Henk Ovink: Gehry’s Man at the LA River

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Photo by Cynthia van Elk

The news about Frank Gehry’s involvement in masterplanning the LA River has brought to the surface a man not yet well-known in Los Angeles, but who is something of a rock star in the world of climate change, resilient design and rivers.

His name is Henk Ovink and he is a brilliant Dutch water infrastructure expert who was tapped by President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy task force to create Rebuild By Design, a design competition that produced innovative resilient solutions for the Northeast coast.

Some, like the Big U by a multidisciplinary team led by Bjarke Ingels, are now being funded and partially implemented.

Henk Ovink; photo: Pieter Magielsen
Henk Ovink; photo: Pieter Magielsen

Currently Ovink holds the grand title of first ‘Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands‘, and in this capacity he helps his country export its water infrastructure expertise, derived from a millennium of keeping the low-lying countries safe from flooding.

Now he’s on Frank Gehry’s team of advisors, helping think about the LA River in terms of water reclamation and resilient design as LA faces the dual challenges of drought and extreme rain, expected to intensify with climate change.

I met Henk when I curated Sink or Swim, an exhibition at the Annenberg Space for Photography. His thinking helped shape that exploration of resilient design at the micro and macro scale, in very poor countries like Bangladesh and very affluent places like the Netherlands.

He is a charming and energetic advocate for longterm, comprehensive planning for resiliency, making the case that if we are to confront climate change it must be with both mitigation — reduction of carbon-emitting fuels — and adaptation.

“Mitigation [alone] will not bring salvation to Bangladesh,” he points out, “millions will die because we forgot to adapt.”

The Big U’s Harbor Berm wrapping around the vulnerable end of Manhattan Island; Big U, also called the Dryline, by BIG architects, is one of the Rebuild By Design competition-winning resilient projects.

As for LA, it does not suffer the extreme challenges facing a country like Bangladesh, but it is a delta that will, he says, have to confront rising seas and the very real problems of being a place “where too much water and too little go hand in hand. . . where “the surface of the city is very hard” and managing the riverine system in connection with ecological, urban, cultural, social and economic developments “is gonna be critical for the survival of LA.”

It is this kind of thinking that he is bringing to Gehry’s masterplanning of the Los Angeles River.

Read on for more of his views — and find out how resiliency, the Los Angeles River and LA’s possible bid to host the 2024 Olympics could be connected.

A new promenade at The Hague concealing giant flood protection exemplifies the Dutch approach to resilient design. Photo: Iwan Baan (courtesy, Annenberg Space For Photography)
A new promenade at The Hague concealing giant flood protection exemplifies the Dutch approach to resilient design. Photo: Iwan Baan (courtesy, Annenberg Space For Photography)

DnA: Talk about how climate change relates to the built environment and specifically Los Angeles.

HO: People will feel climate change most apparently by the issue of water. Water makes climate change tactile. Ninety percent of all disasters worldwide are water-related. And this goes for drought, pollution and too much water because of sea level rise. In the next decades forty percent of the world’s population will be negatively impacted by one of one or more of these water crises.

On the positive side, we can do something about it. The great thing about the tangibility and interdependency between water and other impacts in our physical environment is that we can do something about it.

And this is actually the connection between mitigation and adaptation.

I think the climate change debate was dominated by mitigation which is critical — I don’t underestimate it at all, and this is really about cutting emissions, changing the way we get our energy from the current to renewables — that puts a lesser stress on the world and the world’s environment in the future. But mitigation will not bring salvation to Bangladesh. If we only focus on mitigation millions of people will die around the world because we forgot to adapt.

All that’s to say that climate change and urbanization and our environment are so tied and especially because of the issue of water.

Now if you look at Los Angeles, a city where too much water and too little water go hand-in-hand — where drought is a certain condition and you have to ensure that citizens and businesses have enough water of the right quality to ensure life and the economy. And then at the same time because of flooding and increasing rainfall, the city has to deal with those extremes far more often.

Room For The River
Room For The River is a large-scale project helmed by Henk Ovink, which involved negotiating with, and evacuating, thousands of people in order to open up more room for river water to flow through to relieve pressure on dikes. In the process it created ecological habitat. Image: Royal Haskoning DHV

DnA: Can you just explain the term resiliency? What does it mean when you talk about a resilient strategy for the Los Angeles River?

