Aqueduct as Muse: Educating Designers for Multifunctional Landscapes | Barry J. Lehrman, Douglas Delgado and Mary E. Alm, Ph.D.

Aqueduct Futures students at the LA Aqueduct Intake in Owens Valley, CA. © Barry Lehrman 2013.

The ARID editors regret to share that Mary Alm, co-author of this article has passed from complications arising from breast cancer on Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013. Her husband and co-author, Barry Lehrman has dedicated this essay to her memory. ARID Journal offers our thoughts and condolences to the Lehrman/Alm family during this difficult time.


The 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct and its 4,800-square-mile watershed on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range have been critical for the growth and vitality of Southern California.[1] However, forecasted reductions to the Sierra snowpack as a result of climate change will decrease runoff into the Owen’s Valley,[2] potentially jeopardizing the future of Los Angeles’s water supply. An exemplar of early twentieth-century single-purpose engineering, the Aqueduct raises important questions about infrastructural adaptability, resilience, and multi-functional landscapes in the face of twenty-first-century social and environmental changes.

Adaptation to water scarcity requires action on both the supply and demand side. Supply-side innovations, led by engineers and technocrats, have focused primarily on optimizing the efficiency of the existing water system and identifying new sources. On the demand side, education and outreach are proven methods for influencing individual behaviors and societal norms about water. Substantive ongoing efforts promoting conservation have delivered significant reductions to per capita water use in Southern California (from a per capita use of 173 gallons per day in 1990 before basic conservation programs were implemented, to just 117 gallons per day in 2010), so that total water use in Los Angeles has leveled off even as the population continues growing.[3]

What is design’s role in achieving adaptation? The Los Angeles Aqueduct is a potent site for landscape students to engage the performance and function of large-scale technical and ecological systems. Large-scale multifunctional infrastructure and landscape projects constitute an emerging practice area for landscape architecture.[4, 5, 6] In the twenty-first century, multifunctional landscapes are augmenting or replacing single-function engineered urban systems (i.e. oyster reefs and wetlands are replacing levees for flood prevention) with complimentary cultural and ecological uses. Beyond enhanced functionality of supply, the Aqueduct invites us to reconsider design’s role in shaping demand. Evidence suggests that people are more likely to change behavior to reduce consumption when they (and their communities) assign value and meaning to that resource,[7, 8] especially when they hold strong human-exception paradigm beliefs (as did the Aqueduct’s engineer, William Mulholland),[9] or when there is a crisis.

Could reframing the meaning of the Aqueduct with poetic and interpretive landscapes serve as an essential next step in the adaptation process? And if so, how can design education best serve its students to be effective agents of this process?

The Aqueduct Futures project at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Cal Poly), challenged design students to look carefully at Southern California’s addiction to imported water, propose resilience and adaptability measures to the existing water supply system, and address lingering social and environmental justice issues related to the Aqueduct. Aqueduct Futures required students to build cross-disciplinary collaborations, and to generate proposals that inform the public and policy makers. This article lays out the challenges and opportunities of an innovative curriculum, and assesses the learning outcomes resulting from particular instructional methods.

Aqueduct Futures:  Curricular Overview

“Learn by doing” is Cal Poly’s motto. With support from Metabolic Studio, Aqueduct Futures leadership developed a one-year course sequence with a culminating exhibit and supporting website to shape a new a narrative about the past, present, and future conditions of the Aqueduct. In all, 130 students from Landscape Architecture, Computer Science, Graphic Arts, Urban and Regional Planning, and Regenerative Studies participated in the project in 2012-2013. Creating an interdisciplinary experience for students was both a tactical and strategic choice: tactical in providing complementary skills needed to pull off the complex project, strategic in preparing students for real-world practice collaborating with other disciplines.

