In Malibu, A Contentious Restoration Process Underway

The Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project has been called one of the most ecologically sensitive and politically contentious projects in the state of California, if not the country. The aim of the project, conceived of nearly a decade ago, is to restore ecological balance to the lagoon, which is one of the last in the Golden State that hasn’t been irreversibly changed by development. Until recently, however, the project has been stalled by litigation.

Call it a case of conflicted loyalties. The lagoon, dear to many high-profile local residents in its present form, looks healthy, but over the past 20 years has become degraded, according to a number of local environmental groups, including Heal the Bay and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Malibu Lagoon

image via ArchPaper / Richard Scott

Excess fill from the construction of the Pacific Coast Highway, a local baseball diamond, and a number of other construction projects has been dumped into the lagoon over the past decades, changing the shape of the channel, disrupting the natural flows between creek and the Pacific Ocean and severely altering the lagoon’s chemistry. The stagnating water and increased acidity in turn threaten the diversity of life at all levels of the ecosystem, including the lagoon’s estimated 295 species of birds.

Of course, that silting action also succeeded in creating some killer waves at nearby Surfrider Beach, which the estuary flows into.

Alarmed by the sight of bulldozers on the beach — and/or the prospect of reduced surfage — a celebrity-backed law suit challenged the restoration project, claiming (without scientific basis) that it would kill the lagoon. Now that this suit has been settled, work officially began on the project this summer.

Clark Stevens, the lead architect on the project, sees the project as an opportunity to link design with the conservation of an ecologically and culturally critical landscape. After the first phase of the Malibu Lagoon Restoriation is complete — which  calls for recontouring the channel between Malibu Creek and the sea, and returning it to its original shape — his plan for phase two will incorporate a unique interpretive pathway, as well as tidal viewing platforms, outdoor classrooms, and site-specific installations, all designed to communicate the story of the lagoon.

Stevens told The Architect’s Newspaper, “This pathway is unique because it draws people down into the different levels of the environment to experience it up-close rather than hovering above.” It represents a marked departure from the site’s previous park infrastructure, which included an old wooden bridge that kept visitors elevated above the lagoon.

One section of the new interpretive path makes use of a ramp that connects two viewing areas, the Winter Platform and the Summer Amphitheater. When the estuary is open to the tides in the winter, this ramp provides access to the Winter Platform. In summer, creek flow diminishes and a natural sand berm forms at the mouth of the estuary, causing the water level to gradually rise up the winter platform access ramp — symbolically called the Summer Clock — one day at a time until the Winter Platform becomes submerged.

Malibu Lagoon

image via ArchPaper / Timothy Barrett

Another element, the Bird Blind, will use the natural growth of willows to create an outdoor teaching area where visitors will be able to see through openings in the willows without being seen by the birds.

The seating here, too, is for the birds — or specifically, inspired by the birds. Pigmented concrete will be formed into seats mimicking the shapes and colors of the eggs of key bird species that call the Malibu Lagoon home.

The Malibu Lagoon Restoration project is expected to be complete this winter, when the natural area will open once again to the public.

Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.


  • Reply October 23, 2012


    After spending $8 to $15 million on this project, still no restroom facilities? So a new landscaped man-made lagoon with the same tired, old and stinky blue porta-potties. What were these people thinking?!

  • Reply October 24, 2012


    What a bland article… Certainly not researched very well! Should have
    gotten some comments from the people who really know wet-lands Marcia
    Hanscom and
    Roy van de Hoek. And talk to the countless environmentalists and animal
    activists who were against this project. And, learn about the corruption
    that is entwined with this project. Countless numbers of animals were
    killed – an unnecessary and cruel thing to do!! Birds – fish – plants.
    All for greed.

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