Designing for Sustainable, Resilient, and Beautiful Spaces: An Interview with McKenzie Wilhelm
In 2013, the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) announced that McKenzie Wilhelm (BSLA ’14) was the recipient of the undergraduate National Olmsted Scholar award. Wilhelm graduated from Knowlton the following year with a Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture and began her career in landscape architecture with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Her career path, which includes time at Reed Hilderbrand and MKSK, passed a milestone last year when she became a partner at Coen+Partners, a global landscape architecture and urban design practice based in Minneapolis.
Wilhelm also has a role as a leader in the field. She has served three years on the Board of Directors for the Landscape Architecture Foundation where she was instrumental in the development of the Olmsted Scholars Task Force, she still participates as an active Board Emeritus. She has also served on the Knowlton School Advisory Board, and will participate as the Knowlton Alumni Ambassador at this year’s ASLA Alumni Reception.
We caught up with Wilhelm to ask about her current projects, trends impacting the landscape architecture practice, and her involvement with LAF.
You were recently named a partner at Coen + Partners—congratulations! Can you tell us what projects you are working on now? What kinds of projects are most likely to draw your interest?
First, thank you for your kind words and the opportunity to share my thoughts with the Knowlton community. I’m honored to be a new partner at Coen+Partners, and I’m excited about the projects we’re currently working on. The Sports Boulevard development in Saudi Arabia is a testament to our firm’s commitment to creating sustainable, inclusive landscapes that resonate with the local community. It’s a perfect example of the type of work that draws my interest—projects that blend innovation with a deep understanding of the natural environment.
I was fortunate to manage about 14km of design area along this bigger project vision last year, and it was a truly rewarding thing to contribute to a segment of the design that focused on sustainability. Shaping the vision for how agriculture, eco-tourism, and visionary new eco-villages could look and feel in a challenging climate was fascinating. This project represents our first venture into large-scale infrastructure projects as a firm. We broke ground on the first phase of construction along the Sports Boulevard this year, and we’re always posting images on Instagram stories. I encourage readers to follow along as this project continues to take shape. Over the next several years, we’ll unfold 140km of cycle paths and an amazing array of sports and art-related programming that acts as a major armature for community engagement across the city of Riyadh.
In addition to the Sports Boulevard, I’m also privileged to be engaging in some remarkable work in the AlUla region [also in Saudi Arabia]. This suite of projects is situated in the most amazing context imaginable, with deep history stretching back to ancient civilizations present before the Silk Road was active, through the Ottoman Empire, and up to today. It is full of active archaeological expeditions and offers an amazing set of raw materials for us to use as we push the boundaries of contextual minimalism. We love to lean into an opportunity like this and ensure that the beauty sometimes just beneath the surface is legible for everyone who visits.
Closer to home, I have been partnering with Shane (Coen) and several other members of our team to develop some compelling research that we hope will redefine how we interact with the landscapes we work with across the country. Stemming from the dialogue about equity and racial tension that was brought further to light here in Minnesota after the murder of George Floyd, we have committed to understanding the stories and oral histories that define cities across the United States. By researching the flows of people, culture, and resources from early history to today, we hope to redefine what planning and inclusive open space look like. We are diving deep on this topic during my ASLA session on Healing Landscapes!
There continue to be questions about the role that landscape architects play on a given project or in the larger, social sense. For you, what is the purview of landscape architecture? What role do you think landscape architects play—and what role could they or should they play?
I believe our profession is just at the dawn of seeing its full potential realized—our voices are critical in answering our generation’s most important questions. We can help define how the earth will continue to thrive amidst climate change, how to stitch together our communities, how to impact mental and physical wellness, and how to reimagine what major infrastructure can do when it’s integrated into a pedestrian-forward approach. Our best chance at success in these lofty goals is to set our sights high and push the boundaries of what we can contribute with our unique skillset and perspective—both in academic spheres as well as through practice. But we also must not shy away from sharing those things with the world in a compelling and engaging way.
The challenges and opportunities that face our generation need the voices of people with our unique skills for problem-solving, spatial thinking, and the integration of design and major infrastructure. Landscape architects are not just designers; we are stewards of the environment and advocates for sustainable, resilient, and beautiful spaces. We bridge the gap between nature and the built environment, ensuring that the places we create enhance people’s lives and the planet—and most importantly, we have the skillset not just to think or write about these changes but physically model them, test them, and bring them to life through rendering, video, and physical construction.
