This Designer Wants to Create a Real River for Los Angeles

The landscape architect has spent nearly two decades helping transform a mammoth drainage canal into a true urban amenity.

The Los Angeles River, a wasteland or opportunity?

Courtesy Downtowngal under Wikimedia Commons

From the offices of Los Angeles–based landscape architect Mia Lehrer, located near the western edge of Koreatown, you might not even know that Los Angeles has a river. It’s not visible from here—instead we can see other things L.A. is known for: the Hollywood sign, traffic, billboards, a dense urban grid that runs forever. In fact, unless you are right up against it, you may not see the river at all. In its current form, it sits as the abandoned, Brutalist evidence of the city’s past battles with seasonal flooding, an expedient way to move water quickly to the sea. To many, it’s more like an urban-design crime scene of missed opportunities and missteps, begging to be corrected. If Lehrer has her way, it will be corrected so that Los Angeles, the city with the huge drainage channel, becomes Los Angeles, river city.

Though largely invisible at street level, the river—51 miles of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control channel—slices a giant and definitive gash through the Los Angeles mega region. Defining large swaths of the city, it is perhaps the best lens through which to understand how Lehrer works, focused within the city she has called home since 1979, but well beyond the bounds of her discipline. Her version of landscape architecture is more like alchemy, addressing landscape in a deeper, social sense.

The 61-year-old Lehrer stands tall in a flowing earth-tone dress and talismanic jewelry, overlooking drawings spread out on a large conference table. Tracing a wavy line and then dotting her finger at key points on either side, Lehrer says, “The river is huge but it’s made up of many different projects, large and small. Every one of them tests the limits of how people can work together.”

The industrial corridor of the Los Angeles River at the Seventh Street bridge in downtown L.A., as photographed by Lane Barden for his Linear City Portfolio.

Courtesy Lane Barden

For nearly 20 years, backed by her namesake firm, Mia Lehrer + Associates, she has been working with the city, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and community groups such as Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) to reimagine how this graffitied and largely inaccessible infrastructural gap, dividing neighborhoods up and down its route, can become a unifying, living element. Resulting in large measure from her efforts, the river has become the most visible, talked-about, and debated urban initiative in the city. Once derisively known as a “concrete coffin,” the river has more recently become a symbol of urban regeneration, touching off the next wave of speculative land grabs.

Verdugo Wash, where the Los Angeles River bends and starts its journey to downtown and the port, falls within the scope of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Alternative 20 proposal for river upgrades. If envisioned as expected and approved by Congress, the plan would facilitate ecological connectivity from the mountains to the river.

Courtesy Mia Lehrer + Associates and Nuvis

Lehrer was a key author of the 2007 Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, a document designed to help the city envision a framework for future revitalization. Identifying more than 240 potential projects, the master plan helped crystallize and coordinate all the moving parts that had once made it difficult to communicate and move initiatives forward. From 2006 to 2013, she also worked with the Army Corps on the Area with Restoration Benefits and Opportunities for Revitalization (ARBOR) study, which helped identify and visualize opportunities to enhance the character of the river and access while improving hydrological performance. Both studies were triggered by amendments to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water Act that dated back to 1987, which mandated significant reductions in pollutant discharge to the sea.

The staff of Mia Lehrer + Associates are shown kayaking on the soft bottom portion of the Los Angeles River adjacent to Elysian Valley, north of downtown L.A. The river, channelized in the 1930s to mitigate flooding, is a defining element in the 38 cities and neighborhoods it passes through.

Above and below courtesy  Mia Lehrer + Associates

For Lehrer, this was an opportunity for the city to do more than just clean up the river to comply with the EPA; it was a chance to fundamentally change the river’s character and function. Lehrer’s passion for rescripting city-scaled infrastructure goes back to her childhood in El Salvador. “Nature was always present and palpable,” she says. “I was always aware of it and it was always on my mind.”

She recalls how, when she was a girl, DDT had damaged coastal ecosystems. “I remember the Israeli experts who came to help reverse the damage and that image always stuck with me, that you could fix things like that, make things better. My father was a builder so that was also an influence from very early on. He knew how to get things done.”

