Mia Lehrer & the L.A. River
The landscape architect has spent nearly two decades helping transform a mammoth drainage canal into a true urban amenity.
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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.