In the fall of 2012, third-year undergraduates focused on key topics and practices related to large-scale multifunctional landscapes and designing interpretive features for the Aqueduct, while fourth-year undergraduates focused on enhancing the eco-technical performance of the Aqueduct and the landscape it inhabits. Both studios followed a typical structure of research, analysis, and a final team project synthesizing their research and analysis into a comprehensive design proposal. An elective seminar delved into the Aqueduct’s history and its surrounding cultures. In the following term, landscape architecture students created the preliminary exhibit and web content in collaboration with exhibition design teams from the Art Department and interactive media teams from the Computer Science Department. Parallel to these undergraduate courses, a team of Master of Landscape candidates successfully crafted a graduate capstone project that resulted in a planning framework for the entire Owens River and Mono Basin Watersheds. Coursework was enriched by assigned readings, group discussions, case study research, site analysis, journaling, and fieldwork, including a community design workshop in Bishop.

Aqueduct Futures students at the Cascades (LA Aqueduct terminus) in Sylmar, CA.  © Jonathan Linkus 2013.

Pedagogical Goals and Innovations

Aqueduct Futures leaders identified five key approaches to forming a balance between the pragmatic and the poetic.


The fourth-year landscape architecture studio divided into four groups, each tasked with mapping the linkages between water and energy.

Field Work

A four-day field trip (held in the fourth week of fall quarter) enabled students to conduct fieldwork along the length of the Aqueduct, from the San Fernando Valley and the Coso Range to the northern Owens Valley and Mono Basin. Travels were enriched by discussions with local tour guides, Big Pine Paiute’s Environmental Office, and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) facilities managers.

In a community engagement exercise unusual for undergraduates, fourth-year students, assisted by third-year students, designed and implemented a community workshop in Bishop. Graduate Landscape Architecture chair Professor Lee-Anne Milburn provided instruction on facilitation goals and techniques; undergraduates then generated the workshop’s agenda as a group and implemented it in teams of three, each student team hosting a table with four to eight Owens Valley residents.

Reflective thinking, including intensive journaling

Reflective thinking promoted by writing journal entries is closely aligned with design thinking,[10] and has previously been deployed in landscape architecture studios that are engaged in service-learning or projects aimed at social and environmental justice. Aqueduct Futures leadership first encountered them in 2010 as a co-instructor with Dr. Kristine Miller in the Remix/Streetlife studio project, with Juxtaposition Arts, at the University of Minnesota (first offered in 2005). Xie et al. (2008) make the link between reflective thinking promoted by journals and transformative learning.[11]

For Aqueduct Futures, reflective “experience” journals served as a catalyst for students to engage in metacognition about their design process, about their experiences on the field trip, and about the instructional process itself. Through writing, sketches, and photographs, student journals grappled with the systems, landscapes, projects, people, and places they encountered throughout the research and design process. In addition to enhanced critical inquiry informing student design outcomes, journals also prompted reflection by the instructors, allowing for real-time recalibration of assignments and activities to strengthen learning outcomes.

Quantitative design evaluation

Evidence-based design requires improved numeracy, and the ability to communicate complex systems to the public in fledgling landscape architects. Most Aqueduct Futures students had only performed basic hydrologic calculations for irrigation design and drainage prior to this course sequence. However, as part of their final presentations, students were required to quantify projected impacts suggested by their proposals. Measures included economic costs and benefits (including construction, operating budgets, and potential revenue); technological efficiencies (amounts of energy created, or water conserved/infiltrated); and ecological functioning (carbon sequestration, water purification, biodiversity, and habitat quality indicators).

Interdisciplinary collaboration

The second semester integrated landscape students with computer science and graphic arts collaborators, led by Professor Crystal Lee of the Art Department and Dr. Robert Kerbs of Computer Science. The collaboration was focused on how to best communicate complex graphic analysis to the public, with cross-disciplinary student teams generating custom Google Maps from graphics designed in Adobe Illustrator, by exporting .SVG (scalable vector graphics) files and ArcGIS via .KMZ (keyhole markup language) files. Blogging was used to provide public writing experience in preparation for the final exhibit, and to explore the limits of online media. Computer Science students produced a Critical Stage Analysis as part of a final submittal that may have relevant qualitative data for future evaluation.

