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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Most Sustainable Street in LA

Air Date: Week of September 30, 2011

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Neighborhoods at the foot of the mountains north of Los Angeles sometimes flood with heavy rains. But one street in Sun Valley has been re-engineered to capture the rain and turn it to drinking water. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: When it rains in the mountains to the north of Los Angeles, water pours down into the valley basin below. The city’s concrete and paved streets speed and channel the flow of run off – the water often inundates low-lying neighborhoods. But as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, one street seems to have solved the problem.

[SOUNDS OF TRAFFIC, CARS PASSING]

LOBET: The LA neighborhood known as Sun Valley is sun-baked and far from the coastal breezes that cool parts of the city. Some residents have dealt with the cost of keeping up their yards by paving them over. But on one street - Elmer Avenue - the yards are especially vibrant.

HERNANDEZ: This neighborhood has gone through a transformation. My name is Edward Hernandez and I have been an Elmer Avenue resident for 35 years. I grew up on this Avenue.

LOBET: When it rains, forty acres of foothill drain down onto Elmer Avenue. For decades, residents struggled with water.

HERNANDEZ: We just had what I think is neglect from the city with our street paving condition. Anytime we did get a pothole repaired, it did not last a storm. It wouldn’t last a storm.

LOBET: Word of the conditions on Elmer Avenue reached Edward Belden and his boss Nancy Steele of the Los Angeles & San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council. They remember what they saw:

BELDEN: This street in particular has a huge amount of water from upstream that comes down to it. This is actually the area where all the newscasters come out to. You know, some of the water comes up to cars - up to the wheel wells of cars.

STEELE: So, imagine a street with no curbs, no gutters, no sidewalks, no streetlights. The grass just ended at the asphalt. And people parked usually on the asphalt, but sometimes they parked on the grass.

LOBET: Elmer Avenue was just what the Watershed Council was looking for: a neighborhood with very porous soils, serious flooding problems, residents who were game for a big experiment and a street that needed resurfacing.

[SOUND OF RUSHING WATER]

LOBET: These were the first heavy rains to fall on the re-engineered street. What the Watershed Council, together with half a dozen agencies, did, was dig up the pavement and put in a system to mimic the original water dynamics of the area. Now rainwater flows along new curbs, then into holes in the curb that lead to a series of swales, or carved out depressions, lined with gravel and native plants. Again Nancy Steele.

STEELE: Rain that falls on the street flows into the swale, fills up, and when it get above a certain level, the water actually flows back out of the swale, into the gutter, and down to the next swale on the street.

LOBET: The water then fills a gravel cavern beneath the street, and recharges wells that LA actually uses for drinking water. The agencies monitor the quality and amount of the percolating water. So far, it is both clean and plentiful.

STEELE: So, this street is actually generating more water than the people on this street can use in a year.

LOBET: The City of Los Angeles is looking for funding to replicate some of the features here. Neighbors now choose Elmer Avenue to stroll. They’re drawn to the new oaks and sycamores, and the new meandering sidewalks. Maria Oliva lives on a different street nearby.

[OLIVA IN SPANISH]

OLIVA TRANSLATION: The neighbors say this street is really beautiful. And you know, it makes people jealous. Why don’t they do our street? The next street is bad. The other one over there is worse. And this one looks so good. I hope they’ll be able to do the other streets here.

[SOUND OF SHOVELING LAND IN WHEELBARROW]


Sidewalks on Elmer Avenue are not straight, they meander adding visual interest. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

LOBET: On a Saturday morning, some neighbors are out for a work party to help the new landscaping get established.

HERNANDEZ: Hey Lane! What are you doing here on a Saturday?

[OFF MIC FRIENDLY CONVERSATION]

LOBET: Edward Hernandez’ front yard is immaculate, and now includes permeable pavers. He says the benefits of the retrofit go beyond fixing the water problems.

HERNANDEZ: I’m not a scientist, but I can just tell from living here all these years, is the ecosystem changed here. We saw more variety of birds, and you know, little creatures and stuff like that that we didn't seen before. And I’m sure it’s a result of having much more variety in the vegetation that we have now compared to before, where we, for the most part, stuck to the same types of plants.

LOBET: And he says the remake has brought back something besides wildlife.

HERNANDEZ: The project has really reinvigorated a sense of community here. Besides all the environmental benefits and infrastructure improvements, it has really brought us back together. Because it’s something I remember as a kid - we all knew each other, and kids were out here on bikes playing together, and we kind of lost that these last few decades.

LOBET: Hernandez shakes his head. Who, he says, would have thought Elmer Avenue would make Sunset Magazine? He was skeptical at first that something so cutting edge would come to his neighborhood. Now, some call it the most sustainable street in Los Angeles. For Living On Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.

[NEIGHBORS SPEAKING IN SPANISH]

 

Links

Council for Watershed Health

Create a Smart Street Where You Live

Other Smart Street Projects in the United States

 

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