The front yard of a century-old institution becomes a learning garden for the city

Story by Caroline Chamberlain, photos by Luke Gibson

The recent proliferation of parklets, bike lanes and light rail are all evidence that new urbanism—the idea that automobile-centric aspects of neighborhoods should be repurposed to foster a pedestrian culture—is taking hold in L.A. And during a recent de LaB Making LA event, we needed to look no further than the Natural History Museum’s Nature Gardens to find one of its most evocative examples.

Expansive parking lots, derisively referred to as parking craters, are one of the primary targets of new urbanist reform. And fittingly, the three and a half-acre gardens, designed by landscape architecture firm Mia Lehrer + Associates, occupy a space that once served as a parking lot for visitors of the museum.

The design of the garden was inspired by a three-page paper the scientists of the museum wrote about biodiversity in Los Angeles. One paragraph of that paper mentioned plans to repurpose the parking lot into a garden, and just one week after reading the paper, the landscape architecture firm cooked up a proposal. “We wanted to make nature visible.” said Astrid Sykes, a designer with Mia Lehrer + Associates, and they worked with scientists at every level to do so.

Featuring a tasteful medley of native, drought-resistant flora, the gardens are equally dedicated to cultivating the region’s native fauna. “Everything in the garden is designed for habitat value, what it can bring to insects, birds, and hopefully some lizards,” said Natural History Museum Head Gardener Richard Hayden while leading a tour through the space. “If you build it, it will show up,” he added.

But what exactly does one build to bring in nature, when there’s typically a focus on designing to keep it out? One answer is the so-called ‘living wall,’ constructed from argillite sandstone imported from Montana that has nooks and crannies perfect for housing insects and lizards. Plus, it serves as a barrier between paying museum visitors and the public.

“Considering it’s a spot for spiders, I’m not going to lean,” Hayden said while standing adjacent to the wall. So far black and brown widows inhabit it, and the museum is hoping to that lizards will find their way to it as well.

Another example of how the museum is cultivating L.A.’s wildlife can be found in the pond, just a short walk away from the living wall. Museum educator Lila Higgins, who also lead the tour, said they chose to include a pond in the design, because “we knew it was going to add a huge amount of biodiversity. Without having water, certain creatures could not live here.” Dragon flies, aquatic nematodes, snails and other aquatic insects have all come to live in the pond since it was built.

After passing by the pond, visitors walked through an area that housed ‘bee hotels,’ that are home to some of the more than 500 species of bee that live in Los Angeles. But the last stop of the tour, brought us back to the needs of us humans in edible garden. Carrots, kale, anise, tomatoes, and cabbage are among the edible plants the museum grows. For now, most of the food is donated, but they also use it for programming like pickling and salsa classes—and, of course, to attract L.A.’s native bugs.

See more photos from the event here.

Caroline Chamberlain is the Digital Producer of DnA: Design and Architecture and Good Food, two excellent shows produced by the Santa Monica-based public radio station KCRW.

Luke Gibson is an architectural and real estate photographer who shoots for a wide variety of clients including residential and commercial architecture, restaurants and nightclubs, and landscape architecture.


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This is the eighth event in our Making LA series, which is made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Making LA consists of ten free programs hosted throughout the city between fall 2013 and fall 2014 that focus on designers and architects working closely with communities and civic leaders to improve Los Angeles. The series will culminate in the Making LA conference in fall 2014, a one-day event where creative leaders from across Los Angeles will share best practices and investigate new ways to make their burgeoning civic, architectural or design projects a reality. Want to sponsor an upcoming event? Learn more.