Landscape architect Mia Lehrer has designed some lavish private gardens in Los Angeles, but she has also made her mark with "guerrilla planning," creating and blue-skying plans for parks and public spaces, from the harbor to Silver Lake. She's Salvadoran by birth, and alert to analyzing how open-space needs and use by newcomers may teach L.A. how to enhance its footprint. Now that the drought is dictating terms, it's also making new ones possible, and Lehrer doesn't intend to miss the opportunity that scarce water provides to get Angelenos to regard the natural world in a way that makes sense here and now.
Out your office window, I see a lawn with a copse of pine trees in front of an office building. Size up that space for me.
It's a simple park. There are people doing yoga, kids throwing balls, people with their dogs. It's designed by Peter Walker, who was a professor and partner of mine. He did the World Trade Center. It's used so much, and it speaks to the kind of spaces we need. You could use lawn varieties that use less water, also gray water from the building. You could drip-irrigate the pines once a week, the lawn could be a native meadow — and the doggies will be playing, people will still be doing yoga, but you would [cut] 75% of the water used now. Getting rid of 100% of lawns is not necessarily realistic for a city that needs these little oases. The issue is that about 70% of our lawns are in backyards, an enormous amount of water is used for them, and they're more visual than functional. We can educate people about options.
What makes a successful park?
It relates to scale, who's going to be there, what reflects the culture and interests of the community. People's first notion about a park is Central Park — big, grassy, lush. So adjusting expectations about that aesthetic, we have a hard row to hoe in L.A. This is the era for our city to think about parks and the river and the urban forest as all one thing.
Why are you a landscape architect?
I like to call myself an urbanist. What designers bring to the table is visualization. We can help people understand the solutions.
Is L.A.'s need for park space different from other places'?
From the advent of the car through the 1980s, Los Angeles was this aspiration: having your own little oasis. The private outweighed the public realm. The city was alienating; you didn't have a sense of the common good. The private-public gardens like Descanso, the Arboretum, the Huntington are wonderful assets, but you couldn't just walk down the street [to them]. Things changed dramatically in part because of the leadership, and as public transit began to be layered into the city.
The norm being aspired to across the country is a 15-minute-maximum walk to your closest park. We just don't have that. We did a lot of great planning — beautiful highways and streets, [but] look how many parks we cut in half to do that: Hollenbeck and Echo Park and MacArthur Park. Environmental justice-wise, wow.
Your Vista Hermosa Park was the first new public park in downtown in more than 100 years. It isn't just grass and a couple of trees, or just open space. It's about what a live bird looks like, and seeing running water.
There's a movement of what we call urban ecology. At Vista Hermosa, there's a terrace of decomposed granite surrounded by flowering plants from the chaparral, there's the city in the distance, sycamore trees, a playground, water, boulders; at another level you're in a grotto. One time I was there, a young family was having a picnic. I said, "How do you like it?" The father says: "I wish we had swings. All the rich people's parks have swings." I said: "This is a different kind of park." As we talked, his kid had gone 30 feet up on the boulders and was playing with sticks and he came down all happy.
Is there a way to reverse-engineer existing parks for the drought?
Yes. The decision might be made for us: If we ration, older parks are going to have to live completely differently. We overwater no matter what, two-thirds more than we need. It's watering, watering, watering.
We need our urban forest — for shade, for air purification, for humanity and pedestrian comfort, to make the city better. We need to think about how we save our tree canopy, making sure we choose the right trees, and where we have trees, how we care for them.
There's a lot of incredible collaboration between the county and the cities in L.A., this big sea change as we start to understand water. It makes us realize we're connected, that it's one water, and we have to think of it as a whole.
You asked Mayor Garcetti to appoint a design czar. What would that position do?
We now have a tech czar, somebody for economic development, somebody for sustainability. In New York, the mayor's office and planning department and design folks make sure developers and [city officials] all have a vision of what they want to accomplish with good design. L.A. needs somebody really strong who cares about design.
What are you planning for the former Hollywood Park in Inglewood?
There's a residential community that's moving forward with a retail center. It's a lovely neighborhood, apartments to single-family residences and an arroyo that brings water to a lake. Developers who hold water on the site [will] pay less for connections to the [city water] system. You want the developer to be willing to [set aside] 25 acres. We've learned that communities with parks, the land value goes up dramatically.
You designed the new gardens at the county Natural History Museum.
The idea was to do an urban ecological laboratory. The scientists are excited to be able to do research in their own backyard, and people are realizing that having nice gardens in these institutions brings people there, brings birds and bees. There's a dry stream — in California we don't have water all the time, but we still have sycamores and willows.
You've been working for years on reviving the L.A. River.
I can't tell you how excited we are that our mayor was able to strike a deal with the president and the Army Corps of Engineers. It's the beginning of a big change. When we started, immigrant families were already using the river to fish and commute on foot. Now it's a given [for] biking, hiking. It is being included in the 2024 Olympic bid — that's where the athletes' village would be.
What do you think of the new Grand Park in Los Angeles' civic center?
The amount of programming has been amazing. Of course the programming is also expensive. The community benefits tremendously, [but] it's not necessarily viable for many city parks given the city budget. It speaks to the multicultural community, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it grows.
The more parks, the better, let's put it that way, but I do think there's such a thing as too many efforts at the same time. Like Park 101 [a plan to cover the 101 Freeway with a park, from the river to the cathedral]. A park between Olvera Street and downtown makes sense. But however many blocks they were planning? For $800 million? And the river needs love? That's what I'm saying about [needing] an uber-urban guru.
What about park prospects at a rather desolate place like LAX?
We're working at LAX. LAX is a complicated property, and I can't imagine park space there, but there's hope in [other] ways. LAX is investigating how to make more sense of the property they own, [like] the rental car lots. Do they consolidate the parking? What do they do with the balance of the land? Do they create housing? Hotel/offices? What does the area become?
You mentioned educating people about landscape options — like what?
I have this idea of having a series of native plant nurseries at public properties — state parks, the Arroyo Seco, Ballona — as a way of educating people on what these plants do. We're doing a workbook with 10 friends of their gardens before and after the big drought. I want trucks like food trucks to go around neighborhoods on Saturday or Sunday with young people who are knowledgeable about plants saying: "Bring me a picture of your garden. Let's do a scale drawing and help you figure out drought-tolerant plantings."
There's a bit of a backlash against palm trees as nonnative and trite. Your gut reaction?
I love palm trees! I will be on a brigade to save palm trees any day. They're culturally important for Los Angeles. The birds have learned to perch on them, they grow in, they live forever — leave them alone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.