friends of the Los Angeles River, and Jenny Price, author of "Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America" and "Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A."

A historic spot where the LA River meets the Arroyo Seco

Multimedia journalist Luis Sierra Campos and I documented the trip in the audio slideshows below, using photos by Augustin Ruelas.

Ed Reyes, a Los Angeles City Councilman who played a pivotal role in these efforts, sees the river restoration as a chance to create local public works jobs as well as a way to provide a needed refuge for inner city kids living in densely populated neighborhoods. A restored river, he says, would provide "layers of opportunity" for inner-city youth to clean the river, learn ecosystem science, and find release from the "pressures of poverty."

Adds Carol Armstrong, Co-Director of the Los Angeles River Project Office, "So many kids grow up without any access to nature at all. It's engaging and important mentally for that respite from the harsh urban environment. It helps you understand you are part of a larger environment."

Beyond the Fences and Barbed Wire

If such projects are successful, the potential public health benefits could be substantial, including improved water and air quality, reduced rates of obesity and diabetes, and increased civic pride in once-blighted neighborhoods. Walking and bicycling could become a part of daily life for many more people and communities once cut off from each other by steep concrete walls and wire fencing could be reconnected by green belts, bridges, and pathways, offering access to local markets and opening up green space for social gatherings and recreation.

When a river is encased in concrete and engineered to direct scores of small tributaries and thousands of urban storm drains into one channel, it interrupts the natural process of water absorption that disperses rainwater over wide areas and restores ground water supplies. Precious rainwater flows across oil-laden concrete sidewalks and asphalt streets and through drainage ditches and canals, picking up tons of trash, pesticides, and other contaminates all along the way. The results are shrinking groundwater supplies, fewer natural ecosystems, and growing ocean and beach pollution.

According to Joe Linton, one of our river guides, it could take a century to re-engineer, block by block, urban neighborhoods' handling of landscaping and storm run-off so that the region's watershed can be restored, but the process has begun. Los Angeles has already restored several mini-watersheds in local neighborhoods. Oros Street in the Elysian Valley became L.A.'s first complete "Green Street" project back in 2007. Gutters and storm drains that used to flush runoff into concrete channels have been replaced with sidewalk filtration grates that divert water to the aquifer, where it is purified naturally. What's the potential payoff? For Los Angeles, which has inspired the enmity of its neighbors by buying their water, it could mean increased self-reliance on its own restored local aquifers.

To get a firsthand sense of the potential, our National Health Journalism Fellows visited another spot on the river where storm water is collected and purified. Marsh Street Park hosts a children's play area surrounded by native landscaping and provides an entry point to one of the greenest sections of the LA River, known as the Glendale Narrows.

Conserving Precious Rainwater in a Thirsty Region

National Health Journalism Fellows waded into the river story at the Arroyo Seco Confluence. Arroyo Seco (which means "dry stream" in Spanish) begins high in the Angeles National Forest and ends in a concrete channel not far from Dodger Stadium.

A historic spot where the LA River meets the Arroyo Seco

The stream flows through steep mountain ravines and canyons before it meets the Los Angeles River at the Arroyo Seco Confluence. This is a historic location where, according to Linton, the earliest written account of the Los Angeles area, in 1769, described a "lush and pleasant spot with tall trees, abundant water, and plentiful game."

One of the most iconic places along the river is at the 6th Street Bridge, which divides East L.A. from the Westside. It is both a geographical marker and, historically, a racial divide between Latino L.A. and the more affluent neighborhoods to the west. Here, water runs below concrete embankments through a gritty industrial landscape surrounded by power lines and railroad tracks. During the rainy season, a torrent of water can rip through this channel at up to 45 miles per hour. But in the summer, the river is typically reduced to a trickle. If you have ever seen the 1978 movie "Grease," this is where the big car race near the end was filmed.

Few people venture close to the river where it flows through downtown Los Angeles

This is also one of the locations where a major transformation is in the works, as part of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. River advocates say it will never be possible to return the waterway to a true natural state. But like the Thames and the Seine, it could become the "front door" to the city, visible and accessible and offering places to stroll and meet along its banks, rather than remaining a contaminated eyesore hidden behind high walls and fences.

Reimagining a Downtown Waterfront

After passing through the downtown area, the Los Angeles River flows by some of the most densely populated and heavily industrialized neighborhoods in Southern California. The lack of parks, open space, and recreation opportunities in this region is underscored in series of maps on the city's River Revitalization Web site. From downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach, the river maps graphically document high poverty levels, a large youth population, and a striking lack of parks.

National Fellows wound up their river tour by examining public health and recreational access disparities in the city of Maywood. Here, nearly 30,000 people are packed into an area a little more than one square mile in size. At the Maywood Riverfront Park, one of only two small parks in the city, fellows heard how plans to revitalize the river could help efforts to improve the health of the community by providing opportunities to bicycle, walk, and play.

Maywood city officials started planning a park in 2000 at an unlikely place, a toxic Pemaco Superfund site that was one of the only open parcels available for parkland. Maywood Riverfront Park was completed in 2006. Efforts are still under way to expand the site and its connection with the Los Angeles River Greenway Project. The park is open for public use, even as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Regional Water Quality Control Board continue cleaning up deep soil and groundwater contamination.

The revitalization of the Los Angeles River is a massive, $2-billion-plus undertaking that requires the cooperation of dozens of local, state, and federal agencies, a great deal of political will power, and public support. It means ripping up miles of concrete, cleaning up industrial sites, and building new paths, terraced embankments, and greenbelts. But as Jenny Price, one of our river guides, pointed out, possibly the hardest part of the revitalization effort lies in changing how people go about their daily lives.

Health Concerns that Reach Far Beyond the River

Links to more information:

Los Angeles' Forgotten River

L.A. River Maps

200 River Projects

EPA Urban Waters Web Site

Nationwide Urban River Renaissance

Friends of the Los Angeles River

The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan

LA Creek Freak

Arroyo Seco Foundation

Politics and the River - Joe Linton Backgrounder at Maywood Riverfront Park


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.

The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Symposium on Domestic Violence provides reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The next session will be offered virtually on Friday, March 31. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


Follow Us



CHJ Icon