L.A. Designer: Mia Lehrer, Shaping The City Through Public Space

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The green fingerprints of landscape architect Mia Lehrer are over many notable public spaces in Los Angeles, including the Annenberg Beach House, Vista Hermosa Park, Dodger Stadium, the masterplanning of Hollywood Park and the LA River, which takes another step towards habitability with the opening of its summer rec season. Mia talks to DnA about shaping LA though landscape.

Mia Lehrer

This coming Memorial Day, a stretch of the LA River will open for summer fun. Managed by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, the river from Fletcher Avenue/Rattlesnake Park to Confluence Park will be open for kayakers, bird watchers, anglers and hikers, and even swimmers, from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week.

This is the first year that such recreation has become a permanent seasonal fixture and it signifies just how much the river has evolved from a concrete flood channel that was off-limits to everyone, except fearless taggers, to an emerging public resource.

One of the many formidable individuals who has played a part in making the river habitable once more is Mia Lehrer, landscape architect and head of her own firm Mia Lehrer & Associates. She has spent 20 years supporting LA River efforts, from voluntary clean-ups to, currently, heading up the design of the LA River Master Plan.

She has also helmed many other projects in the Los Angeles area, including the Annenberg Beach House in Santa Monica, Vista Hermosa Park, Dodger Stadium and the masterplanning of Hollywood Park, due to start construction soon.

DnA spoke to Mia about the LA River and learned about the complexity of public projects and why she enjoys being a “regional” landscape architect.

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View south of the LA River from Marsh Park in Frogtown (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: The L.A. River is a very ambitious project to reconnect people with the river. What’s your role in the effort?

Mia Lehrer: This has been an effort of many, many people who set this agenda forward, starting with a poet Lewis MacAdams, who 30 years ago had an idea that the river should be accessible. It took many decades for people to understand that it is a river and that as river, it can be accessible and that there are solutions to make it accessible. So as landscape architects/urban designers, this is our domain to understand infrastructure in the deepest sense and the layers of strategies that can be implemented to solve a problem.

If you want a single purpose piece of infrastructure to bring water from the city to the ocean, the channelization of the river did it. It was a marvel, but it also cut the city into many pieces. Many communities were severed.

I was initially involved with a team associated with the master plan to revitalize the river, to first and foremost manage water, and protect the citizens from flooding, but to also offer opportunities for recreation, and densification of the city. The idea was to have multi-benefit solutions; to take the river and turn it into an asset.

Listen to Mia describe her vision for a revitalized LA River.

The river channel is basically 80 years old. As we start creating parks, promenades and access to the river and bikeways, and as the edges are redeveloped, we can bring schools and libraries and create whole new swaths of land across the center of the L.A. basin that will give the city a new face and new opportunities not unlike other developments such as Battery Park City on the Hudson River.

My role allowed us to work through an option whereby we include habitat creation and recreation while dealing with flooding. The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan was adopted in 2007.

Now a River Office exists in the Bureau of Engineering advancing issues and river-related projects.  The river was not deemed a traditionally navigable waterway, until 2010, and that allowed us to initialize some of these projects.

Once it became designated as navigable, it then was then able to be protected under the Clean Water Act.

When you ask how I was involved in the recreation zone opening, I was involved as an advocate to really promote the navigability of the river. As both an advocate and professional I could help ensure that this would become a navigable zone.

The time for accessing the riverbanks ends on Labor Day when rain could potentially endanger citizens.

MLA Staff Kayak Trip
Mia Lehrer Associates’ staff kayaks on the LA River (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: What can people do on the L.A. River?

ML: People can already bicycle, and rollerblade, and jog/walk along the river on the Elysian Valley Greenway Trail, which is up on the banks of the LA River. The recreation zone, which is approximately a 2.5 mile stretch in the Glendale Narrows, allows the public to also legally access the river channel itself and five feet up onto the sloped channel walls. Individuals can access and use this space free of charge, from sunrise to sunset. Groups, such as organized kayakers, must obtain a permit from the Mountains, Recreations and Conservation Authority (MRCA).There are three groups that are offering kayak rentals. You can also fish.

(Note: following this interview, it was announced that the Glendale Narrows, an eleven mile stretch of river including Marsh Park, has been slated for ecosystem restoration by the Federal Government to the tune of one billion dollars. Mia Lehrer Associates were part of the coalition that campaigned for this plan. The plan has support from the Army Corps of Engineers, the department that originally channelized the river starting in the late 1930s. Now it awaits funding, but with the commitment of a billion dollars, suddenly people who have worked for years to bring back the LA river can count on some top­down financial support. In the meantime, grassroots activists are still on a mission ­­ simply to get people aware of the river and become part of the effort to revive more than just the Glendale Narrows. Learn more about camping at the river and Jenny Price’s initiative to get people to play at the river, Project 51.)

DnA: Let’s hear about some of your other projects?

ML: Well, there is Hollywood Park and that starts construction in a couple of weeks. We master planned the project with a team and the developers. The first projects to get off the ground are housing and a couple of the parks, and also a community-based retail area.

DnA: What are you doing at Dodger Stadium?

ML: We’re doing a series of plazas around the perimeter of the stadium, so when you exit by bicycle, bus or car, there will be public interface with the stadium where you can sit and relax and enjoy baseball-related activities. You can be outside enjoying the fresh air before a game starts and partaking in social activity that the fans enjoy. In the end, there will be nine plazas all around the perimeter. We’ve finished five of them.