When she first came to the United States to attend Tufts University in Boston, she thought she would study international relations or regional planning. Her senior thesis examined the impact that dams in El Salvador had had on communities and habitats. While attending a lecture at Harvard, she met one of the single most important figures in her career—landscape architect and 9/11 Memorial designer Peter Walker, who encouraged her to pursue a master’s in landscape architecture at the school’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), where he was on the faculty. “I knew I didn’t want to become an architect,” she says. “But I also knew I liked understanding and making places.”

Landscape architect Mia Lehrer

To this day, she regards him as a mentor. Lehrer points out the window to a garden across the street. “It’s so fitting,” she says, “that I move my office here and right outside the window is one of his projects.” Carl Steinitz, another GSD professor, was also a formative influence. “He imparted to us a way of thinking about the environment as it relates to the big picture, and our ability to impact the world through responsible design,” she says.

The real turning point, however, was seeing Frederick Law Olmsted’s expansive, meticulously detailed drawings when she was a graduate student. “It was a visceral reaction to his work,” Lehrer says. “After that I started reading about him. You would have thought he was flying around the country and using email,” she laughs. “They are incredibly beautiful, ambitious, and just had this intuitive sense for grand and effective city making, about providing alternatives. He is also an inspiration for the way he approached policy and politicians and the way he communicated a vision. He didn’t wait around for people to give him proposals he could work on. He was proactive.”

“Los Angeles has always been this place where I could just drill down and engage,” Lehrer says.

After moving to Los Angeles with her husband, architect Michael Lehrer, she started designing gardens for private clients. But her big-picture thinking always drew her to larger and more complex projects. Her breakthrough to large-scale public work was the master plan for the Silver Lake Reservoir. “It was incredibly contentious,” Lehrer says. It was on Silver Lake that she realized she had a keen sense for communicating complex concepts to different stakeholders and working with the community, a gift she has perfected to a fine art in recent years.

“What puts Mia in a different league is that she not only has the gift of listening, but she knows how to follow up,” says Irma Muñoz, founder, president, and CEO of the Los Angeles environmental nonprofit Mujeres de la Tierra. “She understands the art of finesse. I’ve seen her do some pretty spectacular things at city meetings. Whether it’s one-to-one or one-to-five-hundred, she is able to speak many languages. She speaks the language of the heart, the intellect, the bureaucracy, and of all the people. It doesn’t matter what your status is; you have a place at the table.”

Piggyback Yarda, a 125-acre river adjacent container transfer facility just east of downtown. The future Piggyback Yard (below), designed by the PBy Collaborative Design Group, will be a land of many uses, where recreation, rehabilitated wetlands, and transportation form a thriving “urban ecosystem.” Multipurpose open spaces are designed to flood during larger storm events.

Courtesy Ben Feldmann

With a number of significant projects completed and coming into being, Lehrer has had more impact on the look and feel of the city than just about anybody. Notable projects include the Annenberg Community Beach House, Vista Hermosa Natural Park in downtown L.A., the revitalization of the San Pedro Waterfront, and 3.5 acres of outdoor exhibits and gardens for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. She is currently working on concepts for Hollywood Park and Dodger Stadium. All dramatically redefine the experience of the city by creating new public spaces. “I’ve been accused of being a ‘regionalist’ because I don’t work like many of my peers who have projects running in twenty cities at a time,” she says. “Los Angeles has always been this place where I could just drill down and engage.”

One of the largest continuous pieces of infrastructure in the world, the river begins from the narrow concrete confluence of Bell Creek and Calabasas Creek in the San Fernando Valley and lets out at its widest point at the Port of Long Beach. Along the way it passes through 13 cities and 25 neighborhood council districts, receives 12 tributaries, and is crisscrossed at no fewer than 117 points by bridges and freeway flyovers. This is Lehrer’s domain: a complex, overlapping patchwork of territories, jurisdictions, and ecosystems that spreads well beyond its banks. The river is a physical object, but it’s also a series of ideas, a political proposition, a battery of studies and projects that reside at the core of Lehrer’s practice. “I’m not a social worker; I’m a designer,” she says. “I believe that design is able to solve problems and help open mental gridlock.”

A view of the proposed Piggyback Yard showing public promenade and park along the river. The concept was created by the PBy Collaborative Design Group, which was led by Friends of the Los Angeles River, and included Mia Lehrer + Associates, Chee Salette Architecture Office, Michael Maltzan Architecture, and Perkins+Will.

