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Treating Cancer with Landscape Architecture
Silver Lake Reservoir


An Associated Press article published by The New York Times a couple of months ago told us that the Elysian and Silver Lake—the “two reservoirs that supply drinking water” to sections of Los Angeles—were found to contain “high levels of the carcinogen bromate.” When alerted, the city's Department of Water and Power took them both out of service and announced that beginning early this year, they would drain, clean and refill the reservoirs, a process that could last until the summer.

Alternatively, they could consider implementing in parts or in whole a design proposal from out of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the California Polytechnic State University in Pomona.

In this proposal — the product of a collaboration in 2005 between Ken McCown, Andy Wilcox and Kevin Hinders, with research and production assistance from their students — the fenced-off Silver Lake is turned into a public open space hosting one giant bioremediating ecological machine, one that could theoretically render inert the cancer-causing bromate and other pollutants.

Silver Lake Reservoir


The key elements are thus:

1) Presently, the Colorado River and the California Aqueduct supply water to the reservoir, though in the past, the Los Angeles River was the feeder channel. The proposal restores this historical link.

2) A terraced ring canal follows the contour of the reservoir. Installed on the terraces are modular biopods used to bioremediate the 43 pollutants listed by the EPA as present in the Los Angeles River. The cleaned water is then gathered and stored in an underground tank beneath the reservoir before it is put out for use in the city.

It's landscape turned into a therapeutic and preventative medicine, applying natural processes into an artificial apparatus.

Silver Lake Reservoir


Silver Lake Reservoir


Silver Lake Reservoir


Continuing on:

3) The inner wall of that canal forms an internal dam that elevates the water level for the purposes of aesthetics.

4) The whole site is turned into a park, the third largest in a city that “suffers from a paucity of recreation and occupiable public space in comparison to other world cities of similar prominence by almost every means you can measure for this!” Instead of jogging along a fenced periphery, people can do so inside, on top of the canal or on designated paths.

5) The park has an unabashedly pedagogical program. There is a water center, water laboratories, a community center, a library, a pythoremediation garden, and a demonstration and research wetland.

In other words, it's like a Museum of Science and Industry. One wonders if every elementary school kids in the Greater Los Angeles area will be forced to go on field trips there, creating indelible childhood memories that will either be positive or negative ones.

One kid in particular will accidentally get pricked by an irradiated transgenic post-plant. The following morning, he tells his perplexed aunt and uncle that he wants to become a landscape architect when he grows up. That or he mysteriously mutates overnight into a Phytoremediating Superhero. Exactly who or what he will be fighting for and fighting against will be the so-called hero's dilemma. Our awesome screenplay for his story will be turned into a blockbuster movie. The Superfund Trilogy.

Silver Lake Reservoir


In any case, we're anticipating that questions will be asked about the viability of the proposal to detoxify the water and about what actual plants and organisms will the biopods have.

We have this suggestion: to brush up on the scientific literature and perhaps create a plant list of your own in process, browse through this website by John W. Cross (last update: September 27, 2007) on all things phytoremediation. Primarily bibliographical, it only lists books, journals, peer reviewed articles and links to other sites on the topic, but what a list! And though its listings may not be exhaustive, compared to this site and this EPA site, the quantity shouldn't be very intimidating to non-scientists.

Silver Lake Reservoir


Larger versions of the images can be viewed in Ken McCown's Flickr photoset, which also contains other images of the proposal.


Revival Field
12 COMMENTS —
  • Sally Big Woods
  • February 20, 2008 at 10:33:00 AM CST
  • I {heart} your blog.

    Keep up the great work!


  • Feileac├ín
  • February 21, 2008 at 5:21:00 AM CST
  • Oh, this is beautiful ... The balance between the restorative and the functional architecture is great here. I really hope this proposal is realized!


  • Lisa
  • February 22, 2008 at 1:53:00 PM CST
  • Can't wait for the 'the superfund trilogy' to hit the big screens!


  • Anonymous
  • February 28, 2008 at 2:06:00 PM CST
  • Cancer or this plan? Those are our choices? Irresponsible and thoughtless...
    Nobody's getting cancer and the draining/covering of the reservoir will ensure that this never happens.
    Silver Lake residents have consistently requested that the reservoir and the surrounding property be pretty much left alone - not turned into a science project.


  • saintclair
  • February 28, 2008 at 3:29:00 PM CST
  • no plan, when it comes to thoughtful and responsive landscape architecture, can be called irresponsible. everything we do as landscape architects should be grounded in the improvement of surrounding context and environment -- this is a beautiful graphic and technological exploration into the possibilities for a contaminated site. whether or not it is the final answer, or even the right answer, it is a considered and creative resolution to one of countless environmental issues we face as a practicing field in a global society. theoretical exploration, built work, small steps and sweeping changes all matter, enormously. whether you consider them science projects or not.


