Job Spotlight with Alina Phillips, landscape architect and city planner

Alina Phillips is a woman of many talents, making a decision upon entering college to become an early childhood teacher, the seeds of that planted as a youngster while working in her mother's bilingual day-care center in New Orleans.

But the Columbus resident also has learned how to do interior decorating, home remodeling, and even has helped coordinate and raise money for a kids park. Did we mention she can draw and is pretty good with a camera as well?

However, it was just a few year ago that Phillips, 49, returned to Auburn University to earn a master's degree in landscape architecture. The goal there was to put many of her life skills together and do something which fills her with passion each day.

For the last five years, the New Orleans native has been a landscape architect and city planner with the Columbus Consolidated Government's Planning Department. One of her projects was designing the 1828 Resting Gardens on Sixth Avenue, a park dedicated to black slaves who lived and died in the city and is a point on the Black Heritage Trail.

Phillips also has had a hand in what is called "heat island mitigation," which is turning existing concrete and asphalt throughout the city into natural areas that help dissipate heat and keep Columbus just a few degrees cooler during the baking Southern summers. One key project for her was near the intersection of St. Marys and Buena Vista roads.

The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Phillips recently at the 1828 Resting Gardens, talking about that project, the duties that come with her job, and some of the side work she has done. This interview has been edited a bit for length and clarity.

FYI, the occupation of landscape architect is a growth field, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency says there are now 20,100 individuals in that career, with about 2,900 more needed by the year 2022. The average median salary, according to the BLS, is $64,180 per year or $30.86 per hour.

Tell us a bit about the Planning Department?

What most people don't understand is that we're on the forefront of how the city evolves. For instance, if the city has a grid pattern, if it stays historically in place, we're usually responsible for that. If there's a park, connectivity, the way people move throughout a city, that's what we get involved with.

That includes requiring things like natural buffers in shopping centers and office parks?

Yes. I have done heat island mitigation. What we do is anything in relationship with the city and how it works with people. So it's connectivity, streetscapes, things of that nature.

What is your day-to-day life like on the job? Is it office time and outdoors?

It's half and half and depends on the project. For instance, if I have a project like this (1828 gardens), I want to be in the space and understand the space, how the space can be used, how we can integrate it, how we can connect it, and that sort of thing.

And then visually, I'm concerned about what you are going to see from different areas. For instance, in this gardens, if you stand over there where that placement (marker) is, you'll see the church and you'll see the 1828 (entrance). It's a beautiful vista. And then if you stand over there, you can see the towers. So everything is placed so that when people pause, they get a beautiful view and it makes them want to come back out and visit again.

That's because people won't do things unless they're enjoying them. If you want them to walk a block, make that block enjoyable. If you want them to walk 20 blocks, make those 20 blocks enjoyable. So for landscape architecture, that's what we do. We bring nature into the mix of the city to make enjoyable experiences, because it's more healthy.

Are blueprints and computers part of the design process?

With this process, we'll get a survey done and I'll take that and lay a design over it to scale. Then I'll bring my design out here and look at it, and try to picture 3-D, in my head, what's going where and why it's going there. After that, you get a cost analysis and (budget planners) say, sorry, you can't have all of that, and it's cost prohibitive for you to do this or that type of design.

Because you'll initially ask for all the bells and whistles?

Yes. Initially, you go with full-fledged 'the dream, the vision and the ultimate.' Then you get the budget and you have to pull back and regroup. And the design changes, too, if you regroup, because there are certain aspects of plants and flowers and trees that give you different feelings.

And you have to work within the confines of what you've got. For instance, with this project we wanted to make sure we had a meandering walkway. Well, you could double back on itself or we could have switched back in and out through it on the short side. But that would not have been as peaceful of a walk and it's not the way people tend to relax. So if you get a nice long meandering on the outskirts, and as this part (of the gardens) grows like we intended, we'll have a living fence on the edge, which will more or less cradle the park in green.

Similar to hedges?

These are hollies on the edge. So they're a living fence in that they're a little prickly. You're not going to want to get into them, and they'll keep people from climbing the fence. So it serves a dual purpose.

This project would be totally different from a corporate landscape project?

Yes. This is much more different. With a corporate project, you can design from the street or you can design from inside the building. Inside the building, your vista is determined by windows. But if you're designing from the street, you want the full view and inviting areas and taking into account safety issues.

Like with this particular (1828) park, you never want one way in and one way out. That's why there are three exits and one main entrance. The main entrance has a funnel effect to invite you in from the street and convey that this is something important.

How long did it take you to come up with the design of the 1828 park?

This one took about a year because of all the changes that did occur. But once we got to the final design, it was a matter of months. The installation was probably the easiest part.

Did this park design win an award?

This one got two awards, one from Historic Columbus Foundation and the other from Keep Columbus Beautiful, for urban forestry.

Have you ever worked any corporate projects?

No. I do residential and private. For instance, I had a (private) client who wanted a completely edible yard. And that's a challenge because you have sunny spots and shady spots. But they wanted everything completely edible or herbal or something of that nature. Everything had to be functional.

What types of plants did they want?

If they had a sunny area, I put in a sassafras tree and rosemary, and creeping thyme to put down as a ground cover because it was also part of their sidewalk area. You want it to be nice from the street. But they wanted to be able to pick it and use it in their food.

Figs and muscadines would be good?

