When Mia Lehrer's landscape architecture firm was invited to transform a heat-absorbing concrete parking lot into the Nature Garden at the Natural History Museum, she saw it as an urban ecology project and a model for how we can reshape our urban landscape. "When we talk about resiliency or climate change, we're really talking about urban ecology," she said of the project to create an urban wilderness filled with native plants and species. It's this kind of urban revitalization project that distinguishes Lehrer, whose mark can be seen across Los Angeles — from work on the Annenberg Community Beach House to L.A. River revitalization projects.
As the founding principal of Mia Lehrer + Associates, she identifies herself as a landscape urbanist. "If I was sitting next to someone on an airplane, I would say I design and plan places that matter, because they build community," she said. "I'm working towards a more resilient environment. I’d say that an important part of it is that beauty matters."
"Yesterday I took someone on a tour of the [Natural History] museum at five in the afternoon," she said. "There were so many birds you almost had to dive because they were eating and going into the water. It was absolutely so awesome. Everything has grown in really well. There are these pockets around the city need to replicated."
What inspired you on your career path?
Mia Lehrer: What inspired me was being in awe of the natural world. Really it came from my family. My parents celebrated nature every day. I grew up in Central America, and it was everything from the trees and parakeets to mountains and lakes that inspired me. We had wonderful activities in the outdoor environment. I also saw my father work towards protecting nature. He founded organizations and was involved with agencies that protected nature.
What are the key external factors that drive your work?
ML: The existing realities of urban decay really drive me. It's so present and so soluble in my mind. I see solutions. The overuse of asphalt and the lack of tree canopy and the water quality in places -- I see that and the decay makes me work towards a series of solutions. It's also environmental justice that drives me.
What do you add to your field/workplace?
ML: My training, work with advocacy groups, and seeing through the lens of design. I always thought people see me as a troublemaker, as a provocateur who doesn't take conventional strategies or solutions for granted. I say there's got to be a different way. I say, we can just do it. I started my approach to working on design projects as a way of working through community-based work... I quickly understood and had an appreciation for advocacy through design. It's not always about the job of designing projects. It’s about loving to design projects, but it has a strong believe in environmental justice. Which also means access. I appreciate the opportunity to engage in important conversations about the city and to contribute to the dialogue from the perspective of the designers. And I support the efforts of others who are educated as lawyers or policymakers and we move the agenda forward with the understanding that teamwork makes a difference.
What are the barriers you face in work -- and what could make your job easier?
ML: Urbanism is not very recognized. People call us gardeners or landscapers and some architects think they can do what we do. But we're a multidisciplinary field and we’re trained to deal with systems that deal with the environments. More like engineers than architects, but we are designing spaces, too. Many times we do projects under engineers or architects who are leading the contract and people don't really know what we do. It becomes a little like we’re in defensive mode. We deal with land use and water and transportation... Once they know what you bring to the table, it’s no different than a group of engineers working on a project and they see your speciality.
What are some of your favorite places in Los Angeles that you actually visit frequently?
ML: I do frequent the L.A. River -- even if I wasn’t working on it I would. I find it alluring. I like to go to the County Museum of Art. It's a go-to place. I love Barnsdall Art Park, where the Barnsdall house is in Los Feliz. I like the large pine grove and it's great for city views. I also frequent Silver Lake for walks around the lake and Griffith Park.
A genie grants you two wishes that will help fight climate change. What do you ask for? (The third wish is for anything you want.)
ML: I would take out all the concrete on sidewalks and plant millions of trees allow people to walk, but it will be decomposed granite like you find in parks. You're going plant as many trees as you can and think of it like a park. It will be a carbon sink. Next, I'm going to narrow the streets because more people will be using public transportation. It'll have an edge that's permeable. Let's say the street is 30 feet wide and there's a permeable sponge and we'll need less storm drains with water percolating on the side. Ideally it would be decomposed granite acting as a sponge.
My free wish is I want a slower city. A slower city is really working on congestion. To have the bikes and pedestrians and public transportation connected. We would deal with the gaps and make it incredibly attractive and easy to use. So we get around in something other than a car. I live on a hill and about a mile from a bus and another mile from Metro. The sidewalk is okay, but it could be better. If there was a general ethic in terms of being a slower city, that could be the mantra for a while. Maybe workdays don't start until a little later if there's an understanding that getting to work will take longer. Or working at home is an option.
Name two things you like most about living in LA, and what would you change?
ML: One thing I love is the blue sky. I'd have to say the cultural diversity, but I'm also going to say something else. I love palm trees because they give the city an identity and because of their horizontal nature and the way they give scale. They're resilient and don't require water and they are maligned and I want to defend them.They get a bad rap! What I would change: I would be much more proactive and less constraining about how many trees we plant. I'd really promote funding for trees and maintenance and operations in the public realm.