  • Anonymous
  • February 28, 2008 at 11:20:00 PM CST
  • The irresponsible part was in positing cancer (!) vs. this plan, as if those were the only options available.


  • Alexander Trevi
  • February 29, 2008 at 3:22:00 AM CST
  • Cancer was inferred from the phrase "carcinogen bromate." The qualification of the chemical is theirs, not mine.

    The Associated Press reporter also wrote: "Officials emphasized that the chemical is dangerous only after long-term consumption."

    In other words, you're not going to get cancer tomorrow by drinking water with the same level of the pollutant as that was detected and reported to be present in SLR. But the possibility is apparently at such a level that, however low that is considering the present consumption pattern of those who use SLR water, officials are going to these extraordinary lengths -- "amid drought conditions" -- to rid of the its presence.

    And of course these are NOT the only options! Where did I say that Los Angeles had only these two options? It's rather disingenuous to say that there are only these two -- "Cancer or this plan?" -- since the implication is: SL residents would be forced (by the Cal Poly team by virtue of thinking up "this plan") into adopting it because no one would ever choose "cancer."

    I wrote about an "alternative," which the Department of Water and Power may "consider." That is, should officials come by this corner of the net, they are alerted of this proposal. If they are intrigued by what they read here, then hopefully they may want to download the images and text.

    But the Cal Poly proposal is by no means the ONLY option with which it should be presented oppositionally to "cancer." There are other options. But for my own purposes, there's that proposal.

    This is a landscape architecture blog and speculative proposals working at the level of landscape design are within our purview. Thus this post. Furthermore, it touches on a few things in which I have a long-standing interest, e.g., hydrology, remediation and constructed wetlands. If the proposal were just a bunch of policies and no design, then no post.

    Meanwhile, where did I present "cancer" as part of your imagined duality?

    The primogenitor of the word "cancer" in the title is the phrase "carcinogen bromate" but as you read the post and, as it is written in hypertext, follow the links to the AP article, to the Ken McCown's Flickr photo set and to all the other linked sites, it should be clear that that word refers, in general, to water pollution, of which Los Angeles isn't the only place with this problem, and, specifically, to the pollutants in the Los Angeles River. (Yes, the river. But how did it come into the discussion? Read the post and the proposal again.) "Treating" and "remdiation" (the bio, the phyto and the unprefixed kinds) are used here synonomously.

    If that wasn't clear enough, then my writing is entirely at fault.

    Lastly, SL residents don't want a "science project"? They don't want to reduce the amount of pollutants in the Los Angeles River? To allow discoveries to be made which could have great applications in devasted landscapes? To further the cause of science and science education? To drastically increase the area of public open space in LA?

    I hope they have perfectly reasonable reasons other than protecting their property values and preventing tax hikes. These may be understandle reasons to a lot of people. However, I'll be very disheartened to hear them.


  • nadej
  • March 4, 2008 at 7:55:00 PM CST
  • just a general comment
    your blog is amazing.
    any way to receive the update via e-mail??????


  • Alexander Trevi
  • March 6, 2008 at 6:11:00 PM CST
  • Hey nadej, I haven't yet set up a mechanism in which readers can receive new posts via e-mail, simply because I don't know how.

    As I am the admin of this blog, Blogger sends me copies of my posts every time one is published. I don't think there is a similar Blogger option for readers. And why you can be notified of new comments but not posts is a mystery to me.

    However, as the RSS is accessible to all, perhaps there's a syndication service, e.g., FeedBurner, that allows you receive updates.

    With that said, I recommend using an aggregator like Google Reader or Bloglines instead of emails.


  • odris
  • November 18, 2008 at 9:49:00 AM CST
  • `si esta rebueno tu blog
    esta interesante la opinion de los demas


  • Anonymous
  • January 24, 2009 at 2:28:00 PM CST
  • Isn't the Silver Lake Reservoir currently fed by the Los Angeles Reservoir which delivers its water from the Owens Valley?


  • Anonymous
  • February 9, 2009 at 6:13:00 PM CST
  • Well, the idea behind doing this project was to provoke our thoughts about 'leaving landscapes alone.' This mode of thinking is outdated, and not sustainable. No landscapes can continue to exist in perpetuity as static elements, and designs that don't take into account process are sucking energy, materials and money.

    So, I'm so glad to see you post this project on your blog, and I'm really glad to see it provoking the discussion that it has.

    This was never meant as *THE* design for the reservoir, but to get a dialogue going about what should be happening that would be more open than 'leave it alone' which is what the new park there essentially does anyway while ignoring important processes happening.

    Yes, the Owens Valley is a feeder of the reservoir, the LA river used to feed it, and from our research in speaking with DWP is that the pipes are still there.


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