Franklin Ivar Park, in the shadow of the Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles, is a reminder of what the landscape of the city looked like before it was a city. Planted with tall tufty grasses and low shrubs—all of which are drought tolerant and native to California—the design riffs on a creek that once flowed through the area. Now, you’ll find children climbing on boulders, families picnicking on new tables, and birds flocking to leafy trees. At just three-quarters of an acre, the park occupies a formerly vacant space between a busy road and the highway.
“I built parks that are opportunistic,” says Mia Lehrer, the landscape urbanist who masterminded the new public space.
At Studio-MLA, Lehrer has built a thriving practice on finding creative and often overlooked ways to remake Los Angeles into a healthier, more resilient, and more sustainable city. For the past three decades, she has been peeling back concrete and layering in vegetation throughout the city, helping Angelenos achieve a balanced urban ecosystem.
At 65, Lehrer has become Los Angeles’s doyenne of landscape design and a leading advocate for green urbanism through projects like the Natural History Museum’s new interpretive gardens; Destination Crenshaw, which will turn 1.3 miles of the Crenshaw Boulevard corridor into an arts and culture streetscape; and the NFL Entertainment District, a 300-acre mixed-use development and stadium that will include over 25 acres of parks.
But the main project that Lehrer has been tenaciously, tirelessly working on for most of her career is the Los Angeles River. Since co-authoring the Los Angeles River Revitalization plan in 2007, her studio has been seizing—or creating—every opportunity it can to revitalize the 51-mile-long waterway, which was infamously paved over in the 1930s. Taylor Yard, the first major park to be developed on the river—on a site in the Cypress Park/Elysian Valley area of the city, just north of Dodger Stadium—is in the design phase.
While diverse in scale, scope, and type, these projects, plus Studio-MLA’s research-based work, all attempt to answer a similar question: How do you approach urban ecology in a city that’s as developed as Los Angeles, in a climate that’s rapidly changing, and amid crises of housing, natural resources, and transportation?
“It starts with livability and the power of urbanism and landscape architecture and the power of empathy,” Lehrer says of her ethos.
But in many cases it starts with the most basic of human needs: water.
The story of Los Angeles is the story of water. For hundreds of years, artesian springs bubbled up from the ground, providing water to the indigenous people, Spanish missionaries, and orange farmers in the Los Angeles basin. In the 1800s, Los Angeles grew rapidly and withdrew more groundwater than rains replenished—a problem amplified by development, which covered more and more open land with houses, roads, and highways, all preventing rainwater from recharging the aquifers.
Soon the aquifers became harder—and more expensive—to pump since the water was deeper. The city looked elsewhere—to the Owens Valley, to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and to the Colorado River—sparking ruthless water wars, and even inspiring a Hollywood drama. Today, Los Angeles imports 85 percent of its water through a vast network of aqueducts.
Most of the time, there’s not enough water in LA. Occasionally, there’s too much. The natural hydrology of the Los Angeles Basin makes it prone to flash floods. During storms, rainwater flows from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Pacific Ocean through the Los Angeles River, which drops an astounding 800 feet in just 51 miles, making the water’s velocity fierce and rapid. (The Mississippi River, in comparison, drops 800 feet in 2,300 miles.)
An “ephemeral river”—meaning one that is dry most of the year and only wet after rains—the Los Angeles River never cut deeply, but instead meandered in braided channels. Urban development covered much of its natural floodplain. After a number of catastrophic floods, including one in 1938 that killed over 100 people and destroyed over 1,500 homes, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to channelize the river, encasing it in concrete and essentially transforming it from a waterway into a highway for water.
Los Angeles’s priorities during the 20th century—which aren’t unlike those of many American cities—are laid bare in its hardscape: the desire for speed and control, and the wish to limit liability and costs, manifested in the miles and miles of concrete and asphalt lining. While this approach temporarily solved problems like flooding and traffic, it’s come at a price: quality of life.
The city is “park poor” and only has about 3.3 acres of park space for every 1,000 residents; the national median for big cities is 6.6 acres per 1,000 residents. The heat-island effect—in which developed urban areas become significantly warmer than surrounding rural areas—is worse in LA than anywhere else in California.
To understand these issues is to understand Lehrer’s work. She defines herself as a “landscape urbanist,” meaning someone who designs cities around people. While each individual project focuses on solving the problems of a specific site—beautifying it, making it more livable, greening it—as a whole, her career is about reversing almost a century of deeply entrenched public policy.
“In the public sector you will find those who are mostly concerned about flood protection and liability for the city. There is that for sure,” Lehrer says. “But there is an enlightened community of engineers who are extremely willing to listen and advance an interesting agenda. It’s just the costs of dealing with any of these issues in California—and in Los Angeles especially—because of how big and how much there is, how big the problems have become, how intractable all the land uses are, that it’s hard to change… You have to change your ways but you still have to make it beautiful. And you need urbanists and landscape architects to do that.”
Lehrer shows what that change can be through design.
