The city of Columbus’ landscape has certainly changed in recent years, as have the neighborhoods that surround it. What you may not know is who is responsible for a number of these landscape designs and who helped bring these magnificent structures to fruition.
Being socially connected, ecologically responsive and economically sustainable are all principles that MKSK—a collective of landscape architects, designers and planners in the heart of the Brewery District—abides by. MKSK has been a part of the transformation of the entire downtown Columbus riverfront for the past twenty years, including site development for North Bank Park, Genoa Park, the Scioto Audubon Metro Park, Scioto Mile Promenade, Bicentennial Park, Dorrian Green and the Scioto Greenways.
While it takes a large team to execute such strategies, the beauty of the work they do is best represented by three dynamic and creative women who participate in the design process at all levels. Their mission is to make communities better for people.
Karen McCoy is one of the principals for MKSK. She celebrates forty years in an industry she feels was her destiny. “I grew up with a love of plants. I can remember building cities in my sandbox and taking my Barbie house apart to create a better floor plan,” she recalls.
The home Karen grew up in was surrounded by steel mills and coal mines, but fortunately she had access to the beautiful Oglebay Park in Wheeling, West Virginia. The park’s landscape, the beautiful structures and the cultural programs there left an indelible mark on her, which she understood when she studied landscape architecture.
“I first studied art and then discovered landscape architecture, the perfect combination of my love of design and plants,” Karen recalls. “I became aware of the ’biophilia hypothesis’ which suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature. It made total sense to me because as a child, when I faced a problem, I retreated to the woods.”
In the company of mature trees, a babbling stream and ferns Karen felt centered and found her answers. “Exposure to inspirational places elevates our quality of life. Landscape architecture gives me the opportunity to help shape the environments where people work, heal, live and play.”
Karen has enjoyed a long and illustrious career in landscape architecture, primarily building the MKSK practice. She became an early partner of the former Myers Schmalenberger Incorporated. In addition to traditional landscape architecture and planning projects, her team did master planning and detailed design for entertainment districts and theme parks. “We were on the design team for the Ferrari World theme park in Abu Dhabi, a 23-acre indoor experience where I led our work on the area design.”
That project was creatively challenging because they had to create an outdoor environment indoors. “While that project fed my creative thirst and love of details, it gave me the distinct ability to identify the sound of a Ferrari engine!” Karen laughs. However, her most satisfying projects are the ones that improve the community.
“MKSK is a collective of landscape architects, urban designers, and planners who are passionate about the interaction between people and place,” she says. Each assignment is a literal work of art. From the birth of an idea to the incubation phase and through the funding to reach the actual design and implementation, it is a very collaborative process.
The defining moment in Karen’s career came in 1997. “We were selected as master planners and landscape architects for the Arena District, which launched our first urban design project in Columbus. Our client took a chance on our young firm, and that was the real launch of urban design at MKSK,” she says with pride.
For Karen, inspiration is everywhere. She explains, “I see beauty in so many things. Beauty is uplifting, and I strive to instill it in all my projects.” Karen loves the formulation of the design idea, but her sweet spot is in the details expressed within the design. “These details take form in the paving, walls, stonework, ironwork, fountains and structures.” In her 40-year career, Karen has had many favorite projects, some because of the great people she worked with, and others for the resulting design.
“My favorite projects are the ones that touch the most people in a positive way,” she says. “I have been fortunate to collaborate on projects in the city like Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Scotts Miracle-Gro Community Garden Campus, the Brides’ Garden and Wells barn. Other favorites include the Columbus Museum of Art’s West Garden and Sculpture Garden, the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s main campus, and most recently The Ohio State University and Mirror Lake renovations.”
On a recent trip to the Franklin Park Conservatory, Karen was accompanied by her granddaughter. As they overlooked a group of people in one of her project spaces, her granddaughter said, “Nana, look at those people! They love your garden!” Yes. Yes, they do.
