Posted August 13th 2010 at 8:58 am by
in Art and Culture Mapping on the LA River, Los Angeles

Research, Reflection, and Relevance on the Los Angeles River

On Tuesday, July 20th I presented my MIT masters thesis, Culture in Concrete: Art and the Re-imagination of the Los Angeles River as Civic Space, to a group of twenty Los Angeles-based urban planners, policy-makers, urban designers, and artists at g727, a gallery focused on art, design, and urbanism co-owned by MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning alumnus James Rojas. This was a welcomed opportunity to share my thesis research findings, ideas, and recommendations with a core group of people involved with ensuring and protecting a healthy and multivalent future for the Los Angeles River. It was also a great way to thank many key individuals who were instrumental to and supportive of my thesis research.

John's thesis presentation in LAJohn Arroyo, left, presents his thesis research to Los Angeles-based urban planners, policy-makers, urban designers, and artists at g727. Photo by Patti McGuire.

Now that a few months have passed since completing and submitting my thesis in late May 2010, I have had more time to reflect on my thesis writing process and its relevance for civic space both in Los Angeles and across other American cities. As is the process with many theses, I wasn’t certain what results my research would yield.  Nonetheless, I was fueled by my personal love for and connection with my hometown as well as from  encouragement from other city planners, artists, and policy-makers to view urban development and the revitalization of the Los Angeles River through the lens of arts and culture.

Upon beginning my thesis research, what struck me the most about my topic was that despite the large number of arts and culture projects happening along the Los Angeles River, none have ever been formally documented or analyzed with respect to the current and former planning efforts along the River. As I stated in the prologue to my thesis, I have always lived near the Los Angeles River. For this reason, I grew very interested in the way a city like Los Angeles interprets abandoned and industrial spaces.

As a result, my most significant research finding was one I had not originally considered: A space like the Los Angeles River, despite the many negative connotations associated with it, has the potential to be the civic space Los Angeles has long dreamed of but never achieved. From Latino families to urban youth to large homeless encampments, the River is an environment that allows for a freedom of expression for anyone, regardless of race, background, or any other social, cultural, economic, or political factor. It is a 52-mile long space that is unique among any other existing or planned space in Los Angeles. As I stated in my thesis, I found the Los Angeles River to be Los Angeles’ truest civic space. It is a unifying physical and cultural element of Los Angeles, but unfortunately, one which many misunderstand.

During my thesis presentation in Los Angeles, I commented on how the River influenced my life and my early concepts of civic space in Los Angeles. Although Los Angeles is known for its lack of civic space, my native view of the city was fueled by growing up in East Los Angeles, one of the most park-poor communities in the region. For this reason, it was very important for me to look at the River from the geographic scope and perspective I selected: Glendale Narrows, Arroyo Seco, and the downtown industrial channel are the segments of the River most closely associated with the consciousness of Los Angeles’ Eastside.

Although the time period in which one writes a thesis was very accelerated, the entire experience taught me great lessons about pursuing my inner passions, the value of pioneering new research, working in uncharted territory, and the need for urban planners to tailor their research to specific cases.  I learned that research should not be only for academic circles, but also for the communities and individuals that form basis of our research. The outcomes of my thesis research also provided a very personal and professional outcome for my own life. I learned that the power of cultural landscapes in urban planning, urban design, and urban policy-making was not only a valid and critical connection, but one that should be I should continue to investigate through different geopolitical perspectives.

John on El Camino

John Arroyo on El Camino in Spain. He is walking eight hours a day for over a month to complete the El Camino trek.

I am currently writing this post from a small mountain town called Torres del Rio in the Navarra region of Spain. I am here because last week I embarked on El Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile, thirty-six-day hike along southern France and northern Spain. El Camino is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important cultural landscapes in Europe.  Its roots trace back to the fifteenth century. In just over a month, pilgrims come from all over the world to share language, food, history, stories, and culture with 300,000 other pilgrims on a yearly basis. We hike seven to eight hours a day and cover fifteen to twenty miles a day. Along the way we experience both urban and natural environments as well learn about the significance of cultural, religious, and artistic sites that cross borders and faith systems.

It’s already been an amazing experience and has provided me much reflection time. Some do El Camino for religious reasons, but others others do it for the sake of finding peace and tranquility, to meet others, and to experience living life with the bare necessities.  Each walker has roughly eight pounds on his back. For that which you don’t bring or have, you can trust that other pilgrims will provide.

along the trail, El Camino

Arroyo took this photo as he entered the historic Roman town of Ciraqui.

I have found El Camino to be very much a physical and cultural metaphor for life. We are advised to follow the yellow arrows and the clearly marked path, but sometimes we lose our way. When we reach forks in the road, we wonder which is the correct path. And where mountains rivers present obstacles, we forge ahead, for the risk is certainly worth the reward of trusting your fellow pilgrims and ultimately renewing your faith in the power to collectively achieve a goal. At the end of each day I realize the universal language that bridges all our barriers is our culture – our culinary traditions, music, art, history, and our ability to enjoy each others differences. For urban planning and urban design, especially along the River, this lesson can be applied to ensuring that planning is an open, non-proprietary process. Planning requires the support of many individuals and systems. Like El Camino, it is a communal process.

My thesis sparked so much further interest in cultural landscapes that after I complete El Camino, I will be return to Barcelona to work as a Research Assistant at the International Laboratory for Cultural Landscapes at MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI Spain).

For those interested in reading my thesis online or downloading a copy, please visit:

For those interested in following my cultural landscape adventures along El Camino de Santiago, please visit:

As Henry David Thoreau once said (also one of my favorite quotes in my thesis), “…the life in us is like water in the river.”  Whether it’s urban planning and design or life in general, as they say on El Camino, “Buen Camino.”

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