HO: Resiliency is the new buzzword but actually it’s a very old word (that’s) being used more often. It captures aspects of insecurity.

We all know and research shows over and over again that our future is more uncertain over time. And we also know that risks are increasing in impact and frequency and are all interdependent, climate-related or social or economic or even safety, wars or threats.

That means that two strategies moving forward — one is to mitigate. How can we decrease part of those risks? It’s a tough strategy but we have to work on it day in, day out and carbon policies are one way to move forward. And the other is that you prepare for that uncertain future, that you are as a person, as a community, as a city, as a nation as a world, more resilient to those uncertainties.

And on the one hand that means being more robust — that you can deal with those risks — and on the other hand it means more flexible that you can bounce back better after these disasters happen.

So it’s a forward-looking approach.

Now in regards to LA, the uncertainties for LA are of course great — like with all big and bigger cities and economies. There are uncertainties on the social level, on an economic level, ecological and environmental level.

Dealing with all those stresses and crises means that resiliency has to be embedded in a lot of different ways into how a city actually is developing.

Alternative 20
Alternative 20, a tentatively selected plan for its Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Study, the Federal companion piece to the City’s Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. The plan proposes stripping out concrete in an 11-mile stretch through the Glendale Narrows, but Feds and the City are fighting over the split of the 1.35 billion costs. Image, courtesy City of Los Angeles.

DnA: The Dutch have the most resilient delta in the world and you plan to keep it that way. LA is a delta, but we don’t think of it often in that way. What’s the advice that you’ve given to city officials in terms of thinking about our Delta?

HO: There is no one solution, there’s no one silver bullet.

The Netherlands is not a (safe) delta because we started to work on it for the last decade. The Netherlands is the safest Delta because we started to work on it more than a thousand years ago. We built a governance system that is dedicated to the Delta system.

Every year, every five years, every ten years we build new great projects. Sometimes they fail, then we build better ones. It’s a process of learning and testing and experimenting and that delta now is real asset for the world. The Netherlands is testing what living with water actually means.

So if you look at the complexity of the water issue in LA, it’s the mix between drought and too much water in the connection with the ecology, the riverine system and the urban, cultural, social and economic developments. Managing that complexity from the perspective of water is gonna be critical for the survival of LA and also the best approach forward, a gift, a real valuable perspective!

The way we interpreted water gave us the LA River as it is now. We turned it into this concrete slab. It wasn’t always a concrete slab, it was a river. But we thought we could manage that the river by changing it, engineering it. The surface of the city is very hard — there’s not enough capacity to deal with extremes when it comes to rain events. Water is actually moved away from the city’s critical environments and has to be brought in far more.

We forgot everything about flexibility, about the ecology, the environment and quality of life in that. So rethinking the river is a critical aspect.

Greening of the city has to come together with rethinking how the sewage system works.  The riverine system in itself perhaps has to be rethought and at the same time parts of the coastline are critically vulnerable when it comes to sea level rise and surges.

And that will mean a comprehensive, long term approach where the city works together, government, businesses, research institutes as well as communities work together to get to this long term approach. That long term approach has to be connected to short-term interventions, real projects, real change on the ground. Most preferably, innovative approaches.

Those two again have to be connected with investment. That long term strategy has to be upheld, not only by city officials or the state, but by a coalition of public and private partners, to ensure that after the implementation of one project, the next project is already in the making and the chain of interventions builds resiliency over time.

Concrete defines the LA's River at Verdugo Wash, a site considered for restoration in the City of LA ARBOR; image courtesy City of LA
Concrete defines the LA’s River at Verdugo Wash, a site considered for restoration in the City of LA ARBOR; image courtesy City of LA

DnA: Would you recommend any specific projects, especially as more than a billion dollars are meant to be coming down the pike in terms of city and federal funding for the LA River.

HO: I am hesitant because LA doesn’t have a comprehensive resiliency strategy in place.

The analysis, the research on interdependencies, vulnerabilities and opportunities has not been done. One single project will fail if it is not embedded in this comprehensive approach and is not followed up by a multitude of other interventions.

