Raised in a small town in Mississippi along the Natchez Trace, Lea Ann Macknally has always had a connection to the land. Now, as the owner and president of Macknally Land Design, which she runs with her husband, Whit, Lea Ann has the opportunity to interact with the land and create opportunities for others to experience that same connection on a daily basis. With a hand in incredible projects throughout the city, including Railroad Park, Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children and Regions Field, just to name a few, Lea Ann is dedicated to creating a better city for Birmingham residents, one plant and one park at a time. Welcome today’s FACE of Birmingham, Lea Ann Macknally!
What brought you to Birmingham? Tell us a little bit about your background.
I’m from Mississippi originally, and I went to Mississippi State. We ended up in Birmingham because my husband, who is a landscape architect, as well, graduated a year ahead of me and found a job here. Then, after I finished my thesis, I started work here, as well. We settled in Birmingham planning to only be here for a little while, and then we put down roots.
What sparked your interest in working in landscape architecture?
I grew up in a small town on the Natchez Trace and on the weekends, when I was in high school, I would hike all the time. I’ve always liked being outside, and I liked to draw. So when I was going through the college catalog, I saw that there was a major that centered around drawing, the outdoors, and blending nature and man-made buildings. It’s been a great opportunity to incorporate all of these things that I love into my work.
What do you love most about working in this field?
I love that there are so many different facets to what we do. There’s never a dull moment, and there’s always a new challenge. We work a lot with architects, engineers and contractors, and our client range varies, so in any one day we can be working with a corporate entity, an educational entity and a residential client. We get to talk to so many people, and that gives us a different perspective on all of the projects that we do.
How do you balance juggling that wide range of projects?
Over the years, we’ve honed our vision statement for the firm and the type of work that we want to do. Work that is purposeful, that is not just for aesthetics — yes, we want it to look good, but we want it to serve a purpose while allowing people to enjoy it — work that is focused on environmental wellness, educating people on doing good for natural systems and being a good steward of the environment. Having that vision statement to guide us makes it easier to jump from one project to another.
Macknally Land Design has been a part of so many amazing projects. What would be your dream project to work on?
Railroad Park was a tremendous opportunity for us. It’s a great legacy project, and I never thought I would do a legacy project so early in my career. But by no means does that mean that we can kick our heels up. We’re always looking for the next project.
Ideally, in utopia, there would be a project that has good bones and a lot of potential for redevelopment and reintegrating a community space. One of the things that has really appealed to us and changed my mindset of what I originally thought that landscape architects could do is realizing the impact that these public space projects have on a community. A dream project would be another one in which we have the opportunity to really explore all of the community’s connections to nature. We’d love to develop and invest in something that’s self-sustaining in the long term. Figuring out what that project is and having the opportunity to work on it with a wide variety of partners would be great.
What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do?
We love when the community becomes attached to the projects we work on. We love when a project is no longer identified with who had the original idea or who made it happen, but that residents consider it their own. We love hearing snippets of that in different conversations and then hearing our kids say, “This is my park.” Those are our little moments of joy.
What is the most challenging thing?
It can be hard having to justify that the investment in public spaces helps the economy, that the protection of our natural resources helps the quality of life and therefore businesses will want to come here if we preserve it. Having that discussion is a lot easier now than it was 10 or 15 years ago, and seeing how the conversation has changed is very rewarding.
What are you most proud of?
It’s a constant challenge, but I’m most proud of how we try to balance family and work. Our kids have influenced so many of our decisions in the work that we want to do, the legacy we’re going to leave and the community that we want to create for them. I’m proud that I don’t have the same mindset that I had 15 years ago, and that I’ve opened myself up to a lot of new things, people and experiences.
What is your favorite thing about Birmingham?
The communities. We have 99 neighborhoods, each with its own character. There are people in this city that have so much pride in their communities and what they do. It’s inspiring, and I love that about Birmingham. There are so many different opportunities here. We just have to be open to them.
What are your favorite Birmingham restaurants lately?
Lately, I’ve been trying to eat healthier, so we like Zoe’s and Taziki’s, and any of the Greek restaurants are just great. I love El Barrio. And we just finished up baseball season, so we’re always at Saw’s Soul Kitchen, since we play at Avondale Park.
What do you do in your spare time?
We have two small kids, so we do whatever the kids want to do. We’ve spent a lot of time at Steel City Jump Park recently. When they’re doing that, I read. I really like to read. Or I like to work in the yard and in the garden. We get very few breaks, having two young kids and running a business, so reading and getting out in the garden whenever I can is great.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
There was a Design for Good summit here in Birmingham a few years ago, and we had a great facilitator for our team. She told us the story of the PR firm that created Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, and their whole office motto was “fail harder.” She was trying to convince us to think outside the box, stand up for our ideas and not be afraid to fail.
Name three frivolous or lighthearted things you can’t live without.
Books, my garden tools — especially the hori hori — and my iPhone. Wait! And wine!
To learn more about Lea Ann Macknally’s landscape projects and community initiatives, visit Macknally Land Design.
Thank you to Meg McKinney for today’s lovely photos of Lea Ann Macknally at Regions Park and Children’s of Alabama.