Aqueduct Futures students at the Jawbone Siphon in the Mojave Desert. © Barry Lehrman 2013.

Analyzing Results:  Measuring the Effectiveness of Instructional Methods

Even with the yearlong focus on where water for Southern California comes from, final design proposals suggested that students remain locked into the popular cultural habit of treating water as an unlimited resource in their design. Students created projects that for the most part (even with extensive encouragement), did not engage directly with the LAA or use naturally occurring water (precipitation, surface, and ground) in innovative methods for California, compared to the case studies presented from elsewhere in class. It is also worth noting that most of the programming of amenities and landscape features were limited to the students’ own preferences for sorts of places and activities they personally like—the few exceptions were generated by the compelling interactions they had with residents of the Owens Valley.

Beyond the individual, or even collective, value of the resulting student design proposals, the Aqueduct Futures project offered an opportunity for educators to look carefully at instructional methods. What approaches were most effective in producing a transformative learning experience? The Aqueduct Futures leadership team chose to focus on the reflective journaling method in particular, analyzing 317 journal entries generated by the 64 students in the fall landscape architecture studios, in an attempt to measure the method’s impact on the learning experience. The analysis was centered around two main research questions:

  1. To what extent did journaling support landscape architecture students in grasping the interrelated connections between water, energy, and ecology associated with supplying water to Los Angeles through the Aqueduct?
  2. To what extent did journaling support innovative design ideas to address resilience, adaptation, and social and environmental justice?

Qualitative analysis software called Computer Aided Textual Markup and Analysis (CATMA 4.0) was used to assess themes in the students’ reflection journal entries.[12] Themes were analyzed for individual research questions and between the two research questions mentioned above. The software was used to help minimize personal biases when coding and analyzing the entries.

In assessing the first question—to what extent did journaling support comprehension of the water, energy, and ecology of the Aqueduct—four main themes emerged .

1. Evidence indicated student comprehension of the structure and function of the Aqueduct linking the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.

The intake site was one of the most influential sites visited during the field trip. We got the chance to walk over the starting gates of the LA Aqueduct.

Seeing the size of the pipes gave me an idea how much water is being transferred to LA daily.

2. Evidence indicated new awareness of the origins of Los Angeles’ water supply. Students speculated that most residents of Los Angeles are ignorant of where their water comes from, and these comments seemed to originate from personal experiences.

Before this class, I had little or no knowledge of this area as a water source to Los Angeles County.

I think everyone has seen the water come down this slide-like pipe that is off the 5 freeway, but little may know that this is our drinking water that we use everyday in our everyday lives.

3. Evidence suggested that students grasped the impact of the aqueduct system on the source landscape, including noting lower water levels of Owens Lake and Mono Lake from direct observation of the site.

Owens Lake was once a naturally appealing place full of life, but now it is a barren, dried up lakebed with barely any life left to give.

Seeing the water level change with the marks engraved on the edges of the rocks and considering all the salt left behind was a miserable site.

4. Evidence suggested that students were aware of conflict between residents of the Owens Valley and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and that they were aware of the multiple viewpoints in that conflict

We heard water war stories from the native Indians that inhabited the land, the community that lived and experienced the pumping of Owens Lake, the environmentalists, ecologists, and from LA DWP themselves.

This community seems to be active and aware of the situation they are in but for the most part the 100,000 residents of the valley can’t seem to have the impact that the millions of Los Angeles residents can have.

The second research question—to what extent did journaling inspire innovative design ideas for improving the water supply for Los Angeles and restoring the Owens Valley—yielded three main themes.