I think Los Angeles has to rethink the way the city is actually functioning and its environmental complex environment. If you want to put a billion dollars on the table which you now have (for Alternative 20, the Army Corps of Engineers plan to strip away the concrete from an 11-mile stretch of the LA River, with costs to be split between Feds and City), you really have to ensure that the things you want to put in motion are the ones that have this catalytic capacity.

But the city has to start to do that.

The L.A. River has been used in numerous films and television shows, famously in Grease. As Henk Ovink says, everyone has a narrative about the LA River.
The LA River has been used in numerous films and television shows, famously in Grease. As Henk Ovink says, everyone has a story to tell about the LA River.

DnA: How? 

HO: Well, since the strategy has not been written that is of course a very hard question to answer but also because Los Angeles is a city where Hollywood resides we can easily script the scenario.

The river can play a critical role — not only physical but also as guiding the narrative around the impact of climate change when it comes to water.

I think everybody you know everybody in Los Angeles and even in some places around the world has a story to tell about that Los Angeles River.

And that is great because it can actually capture a narrative about how you can — if you get to a right development agenda — capture a way forward how you deal with climate-related water risks.

If the Los Angeles River can be a driver for change and an example for other parts of LA to set that standard of climate resiliency for the future, it can stay that iconic metaphor — not in the sense that it is now with these concrete slabs without water and without environmental quality, but by becoming this river again that can deal with drought as well as too much water and capture environmental quality in such a way that it really builds in resiliency for the city.

So in a sense it can become the metaphor, the physical example, but, hey, we’re not that far right?

Olympic Park at the River Lee in London combined longterm social and ecological improvement with the Olympics. Image © Copyright Paul Gillett and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Olympic Park at the River Lee in London combined longterm social and ecological improvement with the 2012 Olympics. Image © Copyright Paul Gillett and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

DnA: We’re not that far, but we’re good at making things happen when we want to — especially when we learn that we might have the chance to host the Olympics in 2024. This might galvanize the city. I could quite imagine a scenario that involves the Olympics being oriented towards the river and expediting the river development.

HO: You are right, Frances, and I want to build on this, because I was in charge of the Olympic strategy in the Netherlands for 2028. We started that approach in 2006 or 7 where we actually said: a hundred years after 1928 when Amsterdam first hosted the Olympics, why not use the Olympics as a metaphor for driving change in our development agenda? For getting a comprehensive approach to social, environmental, ecological, education and economic issues that stress the Netherlands now and in the future? Why not use the Olympics as an instrument as a driver for that change?

I really think that if you would use that metaphor for LA and push forward your climate resiliency agenda with your Olympic ambitions the LA River becomes a critical backbone for that strategy literally and for real.

Imagine a pearl chain of projects going all the way all across LA, showcasing the resiliency ambition and the collaboration that could emerge between the private sector sports initiatives, communities, N.G.O.s, the city and international Olympic organizations that guard the the good things about the Olympics — the mentality of sports and collaboration and you know, everyone’s a winner.

I can really imagine that that could help ignite the process of celebrating the LA River as a core identity for the city of LA and then the ambition of LA to show the world that they can host these great games and host the world in that sense.

With that ambition they can raise their resiliency awareness but also their resiliency impact — and really create projects that have a bigger meaning than only become white elephants after the games are gone.

The Olympics can only become disasters when you would focus only on real estate and find the best deal. That’s not a resilient approach.

And for reference, take London. London really used the games to not only marry two sides of London that were divorced but also to clean up the whole LA River Valley that was not such a great place and now is a fantastic asset to the city.

So a lot of social and environmental issues as well as economic ones were kept captured under the umbrella of the Olympics and now are the legacy for the City of London.

The legacy for LA is the revitalizing of the river — not because of the river — but because of LA and becoming the backbone for the resiliency strategy of the mayor.

I’m in, I will move to LA.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity. Find out more about Frank Gehry’s involvement with the LA River by listening to Frances’ reports on this Which Way, LA? and PressPlay. On this DnA she talks to Frank Gehry, Lewis MacAdams, Omar Brownson, Alex Ward and Christopher Hawthorne. Or read a summary here. For more on Henk Ovink’s ideas about resiliency, check out this Iris Nights Talk he gave at the Annenberg Space For Photography in conjunction with the exhibition Sink Or Swim.