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Sep 16, 2020

Protecting an Unlikely Ecosystem: the Friends of the Los Angeles River

By Nadine Zylberberg

Park Frogs By Elkpen
Park Frogs By Elkpen

The Los Angeles River conjures images of a concrete basin filled with water only a couple months of the year. But since 1986, Friends of the LA River (FoLAR) has fulfilled its mission to show Angelenos just how important the waterway is.

The organization, founded by rebel poet Lewis MacAdams, had “a pretty funky history in the eighties, with Lewis doing performance art where he would paint himself in blue and wear a white suit and channel Willy Mulholland,” said Michael Atkins, Senior Manager of Communications and Impact for the organization. “It was totally offbeat — but persistent, stubborn, and also creative.”

Lewis MacAdams protests dredging in the LA River in 1997 (Image:

Through protest and performance, Lewis saw an opportunity to build up the river’s image in the eyes of Angelenos. In 1989, FoLAR began an annual cleanup of 10 or 20 people that has grown every year since. In April 2019, 7,000-plus volunteers participated. Over the course of three weekends, they tackled the upper, middle, and lower sections of the river looking for, chronicling, and removing trash.

Standing behind an essential river

“For several years running, we’ve been the largest urban river cleanup in the nation,” Michael said. The annual event is one of the central elements that has helped FoLAR promote equitable access and ecological restoration on the river — and is the gateway for many to become more involved with river conservation year-round.

“You might join from a work group or for National Honor Society hours,” Michael noted. This casual participation grows into a list of advocates “because once you’ve been in the river and removed some elements of human trash, you’re going to understand that we’re in an urban ecosystem that’s been compromised and fragile—but that’s something that we can actively tend to.”

“The river has gone from being this punchline in the ’80s to being something where—probably since the early 2000s—every politician now says, ‘We’re going to bring you restoration to the LA river.’ It’s a very common promise.”

Why has river cleanup become an important cause? As Michael explained, Los Angeles is a park-poor city, where more than half of residents can’t walk to a park within 20 minutes (and that doesn’t include those who can’t walk 20 minutes in the first place, whose needs must also be considered). As such, the benefits of green space for public health and mental health are massive. The organization, and its initiatives, have become an opportunity “to address inequities and paint a broad picture.”

“Without the river, we wouldn’t have downtown Los Angeles,” Michael said plainly. “We would not be a population center — and that dates even to indigenous times. The confluence of those rivers was a meeting place 10,000 years ago. And that area, this flood plain that is the LA basin, is the drainage of all of the surrounding mountains.”

“Why we’re here positioned between these four mountains is because of this little river that doesn’t even look like a river for 10 months a year, because if it doesn’t have rain or snowpack to melt.”

David McNew/Getty Images (Image via

When you look at the LA River, in certain parts, you see a concrete channel. Michael reminds then, “It looked like something so permanent, but it’s not. The river and the mountains are more permanent than are concrete.” It’s important to get the message across that “we can spend all the energy we want to try to prevent nature from being nature, but nature is going to win. We’re trying here to improve our human connection to it not so much save something that doesn’t even need us to exist.”

Altering course in a pandemic

April 2020 was the first time in 31 years that the cleanup had to be cancelled.

In the first week of March, FoLAR typically launches registration. Stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic were looming almost at the same time. At first, the decision became to postpone the cleanup to October. “We knew that we could not responsibly be a super spreader event of even 3,000 people if we had mobilized half the number we typically do,” Michael said.

This new public health threat also exceeded FoLAR’s permitting in the region. “It just became very clear that we needed to pause as much as we can, and by June, when LA Al Fresco [an outdoor dining initiative] kind of failed, it was pretty clear that we couldn’t prepare to host a ton of people in October even.”

From there, the task became to make FoLAR’s entire programming slate — which runs from advocacy-related to educational to recreational — digital-friendly. For example, one of FoLAR’s staffers is a trained naturalist and a birder, so she conducted an Instagram Live to bring viewers on a journey to find feathered friends in our ecosystem. Another, a trained yoga instructor, has led mindfulness workshops. “We really tried to find ways to let personalities be seen” in a way that’s also a reprieve from the national hardship we all face.

Mobilizing through grief

Just before Earth Day, Lewis MacAdams passed away, having suffered health issues for several years.

