Making the Best of the Least

On a cramped site, Superjacent conjures a forest and one of L.A.’s first shared streets.

By Timothy A. Schuler 

Between the housing and the freeway, a sinuous, planted woonerf will slow traffic and filter pollution. Image courtesy Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects.

If all goes according to plan, over the next year a forest will spring up in South Central Los Angeles on what today looks more like a desolate traffic island than a buildable city lot. The woodland is a vital part of Isla Intersections, a 54-unit supportive housing development designed by Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects with the landscape architecture firm Superjacent. The dense plantings are intended as a “living lung,” strategically designed to reduce air and noise pollution by 25 and 40 percent, respectively.

“Because we’re dealing with a site that’s super urban and a freeway that is elevated, the design strategy is really to create kind of an umbrella over that site, a dome of green that will catch particulate matter before it goes into homes and people’s lungs,” explains Claire Latané, ASLA, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, who consulted on the project while at Studio-MLA.

Acquired by Clifford Beers Housing through a city program that offered vacant lots to affordable housing developers at no cost, the project site is less than 500 feet from one of the most monstrous freeway interchanges in all of California—the meeting of the 110 and the 105. In the face of such a hostile environment, the design team struggled to create a quiet, clean, green oasis. Shipping containers stacked up to five stories high follow the triangle-shaped footprint of the lot, creating a protected courtyard planted with sedges and ferns. On the south side of the building, a “water wall” of cantilevered, cascading fountains is designed to generate as much white noise as possible, masking the sounds of nearby traffic.

To mitigate the most concerning threat—air pollution—the design calls for 65 trees packed into the three-quarter-acre site. The planting scheme is heavy on broadleaf evergreens like Cinnamomum camphora, which are rated by i-Tree as some of the highest performers when it comes to filtering airborne pollutants. The bulk of the biomass is planted along Athens Way, on the site’s west side, which is being reimagined as Annenberg Paseo, the city’s second woonerf, or shared street. Lined with islands of vegetation, the street features a sinuous geometry that, combined with a posted speed limit of five miles per hour, will naturally slow traffic, creating a safe space for walking, bicycling, and other forms of recreation.

Located on a desolate site near a freeway interchange, the project is a test of the limits of landscape. Photo by Remi Jouan, Creative Commons.

To avoid the time and expense of getting custom details or materials approved by the city, Superjacent cobbled together the Paseo’s design from precedents it found throughout the city. “What we ended up doing is not proposing anything that was novel or nonstandard,” says Chris Torres, who leads Superjacent with Tony Paradowski, ASLA. “Everything in the streetscape is a city standard detail but sampled from streets all over Los Angeles.” It’s a product of Torres’s and Paradowski’s familiarity with the city, or “decades of being nerds,” as Torres puts it. “We’re both from here so we were able to quickly be like, wait, I think there’s a street like that in the Valley; there’s a street like that in the South Bay.”

The project is on track to be completed in late 2021 and is, in many ways, a test of the limits of landscape in an environment that has a long history of pollution. How livable can a community built in the shadow of two major freeways be? To what extent can an oasis truly protect residents from infrastructural harm?

These are questions Latané says affordable housing developers shouldn’t have to ask. “All of the research that I’ve been looking at for the past five years talks about the mental health, physical health, life longevity, and quality-of-life issues around air pollution related to freeways. And we’re putting our most vulnerable community members, who have been on the streets without health care and adequate shelter, in this place? It’s really questionable,” Latané says. “And I don’t blame Clifford Beers. I blame our lack of broad-scale, systematic support for decent housing.”

Leave a Reply