Coen+Partners’ work in Saudi Arabia has been focused on what landscape-led infrastructure and urban design projects can look and feel like. We’re excited to find ways to share this work as it is completed and use it as an example of what our impact can be, not just as a firm but as a profession. This is our moment to redefine what urban infrastructure and open space can do, and we need to define this in a way that addresses the realities of climate change, that goes beyond parcel lines, and that considers what we need for a resilient future. We need to take any chance we can to prove this on the global stage as we define the future of cities around the world. Share your ideas on social media, YouTube, lectures outside of our small circle of friends and colleagues, sustainability summits— wherever you can!
Reed Hilderbrand, MKSK, and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates have all been part of your trajectory as a practicing landscape architect. Can you talk about the range of project types you’ve worked on and how have you scaled your skillsets within a project-diverse portfolio?
Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of working with and learning from top minds in our profession. These experiences have allowed me to diversify my skill sets across a wide range of project types, including large urban parks, estate/residential design, waterfront revitalization, campus planning, and district planning. Now at Coen, I’ve been focused on massive infrastructure projects that span across a city. The key to scaling my skills has been a willingness to embrace new challenges and to find the most effective ways to tell a compelling story about our impact on a site while deeply understanding its inherent beauty.
No matter the scale, there are some parts of our design process that always ring true. I always focus effort on telling a site’s story by getting my feet on the ground. Being physically present and experiencing the intimate details of a place, you are able to uncover more about what beauty is already present that needs to be uncovered, amplified, and shared. I try to pull that story through each phase of the design process from early master plan concepts to construction. I’ve been fortunate to work with firms that excel in translating this type of deep narrative at a range of scales—from the smallest detail in a custom handrail or bench, to the largest macro lens along a massive urban development plan. I’ve learned how important it is to ensure that this narrative always stays legible, and how singularly important grading and interdisciplinary coordination can be to recognize your overall conceptual vision.
Of course, even the most beautiful landscape plan and technical detail set falls flat if the relationships are not strong. Learning the soft skills required to lead a dynamic team of designers, to work with a client and align with their vision, to work with our internal team to define our culture and financial sustainability goals, to work with a construction team, and to carefully select amazing collaborators in the AEC [architecture, engineering, and construction] industry who lean into a collaborative approach, are all critical skills when you’re working on multi-year projects with highly complex programming and performative requirements.
You have served on the Board of Directors for the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and remain involved in connecting and advancing professionals in the practice, for example, through the Olmsted Scholars Task Force. How has your work with the LAF affected your view of landscape architecture? What characteristics do new or emerging professionals share today?
My involvement with the Landscape Architecture Foundation and the Olmsted Scholars Task Force has been incredibly rewarding. It has given me a broader view of landscape architecture as a field that can drive positive change in our society and offered me an initial glimpse of how our profession could stretch its impact far beyond form and function and into how we can catalyze in the socioeconomic realm.
New and emerging professionals today share a deep passion for sustainability, innovation, and inclusivity. They are eager to collaborate, think critically, and make a positive impact on the world—qualities that inspire me every day. Through my involvement with LAF, I’ve seen firsthand how committed professionals can come together to advance the profession and address pressing global issues like climate change and social equity. I can say with certainty that this program has been instrumental in preparing me for the opportunities I’ve been fortunate to have throughout my career. I highly encourage students to check out their website and learn how they can get involved with this amazing non-profit.
Looking back to your time in the landscape architecture program at Ohio State, what aspects of your education have you been able to transfer to your professional practice? What for you defines a Knowlton graduate?
Knowlton’s landscape architecture program provided me with a strong foundation in conceptual design, a cross-section of landscape architectural history, and foundational skills that helped me step into a professional career. All of these things have helped me explore and communicate my design ideas clearly. What defines a Knowlton graduate, in my view, is a commitment to excellence, a passion for articulating and representing meaningful spaces, and an intentional grounding of these skills in the theoretical, historical, and practical underpinnings of landscape creation. My education at Ohio State instilled in me the importance of design thinking, environmental stewardship, and community engagement—values that continue to guide my professional practice at Coen+Partners.
I’ve found various ways to stay connected to Knowlton since graduation and have been very impressed with the way the program has evolved since my time as a student. In the last several years, the program has continued to push the envelope when it comes to graphic representation, providing a solid foundation on the fundamentals of design concept development, critical thinking, and presentation, and it has developed some unique opportunities to get hands-on experience and provide great connections to the top firms across the country.
The faculty is doing compelling research into innovative new landscape materials, and they are equipping students at a state school with skills for success, no matter where they aspire to go after they finish their degree. With a giant of landscape architecture theory [Director Dorothée Imbert] leading the Knowlton School of Architecture, a forward-thinking section head, and a top-notch team of educators in the landscape section, I think this program offers a world-class educational experience in the heart of the Midwest. Truly remarkable!