Mia Lehrer is an advocate—for “good design,” sure, but also for trees. There has to be a feeling for those trees, the Los Angeles–based landscape architect says, because “if nothing else, they don’t have the ability to speak for themselves.” For more than two decades, Lehrer has also advocated for the transformation of L.A.’s junk river—paved over with concrete by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1930s to fight flash floods—and had a hand in creating the 2007 Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, before the city handed off the project to Gehry + Partners last fall. Metropolis editor Samuel Medina talks to Lehrer about that experience, as well as her new design for FAB Park in downtown L.A., the importance of community outreach, and cleaning up the L.A. River, one mattress at a time.
Samuel Medina: When did you start working in and around the L.A. River?
Mia Lehrer: It’s sort of a life’s work. I started by becoming active with Friends of the Los Angeles River, cofounded by poet Lewis MacAdams. At the same time, there were a series of professional charrettes with the American Society of Landscape Architects and the American Institute of Architects where people were really starting to look at the river and asking questions like, “What does this really mean to recapture this river?” It seemed like a pipe dream.
In addition to these professional charrettes, we began working on getting to know the river and understanding its issues by helping in cleanups. The cleanups were, believe it or not, these really wonderful experiences, like learning to harness a beast. The river channel collected garbage of such incredible proportions. The kind of garbage you saw in the L.A. River was mattresses and refrigerators, bicycles, and cars. There was an understanding [on the part of city engineers] about managing floodwater, but that was it. They were mowing down all the vegetation that was slowly coming back.
SM: How would you characterize the work you were doing? Was it different from how your peers were operating at the time?
ML: I went off on my own very early on. I got involved with community volunteer work before any of my colleagues did. It was a kind of advocacy, but I also realized the power of design. It was clear to me that having the tools of a designer could be incredibly useful and productive, because I could draw a solution and say, “You could do things differently by doing this.” But I learn by doing, and the more I uncovered about issues through the kinds of very interesting conversations and professionally organized charrettes, the more I was able to figure out what we could contribute. I also started developing very strong relationships with other professionals who were interested in the same issues—less with other landscape architects than with engineers and planners, and also those in the nonprofit world.
SM: You helped author the 2007 master plan. Are any of the projects you initiated within that still active?
ML: All of those projects continue. They are significant because they recognize the river as an important sort of spine. They are each corridors that help bring to life a much larger master plan.