New LADWP Commissioner Mia Lehrer on Environmental Design, Systems Planning and Resiliency

VX News shares an interview of renowned LA landscape architect, Mia Lehrer, the newest appointee to the LADWP Board of Commissioners. Mia reflects on her firm's mission of advocacy by design as a process for making places that are environmentally significant and culturally meaningful to people and communities and helping implement projects—funded through bond measures and policies brought forward over time, whether on water, water conservation, shade, trees, or walkability.

Mia, “advocacy by design” is how you describe your firm’s mission.  Elaborate.

As we developed this construct of advocacy-by-design as a team, it was all about how we can make places that are environmentally significant and culturally meaningful to people and communities; how we can help implement projects—funded through bond measures and policies brought forward over time, whether on water, water conservation, shade, trees, or walkability and the enhancement of our streetscapes.

By helping people understand the design process, read drawings and make informed choices about what the look and feel of a place might be, we are advocating for great places and helping the leadership in our cities bring design to reality, to a three-dimensionality that sometimes seems very academic or very legislatively clunky.   

Drill down on a few project examples. Elaborate, for example, on how the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles and the Yaroslavsky LA River Greenway are examples of Studio-MLA’s approach to ecological design.

The Natural History Museum is an example of an urban ecological laboratory. As we advocate for building lightly on the land, we also think of the elements of a landscape that really help you understand what the Southern California landscape really looks like. It's definitely a different kind of place than a park in New York—the trees are drier and they have a different look.

By using permeable paving in the walkways, water can percolate to the groundwater table, creating a stream-like feature that allows people to understand how streams in California are dry 70 percent of the time, but that they exist in nature as linear elements with boulders and riparian vegetation that actually create a very important condition of ecology and habitat.

So, you have all these traces— the Museum, the stones, the boulders, the streams, and the different gardens—that all communicate the many regions of California.  An Urban Ecological laboratory that really allows people to be able to come up close to butterflies in the butterfly garden, the birds that are attracted to many of the tree species were chosen to benefit certain kinds of birds, and the bees in the pollinator garden. 

It’s an educational garden without being a conventional classroom. It advocates for water conservation, for certain kinds of trees, and for the enjoyment of the outdoor space in relationship with opportunities to listen to musical performances or puppet shows in these gardens and in this amphitheatrical space, and, again, always thinking about being very light on the land.

The Yaroslavsky River Park is a similar setting. We took the opportunity to bring people through the site where there was no real accessible trail along the river.  A trail was created, and the planting there was very much an expression of what would have been along the river in times past. It looks very different than it used to but really allows people be able to enjoy that lovely walk or bike ride and watch and appreciate what the river used to look like. We, of course, did not get rid of the channel, but it could still be humanized and that's important.

Mia, further on Studio-MLA ‘s design advocacy, elaborate on the firm’s landscape contributions to Dodger Stadium, SoFi Stadium, and the Lucas Museum.

Starting with Dodger Stadium, how the stadium is nestled in around those hills is a very special siting for the place— albeit there were some issues about displacement, which I think would have been very different today. The way people use this space is very remarkable and was very striking for me to understand how much baseball and especially how much the Dodgers and Dodger Stadium means to the communities in Los Angeles.

It is a multigenerational place and there's a relationship that people have with this place that is very meaningful. Of course, it celebrates Southern California, the weather, and the fact that over the 365 days, it's really a place to go, to be at, and to enjoy.

So, as we worked on this as a team with the wonderful group of architects—including Brenda Levin, Thomas Quirk, and Janet Marie Smith leading the effort— it was really important to create a series of spaces that added offerings like food and entertainment and expanded the stay on the site. Those spaces and plazas were created to actually be able to go 360 degrees around the stadium—allowing the vehicle, the car, and the parking to stay behind you as you arrive early and really enjoy the place which contributes to this new idea of what stadiums can be in cities.

At SoFi Inglewood Park, water became one of our objectives: how to collect the water, where does the water come from, how do we recycle it, and continue this recycling strategy? In reality, we actually take water from a reclamation plant, filter it, and then also have all the water from all the adjacent parcels within the stadium properties, and then we recycle it and use it for irrigation.

The other objective was the plant material and the idea of adding trees and plant collections so that the stadium becomes a place when there aren't games or big events where the perimeter of the stadium, the six-acre lake, plus all its gardens become a destination for the community. In working with Mayor Butts, with whom we have done the specific plan for the larger 300-acre parcel, the notion that the public realm—the collective of plazas, parks, parkways, widened sidewalks, and thousands and thousands of trees—became an offering and an obligation for the developer. It was also an offering and a strategy from a landscape architectural perspective to bring shade, to improve the air quality in general, and give it a sense of place.

In the parks just around the stadium alone, we planted 5,000 trees. In trying to figure out how we take this idea of the global stage, which is what this place is going to be, we realized that we could collect plants from around the world. So we put in plants that are native to the Mediterranean biome that require the same amount of water, the same benign weather conditions, and that would expand our choices of vegetation while being very respectful of water conservation. So, we created a botanical garden.

In that way, we were able to advocate for beautiful gardens in and around our public spaces that get beyond the limited offerings from Southern California. Obviously what grows in Southern California doesn't grow in Manhattan or in Miami; we have very different climate conditions. But, we happen to share the same climate condition with Australia,  Chile, Mediterranean Basin, and South Africa. That was a fun discovery and one that we think really celebrates this global stage and becomes an educational moment.

And, of course, the lake is the heart of the public areas. We're advocating for conservation and for design that goes beyond getting people in and out of our cars, but also creates experiences.

