Prestigious International Honors for Innovative, Inclusive Upper Los Angeles River Plan

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LOS ANGELES — The influential Upper Los Angeles River and Tributaries Revitalization Plan (ULART), creating a comprehensive framework with 300-plus project site opportunities for the Upper Los Angeles River and its tributaries, has earned a prestigious global 2021 AZ Award from Azure Magazine.

Prevailing over an international field of project submissions, the winning regional plan — commissioned by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, an agency of the State of California, alongside a working group and the joint-powers authority, Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) — has been applauded for treating the tributaries as “valuable social, ecological, and hydrological players in the fight for equity.” Studio-MLA led the design for the ULART plan as part of the multidisciplinary team primed by engineering consultant Tetra Tech. A 23-member working group chaired by Los Angeles Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, and including seven NGO partners, ensured a close partnership with the involved communities.

The Upper Los Angeles River and Tributaries (ULART) Revitalization Plan won in Azure Magazine’s highly competitive “Urban Design Visions” category, which had entries from Italy, Canada, the Netherlands and beyond. ULART stood out, winning the field, said the international jury: “This integrated response to climate change via new green infrastructure, as well as the social infrastructure for renewed equity in cities, is urgently needed,” said AZ Award juror Marc Ryan of Toronto-based design firm Public Work.

Winning projects cited by Azure Magazine “exemplify excellence in innovation, aesthetics, creativity, and social and environmental responsibility.” The publication received over 1,200 entries from 57 countries for the program’s 10 categories. The win adds to Studio-MLA’s long tradition of critical and peer recognition, and it adds to the positive response to recent, wide-ranging initiatives led by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and MRCA.

“The tributaries of the Upper Los Angeles River have been marred by a history of neglect. Today, the hostile concrete landscape offers little in the way of community space or nature” or water quality management, according to Azure Magazine. “Intending to restore all three, the Upper Los Angeles River and Tributaries (ULART) Plan is led by Los Angeles Councilmember Monica Rodriguez, Sarah Rascon of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority [on behalf of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy], and landscape architecture firm Studio-MLA, led by Mía Lehrer.”

Along with others, those professionals collaborated as part of the Upper Los Angeles River and Tributaries Working Group, established within the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy by the California State Legislature in 2017. The team was charged with developing a revitalization plan for the Upper Los Angeles River and its tributaries, with a prioritization on disadvantaged communities.

“It was a privilege to lead this effort that begins to address environmental justice issues in communities that have historically suffered from underinvestment. The plan identifies over 300 opportunity sites for open-space amenities accessible to over 625,000 residents who live within a half mile of the river tributaries,” says the ULART Chair, Councilwoman Rodriguez. “Recognition by Azure of this plan, developed in collaboration with the community, is a testament that the work we are doing is elevating the quality of life for residents in these communities.”

Sarah Rascon, environmental equity officer for MRCA, adds that the working group for the ULART project has included representatives of municipalities, local community leaders, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and elected officials from throughout the Upper Los Angeles River watershed, area. The NGO partners include Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples, Pacoima Beautiful, Friends of the LA River, The River Project, River LA, the William C. Velazquez Institute and the Mulholland Institute. Involved communities that contributed to planning the project’s 344 opportunity areas included six cities throughout Los Angeles County and dozens of Los Angeles city neighborhoods in the Upper Los Angeles River watershed.

“The ULART initiative placed a strong emphasis on disadvantaged areas,” says MRCA’s Rascon. “It also reconnects important tributaries to the Los Angeles River, as it also invests in places that are verdant yet underserved.”

Adds Mía Lehrer, FASLA, president of Studio-MLA, “Among the investments in the ULART plan is the ability to measure and track benefits for resiliency planning in the communities studied, which is critical to the ULART region. We have created a geodatabase and an evaluation strategy that makes project benefits both quantifiable and trackable, to achieve the region’s resiliency objectives. Solving these challenges requires an organizing framework and collaboration between designers, geographic scientist, information technologists, community advocates, business owners, and the people of these places.”

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