Above and below courtesy PBy Collaborative Design Group

Along the river and beyond, Lehrer and her firm have been patiently working to improve the public realm, using design to attack underutilized industrial and commercial spaces. In addition to the master plan, Lehrer has been working on a number of river-related proposals, reenvisioning large territories and doing strategic surgical strikes with community-scaled projects. She has also embarked on the Northeast Los Angeles (NELA) Riverfront District Placemaking Plan, which identifies projects that will increase access to—and awareness of—the river, as well as other placemaking opportunities within the five neighborhoods that line the soft-bottom portion of the river.

A second view showing a naturalized wetland and storm-water detention basin at Piggyback Yard

One of the largest river-adjacent projects, Piggyback Yard, originally conceived by FoLAR, would transform a 125-acre river adjacent container transfer facility just east of downtown into a mixed-use community with extensive recreation uses and restored habitat. The project would bring one of the river’s original washes back to life to capture winter surges in water volume. Green and hydrologic connections would link it to nearby Los Angeles State Historic Park, also known as “the cornfields.” “Projects like this are about how to reimagine twentieth-century infrastructure,” says Benjamin Feldmann, project manager for the Piggyback Yard feasibility study. “It’s about bigger contextual relationships, new ways of including infrastructure in the city.”

At a smaller scale, but no less significant in impact, is the Atwater Multimodal Bridge, a first-of-its-kind cable-stay bridge for pedestrians, cyclists, and equestrians. The bridge will span the river, connecting an expanded North Atwater Park, with its revitalized creek, to 56 miles of horse trails in Griffith Park, L.A.’s largest park and the second-largest in the state. It will also link up with a citywide network of bike lanes. Atwater is roughly the halfway marker for ten miles of river that run through Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s District 13. Ten years ago he invited Lehrer to L.A. River Task Force ad hoc committee meetings to present her ideas and subsequently worked with her on the master plan. “Mia has this way of conceptualizing that lends itself to community and brings the best out of constituents,” he says.

A stretch of the Los Angeles River today

Above and below courtesy Mia Lehrer + Associates, Civitas, and Tetra Tech

Lehrer operates with a political deftness honed by years of working on complex problems at the intersection of public and private realms. “What drew me to the river was its potential for integrating neighborhoods with parks,” she says. “All these projects are about demystifying the river and reconfiguring the edges, allowing for more water capacity but also more human engagement. I think there are awesome aspects of the river the way it is today. None of us ever thought this was going to be about bringing it back to what it was before the Army Corps. It’s about understanding what we have with a lens toward a new urban ecology.”

“Mia has so many lineages within her that add up to this incredibly ambitious—in a good way—and hardworking person,” says poet and FoLAR cofounder Lewis MacAdams, who worked closely with Lehrer for more than 20 years on multiple river projects and was one of the first to articulate the desire for an accessible river. “She has the qualities of both a visionary and a hardcore worker bee.”

The Los Angeles River master plan looks to improve access to the water, while still providing ecological enhancements and flood protection.

A few days after our meeting, Lehrer calls to let me know the Army Corps has recommended approval of the $1 billion Alternative 20 proposal, the most ambitious plan that came out of the ARBOR study. “This is a huge win for the city and a testament to the power of design to catalyze change,” she says. Just one month prior, there were indications the corps was planning on going for the less extensive and significantly cheaper Alternative 13, the version river advocates and the city were lobbying against because it didn’t go far enough to change the character of the river. “This is the biggest decision on the L.A. River since the decision to channelize it in the 1930s,” O’Farrell says.

If passed by Congress, the plan will set in motion the extensive revamp of an 11-mile stretch of the river just north of downtown. The $1 billion price tag—to be made up by a combination of federal, state, and local sources—will go for widening the river, creating wetlands, restoring habitat, and adding bike trails and public amenities. Significantly, this includes the territory that could ultimately become Lehrer’s seminal project, Piggyback Yard. “It’s not yet clear how these projects will manifest themselves, but when they do, Los Angeles will be forever changed,” Lehrer says. “Things are really starting to happen now.”

Recent Profiles