“He’s a dramatic guy and to have this beautiful obituary run on Earth Day 2020, may be one of his last dramatic pastiches,” Michael said. His death rejuvenated support around the river during this particularly complicated time.

As for the delayed cleanup, the organization switched to a self-guided cleanup model using the app Litterati. It’s running through the entire month of September 2020.

“We’re in an experimental phase,” Michael said. “No one right now has a 10,000 person digital cleanup. We’re all starting at zero, trying to figure out how to do some of these pieces.” One of the bonuses, he noted, is that this method might mobilize Gen Z volunteers — given their relationship with digital networking — in a new way.

“But we also need to on the opposite end of the spectrum recruit and do mini-trainings with those who are in the boomer generation, who might be a part of a 10-person club who go to Griffith Park or Sepulveda Basin once a week and tend to this area,” he added.

The task now is to appeal to this wide range of people online. And also to make sure not everyone shows up at once. “In our registration for the 30th cleanup, about a third of the volunteers signed up during the last week. Most people show up right before the show starts. And when you have a month-long cleanup, you don’t want all of your recruits to come in on week four because then they could use only one week to clean up.”

Michael is still making calls to past team captains to mobilize groups for this month’s cleanup. “Some of the standard organizing still apply. Those are people that we need to move from this existing expectation of showing up on the second Saturday of April for three hours into spending three to 10 minutes a day for 15 days collecting trash as you walk your dog.”

Michael expects that Litterati will remain a part of future cleanups, if only because it vastly expands data collection efforts from the current .01% of trash collected. “We’re essentially removing a step by collecting data as it goes into the trash bag [instead of tearing open the bag afterward]. And instead of two or three data scientists seeing the contents and logging it, everyone is a part of it in a gamified experience.”

Read more about Litterati here.

With virtual education, FoLAR in an experimental phase as well. Early on, five- and 10-minute lessons were recorded for teachers or parents to keep kids learning over the summer. The second round of efforts, in August, was to make sure their rebranded curriculum — lesson plans, PDFs — catered to new participants. Normally, the organization takes students on field trips to their River Rover or into the river. Now, as with education across the board, they’ve turned to Zoom programming. “It could, in some cases, increase the number of students that we see, because there’s not all the travel time, but all that remains to be seen.”

FoLAR is also ramping up video production to provide 4–6 hours of original programming in October to teach entry lessons into this space (with a focus on restoration and wildfire resilience given the state of California). And they’re encouraging sponsors to get involved in programming in creative ways, not just galas.

Seeing the river as a canvas

Michael’s own participation in FoLAR goes back to his first interactions with the river. Upon moving to Los Angeles eight years ago, his best friend there (a Marxist environmental historian) gave him a copy of City of Quartz and a bicycle — his LA starter kit. 

He rode around the city, often down to the river, and came across a poet with a nonprofit advocating for it. “I was really captivated by the way that the river is both a dividing [entity], but it is also a canvas,” he said. FoLAR deploys artists and poets to educate others about (and on) the river. Our very own Elkpen lent her comics to the Rover Rover and the annual cleanup. It’s about “challenging every stakeholder to use the highest degree of imagination to participate in a future that is inclusive,” Michael said.

Poster by Elkpen

“This may look like a dirty crummy concrete river, but it is an active ecosystem and it is alive,” Michael said. Instead of just telling you, he insists that change comes from “getting you to form that educational experience on yourself, getting you creatively thinking about urban ecosystems.”

“Whether it be a weed growing through the concrete or a bat surviving under the freeway, these are really effective champions to make sure that everyone has a local tie-in to these environmental challenges that we’re facing and not just picture an emaciated polar bear or something that’s 15,000 miles away.”

This year has brought creative challenges—and moments of grief—to an organization constantly evolving. But there are glimmers of hope at every turn. As our conversation came to a close, Michael noticed some goodwill happening in real-time out his window. It was trash day and a mask and pair of gloves were strewn on the ground.

“I just watched an enterprising neighbor personally pick it up and throw it in the open trash cans,” he said. It was comforting to see, and a reminder of what FoLAR stands for, both on and off the river. “We want to be a booster, you know, the cheerleader for people making these efforts.”

Find out how to get involved in FoLAR’s self-guided cleanup here.

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