Planting seeds, powering people, and transforming a river
Kat Superfisky ( BA, 07 MS/MLA, 13 )
Co-founder and Executive Director, Grown in L.A.; Designer, Mia Lehrer + Associates
When I was at SNRE I was named one of the Doris Duke Fellows. As my contribution to the program, I helped to create the Environmental Art Postcard Competition. Each year, we created a theme (related to the environment) and sent out cards and instructions to local middle and high schools around Ann Arbor. Students would mail in their completed 4x6 postcard to SNRE, and the Fellows and other SNRE students and staff would vote on the cards (we’d hang them all in the Commons). We had different categories for winners, as well as “Judge’s Pick”, and would invite all the winners and their families to a special event held at SNRE.
My last year, the theme was “Wonderful Water.” The postcard that I selected as my Judge’s Pick was a white card that had a line drawn down the center of it in pencil. On the left side was a simple pencil line drawing of an ice cube with the word “before”, and on the right was a glass of water with the word “after”. When we gathered all the students and their families together for the awards dinner at SNRE, the mother of that student came up to me and thanked me for selecting her son’s card. She told me that his teacher had initially told him that he had to redo the assignment since what he made was not art, but that he was so thrilled to find that I had selected his “non-art” as my favorite postcard in the contest. She started to tear up as she told me the story. I told her that I wasn’t surprised, since that was the story of my life—living a bit outside of the box, and being told too often that how I was approaching life was wrong (or at least not the “right” way to be doing things). But I haven’t seemed to care to listen much to the naysayers and made it this far, and encouraged him not to give up or give in either. I still have the postcard pinned up at my desk to this day, reminding me the importance of staying authentic to one’s true self and true path in life.
Design is not the parsley on the pig, but rather an essential component in conserving, preserving, restoring, and enhancing the environment. Appearance matters, and it has the power to make people value and protect the world around them. Use it to your advantage.
When she left Ann Arbor in 2013, diplomas in hand, Kat Superfisky moved 2,300 miles across the United States to Los Angeles – for a river. (Yes, Los Angeles has a river.)
“To me, Los Angeles and its river provide the perfect laboratory for exploring how to rebuild cities – humans’ new natural environment – into more inhabitable places,” said Superfisky, who spearheads urban ecological design projects at Mia Lehrer + Associates and runs the nonprofit Grown in L.A.
Most Angelenos don’t recognize the L.A. River as a natural one, mostly because it visually resembles a highway. A once free-flowing arroyo, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers channelized it with concrete in the mid-20th century to accommodate development expansion, provide safety assurance from flooding, and manage sewage-treatment discharge. Public access was prohibited, and it was bound with barbed wire, walls, and fences – transforming it from a beloved resource to one that has essentially become invisible.
For ecologists like Superfisky and many others working to revitalize the river, it has the potential to bring life to the city. But they need plants. Millions of plants. And herein lies the issue: locally, native plants are scarce. Landscape professionals and retail nurseries often truck in plants from as far away as Oregon when they’re needed for projects in L.A., a practice that increases transportation costs and emissions, outsources jobs, and decreases the plants’ survival rate.
Since 2014, Grown in L.A. has been pulling together a diverse and plentiful array of government entities, nonprofits, private organizations, and academic institutions to find ways to meet Los Angeles’ urgent need for native plants.
The nonprofit is creating a network of nurseries on underutilized land in the region to grow the plants needed for upcoming river restoration projects. These nurseries will not only grow plants, but will also grow people – by engaging Angelenos in urban conservation efforts via educational and vocational training opportunities.
Superfisky said, “Through my work, I hope to further the budding field of urban ecology, and help humans rewrite the stories we tell about ourselves and the impact we have on the environment around us into positive ones.”