Mia Lehrer: Designer making beauty out of blight

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Mia Lehrer
Mia Lehrer, photographed at the Los Angeles Times in El Segundo on Nov. 8.

Few are the corners of L.A. that don’t bear the imprint of Studio-MLA, the landscape architecture firm founded by the energetic Mia Lehrer three decades ago.

At SoFi Stadium, her studio designed magnificent cascading Mediterranean gardens and a six-acre lake that captures and filters water. Over at the Natural History Museum, they ripped out a parking lot to create a 3½-acre garden with mostly native plants. Currently, Lehrer’s 45-person studio is working on designs for Destination Crenshaw in South L.A. as well as the San Gabriel Valley’s Puente Hills Landfill Park, which will remake a former dump into the first regional park in 30 years.

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For Lehrer, born and raised in El Salvador, her work isn’t simply about creating attractive landscapes; it’s about repairing degraded habitats and creating spaces in concert with communities often marginalized by the planning process. She has brought green areas to schoolyards and has long been involved in efforts to revitalize the L.A. River. The field, she told me, is well positioned to tackle issues of climate and equity. “There has never been a better decade to be an urbanist doing landscape architecture,” she said. “We have the tools to start solving so many problems.”


Lehrer, 71, has received all manner of honors. In 2021, she was a recipient of a prestigious National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; last year, Fast Company added Studio-MLA to its list of most innovative companies.

‘There has never been a better decade to be an urbanist doing landscape architecture.’

— Mia Lehrer

But perhaps the greatest evidence of her power can be found in the land itself. In 2008, her firm helped reimagine a steep, 10-acre plot in view of downtown whose biggest claim to fame had been serving as decayed urban backdrop to Michael Douglas in the 1993 thriller “Falling Down.” Once studded with oil wells, the property was covered in weeds and remnants of drilling infrastructure.

Today, Vista Hermosa Natural Park is an oasis of California sycamores and white sage; its bioswales and cistern can capture 120,000 gallons of water during a storm. In September, the American Society of Landscape Architects honored the park with its annual Landmark Award, which recognizes a project that “retains its original design integrity and contributes many benefits to the surrounding community.”

Indeed it does. In the middle of L.A.’s urban heart, pleasant trails shaded by mature trees are a riot of birdsong. Through Lehrer’s work, a moribund piece of city has been brought back to leafy, ebullient life.