Karla Salmans’ co-workers say that the project manager’s strengths reside in not only understanding the design process, but in being able to take the project from start to finish. If you have a project, she is the woman to get it done.
Karla’s career didn’t start in landscape architecture; she has a degree in business marketing. “After graduation, I was hired in the marketing department for a small company. Over the next few years, I moved through different jobs, but I never really found a niche I was passionate about. My last marketing position was with a small marketing company and MKSK was a client. At every meeting with MKSK, I found myself engrossed by the projects they were developing.”
This was in the mid-2000’s when the economy took a downward turn, and Karla found herself questioning her career. As Karla grew up, her architect father insisted she was destined to follow in his footsteps. Her mother is a horticulturalist by hobby. Combining her appreciation for both good design and the natural environment with her interest in landscape architecture, she enrolled in a master’s program in Landscape Architecture at The Ohio State University. Karla graduated and was hired by MKSK.
In her role, Karla serves as a liaison between MKSK and the clients from concept design through implementation. She enjoys client interaction and public speaking. Her background in business and marketing has only enhanced her current role. “The background I once thought I was abandoning has turned out to be serendipitous. My role is unique and affords me a niche few can claim. I understand we’re a design firm, but I also understand we’re a business,” notes Karla.
In the design phase, Karla sees the team not as artists but as problem solvers. “We work to create places that fit with the needs and constraints of an area to improve lives and embrace what makes that place authentic,” Karla says. “We work with the client, entire teams of consultants and the community to gather ideas and to design projects that work. Collaboration is key.”
One of Karla’s collaborative projects involved working with the city of Columbus and the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department on the redevelopment of five municipal pools. Several were closed due to maintenance issues and aged facilities. Columbus Recreation and Parks began investing in pool improvements in these neighborhoods, and MKSK was fortunate to be involved in many of these renovations or complete facility replacements.
The pool locations are mostly in underserved communities. These pools provide a safe, inexpensive and fun place for the residents. The daily fee is 50 cents and swim lessons are free. Karla says, “This kind of public amenity is invaluable for the communities they serve.
They become central to the culture and identity of the community and are a pivotal tool for healthy, stable neighborhoods. It’s exactly this type of project that makes me feel like I’m making a difference and reinforces what we value as a firm—building healthy and sustainable places for people.”
Karla is engaged in a variety of projects, but there is one that really holds her interest: Rose Run Park in New Albany. The project transforms the Rose Run stream edges into new park space with walkways, multiuse paths and a signature bridge to link formerly divided land uses.
The site is also planned to accommodate city festivals, the farmers market and other public gatherings and is slated to open this year.
Karla recently served as the president of the Ohio Chapter American Society of Landscape Architects (OCASLA) where she advocated for and educated about the profession with state and federal politicians. Trough these advocacy efforts, Karla and others like her are changing the way landscape architecture is perceived and are elevating the profession. Karla’s inspiration for her work stems from the desire to enrich lives and enhance communities.
“I’ve always joked that landscape architects just want to save the world,” she says with a smile. “I truly feel my career is part of how I’m giving back and trying to make a better place for everyone to work, live, and play.”
Arin Blair is the planner in this group of landscape architects whose sole purpose is to design functioning spaces for our city. Arin’s career can be explained by one word: people.
She started her undergraduate degree at The Ohio State University in anthropology. “I got swept away by a fascination with the study of people—what drives us to make the decisions we make, how culture shapes our behavior, and how we devise such complex systems that take shape as the governments and cities we live in.”
Following graduation, Arin started an earth-friendly cleaning business driven by her care for the environment and an entrepreneurism that goes back generations in her family. Through her business, Arin learned just how much she enjoyed networking and building client relationships. But something was missing— impact.
“After a lot of research, I found the profession of urban planning. Immediately I knew this was the field for me. I earned my Master’s in City and Regional Planning at The Ohio State University and became a certified planner by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP),” says Arin. “Urban planners work in the realm of urban design with an intense focus on people and communities. The field allows me to combine my interest in design, my care for the environment, and my passion for people.”