And to the Lucas Museum…

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is on a 12-acre parcel in Exposition Park. Besides the museum, we have a 10-acre series of parks that are going to really give the community in and around South Central Los Angeles/USC an incredible destination—places to really enjoy some of the activities that are going to be curated. There will be events, weekend activities and  during the week, you will be able to go and sit in a beautiful amphitheatrical bowl where you can sit with friends and you can be drawing or listening to music,  

On the southern part is the Soboroff Soccer Field, and there's a wonderful setting for those parents who know what it's like to sit in the hot sun as you're watching your kids play sports. It’s a shaded hillside that we created for families to be able to gather and see their kids play.

So it's really a place where there will be a lot of respect for nature a d is really a place for enjoyment, for education, for cultural events, and for respite in the city. And as far as the planting, again, it's all about what will do well in Southern California, and where we can really demonstrate climate-appropriate and resilient city strategies. One of the main features is the roof garden, where you'll be able to have a view towards Santa Monica, towards the Hollywood Hills, to the south, and also to the flatlands— just a really wonderful opportunity to get up and have a different experience with a planted roof.


Studio-MLA has an impressive portfolio of projects, some of which we've just had the chance to hear from you about. Is it significant for landscape, the role of landscape, design,  resource conservation, and public space for more than just these large-scale projects? Does it have significance for the planning functionaries in Southern California to think about how to use public space better?

Yes, and these larger projects are a very important part of the team's work that we're really excited about. But small spaces or patches of spaces throughout the city—whether it's streetscapes or smaller parks, or the areas along Metro lines like, for example, Destination Crenshaw, an open-air linear museum, which is a project that yes,  eventually and ultimately might end up being two miles long, but parts of it are widened sidewalks with trees and with time plazas and parks with a significant art collection with local artists creating a destination to celebrate.  

There’s a lot of really important work that some of the public agencies are doing around transportation and schools, including the notion that schools are being ideally reinvented to become much richer with regard to the kind of outdoor classroom experiences the students can have. We did a school in Eagle Rock, for example, where there was an ambition on the part of the parents and the principal. Everybody got on the same page, and it went from an asphalt school yard that we've all known into places of respite, with shade.

It's an opportunity for habitat and ecology to thrive and for children just to be responsive to biophilia. I mean, it's not in an abstract, unfounded concept; it's a reality that being around trees, plant material, and nature makes a difference in terms of maturing, growing, and being healthy. 

A child of an ambassador and a Salvadorean native, you've traveled and worked in South America and Europe, what are those global influences that you've experienced and you know intimately? How have they influenced your work in Southern California?

Well, there's a sense of awe about nature that growing up in the tropics and living in and traveling through South America, especially Brazil and El Salvador influenced me. You're surrounded by volcanoes—that's what I saw from my schoolyard near where I lived. My parents were so passionate and celebrated all these landscapes that we couldn't help but eventually understand the beauty that we were surrounded by.

There's also the love that people have for plants and for growing things,  and a “can do” attitude— let's just try it or let's just do it and contribute to the wellbeing of the community. You have these exotic landscapes in Brazil by Roberto Burle Marx, an immigrant from Germany to Rio de Janeiro, where you have this exotic black and white paving that goes miles and miles around Copacabana Beach. He was a musician and we got to know him. All these experiences of visiting islands, volcanoes, beaches, and museums. One of my most important inheritances is a sense of obligation and empathy towards people in the environment.

One of my great joys when I arrived to the US some decades ago and started working was the reaction that people in the field would have when I would speak to them in Spanish and start talking about what they were up to and they would say, how did you learn Spanish so well? So, there's a real sense of pride in workmanship and in these kinds of construction jobs, and I've really enjoyed that part of my work.

It also comes from my upbringing in my experience in those countries where my parents were very much involved in the community, giving back, trying to lift people up. As my father went on to become an ambassador, his main goal was to give as many young people an opportunity to study, whether it was medicine or law or agriculture, or in Israel, where he spent 15 years.

 From all the above it's pretty clear now why Mayor Garcetti has nominated you to the Department of Water and Power Board of Commissioners. Can you talk about the opportunity there that you've been afforded and what you would hope to contribute?

I have, of course, been honored with this responsibility. I came to the realization over the last couple of decades that what I really wanted to do was understand how the world works, so that I could share it with younger women because these things often are a mystery.  Understanding how decisionmaking happens, where it’s coming from, and what were the trigger points for a decision? By the way, it’s the first time since the department's inception that the LA DWP Board of Commissioners is comprised of all women.

At this point, I'm trying to be a very good student and learning a lot. They have a great onboarding process where the leadership spends quality time sharing the system, the water system, the power system, and some of the future projects trying to keep California as very well prepared for climate change and resiliency.

The depth of work that they do is incredibly professional. They presented last week this wonderful program for onboarding young high school graduates into the Department of Water and Power employment program. There were a few people who shared what their trajectory has been and how meaningful it has been for them to participate and to be a part of the department.

Note, most people have worked there for decades, for 30 or 40 years. These young people are entering the program at a really important time in their lives. It was very interesting. One of the young women, who already is with the program for 10 years and is now a manager, said that she was the first woman to graduate from this program, and so they call her the first lady. It was pretty emotional, I have to say. I am determined to introduce her to some more First Ladies sometime. But that was really charming. The more you get to know the organization, the more you realize what tremendous responsibilities they take on, how serious and professional they are, how deep they go into the issues, and how forward-thinking they are. So, I'm learning a lot.  


“(A)dvocacy-by-design.., [is] all about how we can make places that are environmentally significant and culturally meaningful to people and communities; how we can help implement projects—funded through bond measures and policies brought forward over time, whether on water, water conservation, shade, trees, or walkability and the enhancement of our streetscapes."