DnA: So you are retrofitting a very car-oriented building?

ML: This project demonstrates we are accepting the fact that Angelenos are using alternative means of transit. They are taking the bus, they are biking. They are also arriving earlier, instead of all at the same time because there are activities for children and for adults before game time.

DnA: Angelenos are notorious for leaving Dodger games early; will this amenity keep them at the game longer?

ML: Now that there is a much healthier public transportation system, I think the next five years are going to see a big difference in Dodger stadium.

Perhaps people are going to take the train from Culver City to Union Station, and then decide to go to dinner downtown. There’s going to be change in the way people work around the stadium and also all of the different access points.

They have opened additional gates, and so people now picnic in those areas. It’s really benefitting the community at large.

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Nature garden at the Natural History Museum (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: What did you do for the Natural History Museum?

ML: We created a four-acre garden on what was once the parking lot for both staff and visitors on the side of the museum that faces Exposition Boulevard. There was an ambition to open up the museum to the community, and to the Metro that traverses Exposition Boulevard to become not just a museum of natural history but also become more relevant through its exploration into urban ecology by creating gardens that allow a better way to live in the city.

We have created a series of experiences that allow people to understand what it means to be an urban dweller who wants to experience nature in the city and take some lessons home; so by creating gardens that teach better ways to live in the city, we can learn how much water we use, when and where.

In addition, the garden outlines what it means to have certain plants and how we actually help the county foresters better understand how our fauna is doing and how our habitat is performing.  So it’s a mini-laboratory, but a laboratory that has energized activities for the scientists and educators at the museum.

I think it’s also a place that people of all ages hopefully want to come back to multiple times just to enjoy.

DnA: One of the projects you have been involved with is Orange County Great Park? Now there are complaints about expenditures? What is going on?

ML: I don’t know what to say. There are professional groups that worked on the projects and we built 100s of acres of park; people are enjoying the park and I’m disappointed that there seems to be a period of uncertainty.

Vista Hermosa Park (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: Clearly your work is not just about plants, it’s much more. Can you explain what a landscape architect does?

ML: I think landscape architecture is a profession that deals with soil, water, plants, moving people around, and in many cases shelter. So this could be a garden, it could be a park, it could be a large piece of infrastructure like the L.A. River. The difference between landscape architecture and architecture is the element of time and what it’s going to look like is only evident after everything grows in. You have to have a sense of confidence about how things are going to perform over one decade or two decades or three or more decades.

DnA: Landscape infrastructure is a word one hears a lot these days. What does that mean?

ML: Landscape infrastructure is basically the interaction that we as people in urbanized areas have in connection with water, land, energy and with each other; and also how public infrastructure such as water pipes or electrical conduits are integrated with the landscape.

Furthermore, connectivity in our city is all of these freeways of course, but it’s also the waterways. It’s a little more elusive in Los Angeles to be frank. Now we are trying to reveal these waterways again, like the L.A. River.

DnA: You grew up in El Salvador. What drew you to landscape architecture?

ML: El Salvador is a beautiful, tropical country, with rich flora and habitat, and volcanic lakes. There wasn’t a weekend that you weren’t out with the family canoeing. It was a different tempo of existence; I could see the volcano from my primary school.

I went to study architecture and then discovered landscape architecture and fell in love with Frederick Law Olmstead’s 12-feet long drawings of Central Park. After this, I realized I didn’t want to be an architect or a planner.

Master Plan Montages_LA State Historic Park_Existing River Connection

Above and below: The Master Plan for the LA River envisages terraces in the place of concrete in the stretch of river at the LA State Historic Park; the terraces will provide flood control.

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DnA: Do you think landscape architects are having a more significant role in the creation of the civic realm today because of the retrofitting of the industrial landscape?

ML: I think we’re multidisciplinary. We understand civil engineering, topography and geology, transportation, zoning and also we have to be conversant in the political realm; we have to understand how decisions are being made, where you can find the funding sources are for green streets and beaches and so on.

We help solve some of the issues of urbanized areas that have to recalibrate themselves around industrialized parts of rivers. We seem ready to deal with that network in an imaginative way. That’s the beauty of what we do, we work in teams. We work with economists, architects, designers, and we work a lot with community and understand that aspect of our work, to help them participate in a meaningful way so the projects are successful and are embraced by the public. Growing up in El Salvador, I also understand the immigrant communities in a deeper way and relate to them.

DnA: You’ve become such a player in Los Angeles, you’ve had a hand in many prominent projects. Do you owe that to your political as well as design skills?

Seating at Vista Hermosa Park (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

ML: I love Los Angeles, and I am very committed to the region, I’ve been accused of being a regionalist by my peers who work all over the world. But my sense is that Los Angeles, and the larger metropolitan area, is an area that needs a lot of energy, help, and support, with a team that has the experience to solve problems.

I like engaging and understanding the issues and trying to solve these problems, and that doesn’t mean just solving them technically, but supporting the leaders in the community who are trying to write legislation and who are trying to change the way we live for the better, whether through transportation, water or parks and open space.

I have developed a network of people who care, who share a similar spirit and values, and it is just a very satisfying when something big comes up like the River Corridor or (the trees being taken down on) Crenshaw and you make ten calls and help. There are probably around a hundred people in my realm who care about water in the same way.

I traveled a lot as a young person, and as a young professional, and now I’m trying to make a difference here.

Read more about Mia Lehrer and her work on the L.A. River in this article by Guy Horton.