MKSK’s philosophy is: “We shape places to improve lives, and we share the story to inspire ourselves, our industry, and the world to work together for the common good.” For Arin, the day-to-day work of urban planning is the perfect blend of creativity, analysis, and communication. On almost every project, MKSK forms teams which include landscape architects, architects, engineers, and local government officials. “Collaboration is the nature of everything we do. Every community has its own unique set of opportunities, challenges, and qualities to be celebrated,” she notes.
When asked about her favorite project, Arin says, “Honestly, every project becomes my favorite for at least some portion of the work. When plans we prepared start to take shape and places move toward the community’s vision, it’s the most satisfying feeling. I get emotionally invested in all my projects.”
The number of women in landscape architecture and planning has grown significantly in the past twenty years, and Arin has seen a strong desire for discussions about women’s leadership development and increasing diversity in the planning field.
She recently moderated a panel discussion entitled “Strong Women. Strong Places” sponsored by Central Ohio American Planning Association (APA) and the Knowlton School at Ohio State. To help build the field, Arin serves as a mentor for graduate students in planning. She is also an ambassador for the APA working to help young people understand city and regional planning.
Arin has been involved in the “Girls With Gears” program in partnership with the Columbus Public Health Safe Routes to School program. Middle school girls learn about bicycle safety, bicycle maintenance, nutrition, and urban design.
The girls sign up for the program as an extracurricular activity and receive a bicycle and helmet at the end. “After all the educational sessions, we coach the girls in public speaking. This program has been an amazing venue for reaching a diverse group of young women I hope to see grow up and become the next generation of leaders in Columbus.“
Arin’s colleagues speak of her strength in public engagement and her leadership acumen as a relationship builder. She is a strong public speaker who gets communities enthusiastic about projects. “I have crafted a bit of a niche in communications on the planning team at MKSK—I love learning to ‘speak’ a little bit engineer, a little architect, some graphic designer, and a splash of politician,” she says jokingly. “
All that aside, it can sometimes feel like we are speaking different languages. Telling the story in a way that we can all understand what makes our projects impactful and enables true collaboration. From that baseline of understanding we can impact communities in positive ways. That’s what motivates me.”
Like her co-workers, Arin’s focus and investment is targeted to the people she is serving. “I went into this field to help make places better for people. I’m happy to know my colleagues at MKSK feel the same. My high regard for MKSK’s work was a main attraction to the company along with the passion and professionalism of the team.”
Her passion about her profession and its future is clear. “Planners are advocates, analysts, creative thinkers, facilitators, and overall, futurists. We are constantly talking about what we must look out for in order to continue helping the places we work in and the people we work with thrive. Thus, our field evolves.”
Many industries are investing in robotics and artificial intelligence, including landscape architecture and planning. They talk about how robots might shift the future of American jobs and how autonomous vehicles will change our transportation system. “I am proud of how we continue to grow as an industry and as facilitators of crucial conversations on topics like equity, environmental justice and climate change. We listen, learn and face complex challenges head on,” Arin says.
Karen, Karla and Arin are all authentic, collaborative, smart and forward- thinking women. They are not only giving a face to the landscape architecture industry and empowering and elevating their colleagues and future generations, but they are designing and providing better places for people in the communities they serve to live healthy, happy and sustainable lives. We can’t wait to see what they will do next.
MKSK is a collective of Landscape Architects, Urban Designers, and Planners. At the core of the practice is a passion for the interaction between people and place. Over the past 20 years, MKSK has been a planning and design leader and design partner on some of Columbus’ landmark places and projects. MKSK works in cities to reimagine, plan, and design dynamic urban environments and works to build communities where people want to live.
Their approach to planning and design comes from a clear understanding that each place is unique and has economic, social, environmental, historical, and cultural influences. As strategic thinkers and bold innovators, they celebrate the power of collaboration, work to embrace the culture of local, and rely on authentic ideas to help shape the places that people and communities can love for generations.