At Eagle Rock Elementary School, her studio designed a greening project that replaced blacktop with learning gardens, trees, and bioswales that hold rainwater on-site. At the Natural History Museum Gardens, they transformed a three-acre asphalt parking lot into an urban ecological laboratory by creating a series of gardens—a pond, a dry stream, an interpretation of the LA river—that explains how the natural hydrological cycle functions. This exploration of urban ecology allows visitors to experience the diversity of the Mediterranean biome and Los Angeles’s native landscapes.
“Why I call my little byline ‘advocacy by design’ is because through design, I advocate,” Lehrer says. “You can write white papers, you can write letters in support, but in the end, you can just design it.”
This has been no truer than with the Los Angeles River, a project she has been working on for 25 years.
Lehrer was born in El Salvador, where her family was deeply involved with community building and environmental conservation. After earning her bachelor’s degree in environmental design from Tufts University and her master’s degree in landscape architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Lehrer moved to Los Angeles in the 1979 and was captivated by how the city’s built and natural environments exist together.
Her introduction to the river was through cleanups in the 1980s organized by the poet Lewis MacAdams, who founded the nonprofit Friends of the Los Angeles River in 1986 with the goal of restoring the waterway. By helping to clean the trash from the river, he drew attention to the river’s potential and began to earn community and local support for its revitalization.
“I had grown up in the tropics where all the rivers were different,” Lehrer recalls. “Something about it being so strange, so surreal drew me to it. I did think, ‘Oh, you could just peel away all this concrete and let nature take its course. Why don’t we just peel it away?’”
She envisioned a bucolic, but urban, embankment with promenades, benches, places to meet friends and take long walks for miles. Instead of a “concrete coffin,” the Los Angeles River could become the Seine of Southern California. “It was a very romantic view of what an edge can be like,” Lehrer says. “Oh, we’ll just do something like Paris. No big deal!”
Of course, it’s far more complicated than that. First, it’s a bureaucratic tangle. The river passes through 17 cities and also involves state and federal jurisdictions, which makes achieving consensus on plans a challenge. Second, development requires securing land and funding from public and private sources. And third, there have been changes over time in the definition of “revitalization.” Some advocates of the river have been fighting for “restoration,” a concept, Lehrer says, that doesn’t really exist.
“I’m getting a little impatient because it’s so clear that you can’t go back 100 years,” she says. “I think that the term that gets more people centered for a moment is ‘urban ecology.’ There is no such thing as ‘full restoration.’ If you were to do a restoration project and it happens to be in an area that’s 20 degrees hotter and the water in that particular area is reclaimed water with a lot of salt, what do you do? You work with ecologists and biologists to sort of figure out what are the critical factors. You try to be very supportive of the ecological factors and also the habitat, but to also take it to another level.”
The 2007 Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan—which focused on the upper 32 miles of the waterway—showed the city how it could reduce flood risk, improve water quality, connect and green the surrounding neighborhoods, and create recreation space. It also helped to guide communities along the river toward a collective vision and action.
Lehrer collaborated with a number of civil engineers and landscape architects on the plan—including Tetra Tech, Civitas, Wenk Associates, and HNTB Architects—to produce renderings that depicted tiered seating along the river’s edge, steps leading down to the water, more greenery, and constructed islands and wetlands that make the flow of water more like a natural river.
“The goal was really manifest the river to the community, and bring the community to the river,” Lehrer says. “You’re going beyond the individual park, or the individual site, that you’re actually spreading out and making sure that the community benefits in a larger perspective.” The 2007 plan helped to rally political support for revitalizing the river, including $1 billion in federal funds, approved by Congress in 2015, to restore an 11-mile stretch between Griffith Park and Downtown Los Angeles.
The first major park to be built using those principles is still in the design review stages. This summer Lehrer’s team presented to the city three preliminary design concepts for Taylor Yard—which is about halfway between Griffith Park and Dodger Stadium—showing what the transformation of the 42-acre former rail yard could look like. The riverside park will feature open space, walking trails, wetlands, wildlife habitat, and cultural activities. Imagine groves of sycamore and willow trees, an adventure playground, a kayak launch, amphitheater seating overlooking the water, pedestrian bridges crossing the river, and a viewing platform.
“This new paradigm is, how do you go away from a channel that holds water, that throws it away,” Lehrer says. “How do you hold the water back a little bit? How do you use the park—like Taylor Yards—to slow the water down, to use the water in a wetland condition to actually increase the benefit for the existing fauna, because we are part of the big flyway from north to south, and how do you make it basically a healthier environment?”
It will take at least another decade until Taylor Yard is complete. The larger LA River project will continue to evolve and grow over many more decades and with the expertise of many more landscape designers and architects. Frank Gehry’s office, the engineering firm Geosyntec, and Olin, a landscape architecture firm, are currently working on a master plan for the entire river’s length, but with an initial focus on the 20 miles that stretch from Downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach. There are also over 20 projects underway along the waterway.
As she continues to develop Taylor Yard, Lehrer is also working on master plans for a number of the river’s tributaries, changing the city’s relationship with one of its most precious and fundamental resources one project at a time and setting the conversation about what an urban waterway can become.
“Capture the water,” she says. “Use it. Inspire people’s imagination about the river and what happens around the river.”