1.  The first theme concerned the need to inform Los Angeles residents about water supply issues and the impacts the students observed. In comments that appear to originate from personal experience, and from hearing the concerns of Owens Valley residents and Paiute Indians, students focused on the need to create an interpretive spatial experience for the two million visitors per year who pass through Owens Valley. Students focused, in particular, on opportunities to introduce recreational and educational activities, such as hiking trails in the Owens Valley with educational signs along the path about the Aqueduct and the area’s history, or tourism facilities in the Antelope or San Fernando Valleys.

The trail system can contain educational information about the Aqueduct as you walk the trail.

A visitor’s center could contain tribal history of the Paiute people and tie into the history of the land. We would also incorporate the history of the Aqueduct.

2. The second theme concerned making the Owens Valley more environmentally appealing by restoring the natural habitat, thereby improving its appeal as a tourist destination. More visitors (with most coming from Southern California), students reasoned, would increase the opportunities to inform people about the issues in the Owens Valley, the role of the LA Aqueduct in the development of Los Angeles, and the importance of even greater water conservation. Some students proposed setting aside land for wildlife to flourish and creating gardens of local plants. Others suggested developing recreational activities that give visitors fun and adventure without harming the natural environment. Students also proposed developing eco-communities, promoting sustainable agricultural practices to improve use of renewable energy sources, and a range of habitat restoration practices. While most of the projects focused on appealing to urban visitors to the Owens Valley, many of the projects included specific amenities and features for residents of Eastern California

Gardens could be developed, featuring native landscapes of the valley, which will also serve as buffers between the spaces.

The purpose of having an ATV park is to control the rampant off-roading that occurs in the region but goes unchecked. This damages the surrounding environment and damages habitat. Our thought was that if we wrangled the use of ATV and designated an area for them that was not only close but very fun they would go to the park instead of roaming all over the place.

3. The third theme involved changing Los Angeles’ water policy so there is less reliance on water from sources such as the Owens Valley. Students seemed to comment about this after thinking about the dwindling water supply and the need to conserve water. Some students commented that restoring water levels and the habitat of the Owens Valley might be a complicated and impossible undertaking, so other methods may be more practical. Some of the changes students suggested include water collecting, grey water use, and conservation.

Some of these shifts will include practices such as: permeable surface paving for catching water on site, natural filtration, and restoration of our depleting aquifers; the use of drought tolerant natives which decreases the amount of maintenance (less water and less pollution!); redirecting our storm water to catch basins (in addition to the permeable surfaces); and educating our youth about the importance of conserving the limited resources we have.

Can we honestly say that LA County preserves water? We can’t even capture our rainwater and reuse it. We disregard the fact that our population is increasing and our water is decreasing.

Results of this qualitative investigation suggest that journaling allowed students to integrate new knowledge about the LA Aqueduct and Los Angeles’ water supply gained through mapping, fieldwork, and community dialog, and to use these experiences to generate ideas for improving Los Angeles’ water supply and the Owens Valley region.

Sketch of the Cascades (LA Aqueduct terminus) in student notebook. © Barry Lehrman 2013.


What are the implications of this close examination of our students’ experience? In what way might it inform how design educators approach preparing students to engage large-scale multifunctional landscapes? And in what way does our instructional experience mirror the larger-scale challenges of creating awareness and engagement between the citizens of Los Angeles and their water supply?

The results of this qualitative investigation illustrate the power of direct observation and community participation as transformative learning tools, and how infrastructure like the Los Angeles Aqueduct can serve as a muse for the creative process.  They also illustrate the magnitude of the challenges ahead in creating a new relationship—both functional and poetic—with our infrastructural landscape.

Short of escorting every Angeleno up to the Owens Valley for an audience with Owens Valley residents and Paiute elders, and a first-hand tour of wind-eroded soil and the desiccated Owens Lake bed, our work with students suggests a need to identify local stories about water and conditions around the Los Angeles metropolitan region, that might have a similar transformative impact on an exponentially wider audience.