A fig tree would be a great one. Muscadines would have been a good one, too. It just depends on the landscape. But they had raised (planting) beds and the style of their house was a little bit different. So the framework of the trees and anything that I chose to plant wasn't a problem. If they were deciduous and got gnarly or you could see the twists and the vines, that was OK. It wasn't that manicured.

But people do like Bradford pears because they're very manicured. They look like a child-drawn tree, where you have a stick and you have the foliage at the top. It's a lollipop.

And I presume good shade is important in the Deep South?

Trees have different types of shade. If you stand under an oak tree versus a river birch, you'll get two totally different types of shade. So if you're wanting a shade canopy where people will want to sit and stay, then you look for a nice oak with heavy foliage, even if it loses it in the winter. Since we're in the South, that is not a problem for us. In the summer is when we really need the shade.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The design work. And then the thought process of what goes into it and how people are going to enjoy it in the end.

For example, this park has a lot of bird-attracting plants. These are serviceberries and they'll all bloom white in the spring. Of course, the ferns are evergreen to give it a background. But the berries will feed the birds and the hollies will feed robins and other types of birds.

So you get that integration of environment with people when they come here. They'll feel more relaxed if they see and hear birds and that sort of thing.

But so much of this will take years to mature to what you fully envisioned?

Right. As a landscape architect, you design for the future. You design for children, or your children's children. You may design for the here and now if it's a fast-growing situation, such as a water park where there's more civil engineering involved and you can have an immediate 'we built this.'

But if you're waiting for trees to get this size, you're talking 75 years at least. That's where we have to take care not to cut those trees down just kind of random.

After finishing a project, do you come back out and see how folks are using the space or the park?

Absolutely ... To me, form has to follow function, and if you don't understand what the function is, how are you going to develop the form of what the layout's supposed to be?

So early on you were headed toward teaching?

My mom ran a bilingual nursery in New Orleans and I worked there from the time I was probably 12 years old, before and after school, and 12-hour days during the summer, just spending my days there. So I went to college and became a teacher. And both of my parents are teachers.

What grades did you teach?

Early childhood, kindergarten through third grade. I think that's when they are the most pliable. If you can get a child to love school between kindergarten and third grade, they will love school for their entire life, and they will usually get a higher level of education. It is so, so important.

I did that for a few years and then I started my family, and then I taught kind of here or there for a few years. I taught kindergarten at a private school and substituted, and I did fund-raising for the schools and the PTA and all of that stuff that sort of goes with having a family.

And then there was a company that came in to where we live, and they were an architect group that if you were to raise the money, they would design a park based on children's specifications. They would seek public participation from the children and ask them what they wanted.

I came in on the tail end of that project to do fund-raising. We had to raise like $60,000 in donations and tools, and organize it so that when people came in, you could build this thing over a five-day period. It's a huge park.

So I did that and fell in love it, and I fell in love with the building part of it, and manipulating an environment, but still maintaining an environment ... because they keep the trees in the space that they're allotted.

What's the most challenging part of your job?

Probably the money. The money is the hardest thing because it can you pull you back from a design that has great intentions, but the funds just aren't there. Which is part of the problem-solving and the challenge, which is what I like about it.

Working for a city, you're always under funding constraints?

(Laughs) You're always challenged with that, which is good. It really is ... But at the same time, it would be nice if you could go (snaps her fingers), I'd really like to do that and develop what I envisioned.

What advice do you have for someone considering landscape architecture?

You definitely need problem-solving skills, some sort of creative outlet, whether it's pencil drawing, water colors or sketching, You need definitely need communication skills, communicating through diagrams. And you need to be able to sell what you're doing, because if you can't, people will look at you and go: You want to do what?

Finally, what is the key to a park being successful with the public?

One thing about people is if you don't provide them a way to sit -- it doesn't matter if it's an 18-inch-high block or a concrete wall, people will sit on it -- but if you don't provide that, you're asking them not to stay. It's kind of like if you invite people into your house or they come in; if you don't say, well, sit down, they're not staying because they know you don't want them to stay.

But as a city we encounter problems such as loitering or homeless and that sort of thing. We have to keep our parks safe and empty at night, and then they open in the morning. So it's kind of that problem-solving thing again where you go back and forth and determine how do we accommodate people when we want them to stay and be here. After all, the more eyes on a park, the safer it is.


Name: Alina Phillips

Age: 49

Hometown: New Orleans, La.

Current residence: Park District (Weracoba) in Columbus

Education: 1984 graduate of Eleanor McMain Secondary School, a magnet school in New Orleans; earned a bachelor's of science degree in early childhood education from Auburn University in 1988; earned a master's degree in landscape architecture from Auburn University in 2010

Previous jobs: Residential landscape design, teacher, fundraiser, house remodeling, interior decorator, plastics broker, tools coordinator volunteer at KidsSpace Park

Family: Two daughters and one son; parents live in Gulf Shores, Ala.

Leisure time: Enjoys attending Broadway plays, bike riding with her daughter and their dogs, walking at Lakebottom Park, reading, problem-solving, designing, listening to music and visiting botanical gardens

Of note: She designed the logo for the Fall Line Trace-Rails to Trails Linear Park and the 1828 Resting Gardens, which received awards from Keep Columbus Beautiful and Historic Columbus; she and her youngest daughter have enjoyed foster caring for Paws Humane; as a child, her parents took the family traveling and camping through 43 states, visiting state and national parks; she has enjoyed visiting beaches on the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico; she also enjoys visiting waterfalls, with Niagara Falls her favorite

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