Knowlton Alumni Profiles: Alan McKnight with Beth Clausing

Knowlton School Alumni Profiles is a series that features interviews of school alumni conducted by students who are members of the Knowlton Ambassador Program. In the interviews, alumni discuss how their experiences at the Knowlton School helped prepare them for their careers in architecture, landscape architecture and city and regional planning, and offer advice to current Knowlton students regarding their own career plans. On Thursday, August 28, Beth Clausing, a rising senior in the Landscape Architecture program and Knowlton Ambassador interviewed Alan McKnight, Director of the Columbus Recreation and Park Department, about his academic and career path.

Beth Clausing: Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to meet with me today to discuss your academic and career path in the world of Landscape Architecture. What is your academic background?

Alan McKnight: I had not initially thought about attending college, but when I was about to graduate from high school, I was encouraged to apply to Ohio State. At the time, I took a few mechanical drawing courses and I thought about pursuing architecture and give that a shot. During my first year, I participated in University College and heard from the chairs of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and City and Regional Planning, who gave presentations to students like myself who were still deciding on degree programs. The chair for the Landscape Architecture program blew me away! Jot Carpenter gave an exciting presentation about the degree and what you could do with it. After that presentation, I decided that I might try out landscape architecture as a degree. I moved my way through the program. The classes were fairly small – about 35 students – and I got involved in the curriculum. It was a great program!

BC: How did you get into your current position?

AM: I graduated from college in the mid 70s and there was a little bit of an economic down turn. My wife and I moved down to Atlanta and spent some time looking for work. The mid 70s were bit like the last 4-5 years—the economy was in a downturn and it was tough finding jobs. We came back up to Columbus and I ended up walking into a summer internship job here – that was back in 1976 – and I never left. I started out in park planning, design, construction and building parks and learned a lot about what role recreation programs and recreation and parks as a profession has on a community; tremendous impact on kids, especially in an urban environment like Columbus and all the inner city neighborhoods. The issues we deal with and the programs we offer have a huge impact. In 2007, I was appointed the Director of the Department. We have 240 parks, 29 recreation centers, indoor and eight outdoor swimming pools, athletic complexes, about 15,000 acres of land and water that we manage. We offer a whole host of programming for kids, adults and seniors, as well.

BC: What about Jot Carpenter’s presentation made you switch from architecture to landscape architecture?

AM: Part of it was his style of presentation—he was a very dynamic individual. He got you really fired up with what you could do. The architecture presentation was a bit static—building a building. Landscape architecture, there is a breadth of what you could do; anything from very small scale to residential to, in my case, pocket parks to regional planning.  Landscape architects come out with a good background in terms of process, problem solving and are great at urban planning overview. If you look at the bigger landscape architecture firms, they are really involved in the larger scale urban planning kinds of approaches to things. The scale has a bigger impact and you didn’t have to take that much math! Jot Carpenter had a big impact on me. He was there through my career and I stayed in touch with him after I graduated until his passing. He was a mentor—somebody out there you see, hear and learn from. He pointed me toward landscape architecture, and it worked out pretty well.

BC: While in the program, did you participate in any internships?

AM: I did work part-time part of my junior year and senior year at Franklin County Metro Parks. One of the staff members I was working for actually linked me up with an individual here at the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department – it is how I got my internship – and the rest is history. It helped me understand about the real world and budgets. I eventually sat for my licensing exam and I credit my internship and academic experience for being successful on that exam.

BC: What classes helped you in your current position?

AM: Some of the design classes; design is a process. It helps with what I do today because it is a problem solving process.  I learn to work through that process; look at the challenges or look at what you are trying to accomplish. Then start thinking of process; how do you take steps to get to the end of what you are trying to get done? Those classes allowed me to do things today that aren’t traditional landscape architecture by any means, so you learn to work through a process to that end goal.

BC: What made you stay in parks?

AM: During my time in the profession, I got to see the impact parks have on a community; the people side of things. We deal a lot with youth, who have many challenges. Kids come in that don’t have a lot of structure at home – maybe single parent households – and you see the impact staff have on the kids. The staff are role models. The recreation centers are a safe environment. You understand that you are really making a difference in their lives. I can’t tell you how many times I have been out and somebody will come up to me or one of the programmers who are there, and is an adult today, and say “I used to go to this center” or “was involved in this program and it made a big difference in my life”. Or, “What I am doing today and the program you had, made an impact and made a difference on my life.”  Parks play a critical economic development and environmental role too.  

BC: What is your favorite project?

AM: Antrim Park, off the Olentangy River, just north of campus a little bit. Years ago that property was donated by Jack Antrim. He passed away and left some money in his estate for the park for some improvements. We built a new overlook, a very simple deck, overlooking the lake and park. We were about to do a dedication with the family on a Saturday and I went over there on a Friday—just to make sure everything was cleaned up and ready for the ceremony Saturday morning.  I didn’t know it before I went out there, but our therapeutic recreation staff took a bus load of kids with disabilities out there.  They were on the deck feeding the ducks. This one little girl squealed and pointed at the ducks, standing right beside me. I was sitting there thinking this is what it is all about! We have these facilities, the community came together, a donor made something happen, we made an improvement and all of that came together. That girl, at that point in time, it made a huge impact on her. It does not have to be the big projects that are fun. Everything we do has an impact.

BC: How would you describe your undergraduate degree to prospective students?

AM: It’s not about going to the nursery and buying plants, shrubs and trees and then planting them. It is designing spaces for people in a way that has a positive impact on the community. There is a great diversity in the kinds of things we are doing in the profession. We aren’t just sitting in a traditional firm and designing parks or a commercial building site. We look at regional/urban planning, land management, national park service and environment. The degree gives you an opportunity. There is a design side and a technical side, but it gives you a well-rounded background so you can do a lot of different things.

BC: What is a typical day for you?

AM: I would say one of the things that I like about my job is that there is no typical day. Every time is different.

BC: What advice do you have for students starting the Landscape Architecture program?

AM: It is a great program! Look at the profession, what you are learning; don’t get boxed in. The program gives you a great background to do many different things. Sometimes it is taking an opportunity when it comes. Keep an open mind.


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