Beyond the local, the Aqueduct is a significant part of our American heritage worthy of designation as a National Park—like the Erie Canal and other significant transportation corridor. There are precedents for maintaining working infrastructure within an interpretive context – the headwaters of Walker Creek in the Mono Basin are just on the other side of the Blacktop Peak (elevation 12,500’) from the streams feeding Hetch Hetchy (and San Francisco) within Yosemite National Park.

Politically and administratively, there is an inherent conflict of interest in the LADWP’s responsibility for providing as much water and power to Los Angeles as they can, and managing the natural resources of the Owens Valley floor and their urban property holdings. This conflict is a key source of the continued distrust and tension among Owens Valley residents towards Los Angeles.  It is also true that Los Angeles is the largest property tax payer in Inyo County, so any transfers of LADWP property to other agencies or land trusts must safeguard comparable revenue to the County.

The process of repositioning the Aqueduct’s meaning and cultural status is just a beginning.  It is a critical step in creating an informed citizenry and an effective design culture, advocating for a multifunctional future—one where urban needs are balanced with those of local communities and the natural systems that are being exploited.

Course syllabi, additional examples of student work, and the 606 Project report are available at

[1] Lehrman, Barry. “Reconstructing the Void: Owens Lake.” The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. Kazys Varnelis editor. Barcelona: Los Angeles Forum for Architecture/Columbia Networked Urbanism Lab/ACTAR Press, 2007. 20–33.
[2] Costa-Cabral, Mariza, et al. (2013). Snowpack and Runoff Response to Climate Change in Owens Valley and Mono Lake Watersheds. Climatic Change. Volume 116, Issue 1, pp 97-109.
[3] Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. (2010). Urban Water Management Plan. retrieved from Web. 16 July 2013
[4] Bélanger, Pierre. “Landscape As Infrastructure.” Landscape Journal 28.1 (2009), 79 –95. Print.
[5] Strang, Gary. “Infrastructure as Landscape (1996).” Theory in Landscape Architecture. Ed. Simon Swaffield. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 220–226.
[6] Wall, Alex. “Programming the Urban Surface.” Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary    Landscape Architecture. Ed. James Corner. Princeton Architectural Press, 1999. 232–249.
[7] McKenzie-Mohr, Doug. “New Ways to Promote Proenvironmental Behavior: Promoting Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing.” Journal of Social Issues 56.3 (2000): 543–554. Wiley Online Library. Web. 16 July 2013.
[8] Vaske, Jerry J., and Katherine C. Kobrin. “Place Attachment and Environmentally Responsible Behavior.” The Journal of Environmental Education 32.4 (2001): 16–21. Taylor and Francis+NEJM. Web. 16 July 2013.
[9] Cook, Stuart W., and Joy L. Berrenberg. “Approaches to Encouraging Conservation Behavior: A Review and Conceptual Framework.” Journal of Social Issues 37.2 (1981): 73–107. Wiley Online Library. Web. 16 July 2013.
[10] Cross, Nigel. “Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline Versus Design Science.” Design Issues 17.3 (2011): 49–55. MIT Press Journals. Web. 29 Sept. 2011.
[11] Xie, Ying, Fengfeng Ke, and Priya Sharma. “The Effect of Peer Feedback for Blogging on College Students’ Reflective Learning Processes.” The Internet and Higher Education 11.1 (2008): 18–25. ScienceDirect. Web. 16 July 2013.
[12] University of Hamburg. (2013). Computer Aided Textual Markup and Analysis (CATMA 4.0). Retrieved from

Mary E. Alm, PhD (1969-2013) is an expert in clinical health psychology, with a focus on behavior change.  She is a part-time member of the Walden University faculty.

Douglas Delgado, adjunct Assistant Professor at Cal Poly Pomona, has been teaching watershed planning since 2001. He has worked extensively on watershed plans in the Los Angeles, Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River watersheds.

Barry Lehrman is Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, where he leads the Aqueduct Futures program.  He is the author of “Reconstructing the Void: Owens Lake” in The Infrastructural City, Kazys Varnelis, editor (ACTAR, 2008).

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