Meet the Civitots: Kelly Walls
In the latest installment of our “Meet the Civitots” series of blog posts, we introduce Kelly Walls, an urban designer who not only brought a subtle North Carolina drawl into the studio when he joined us in 2021, but also brought his passion for listening, learning, and understanding before designing. And we benefit from both.
WHAT INSPIRED YOUR EDUCATION AND CAREER PATH IN DESIGN?
In my early days, I was focused on fine arts and painting, and attended Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design with an art scholarship. Over time, I sought ways to continue to express myself creatively but also have an impact on my community, and I shifted to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I studied environmental design and architecture.
WHO OR WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO CIVITAS? WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO WORK HERE?
After working for a few years in sales and business development for companies within the design industry, I went back to grad school, studying urban design at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. One of my professors, Deborah Ryan, had met Mark Johnson through their mutual experiences at Harvard and she helped me connect when my then-fiancée (now-wife) and I decided to move back to Colorado during the pandemic.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONAL APPROACH TO DESIGN?
My first step in any project is to attempt to better understand the client’s and community’s goals for the project as well as the context of its environment. In our industry, I feel like we are often driven by passion (or ego) to come up with the most creative design solutions, without taking the time to listen to those who will be most affected by our work. This is one of the things that drew me to Civitas – I felt like the culture here is in direct alignment with my own personal interests and approach. Design can’t be beautiful unless it also works to solve a community’s challenges, and it’s inspiring to witness Mark Johnson achieve such a deep level of understanding, even when the challenges are hard for a community to articulate directly.
HOW DOES YOUR BACKGROUND IN SALES AND BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT SHAPE THE WAY YOU WORK TODAY?
Yes, but not in the way most people initially expect. My time in business development and sales taught me to truly listen, a skill I try to implement in each of the projects I’m working on to ensure we provide the best design solutions for our client.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE TYPES OF DESIGN PROJECTS TO WORK ON, OR DESIGN CHALLENGES TO SOLVE?
I tend to seek the learning opportunity that comes from working on a wide variety of projects, and this also what drew me to Civitas. We can have an impact on people whether we’re working on large masterplans or small urban plazas, and I enjoy doing both.
WHAT PROJECTS ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON, AND WHAT EXCITES YOU ABOUT THEM?
The Windler development in Aurora is a mixed-use community that will eventually become home to thousands, yet it aspires to have a light environmental footprint, which also helps to control energy costs. It’s exciting to consider the impact this could have. It takes design inspiration from older urban communities in Denver, so it’s a fun challenge to create that kind of organic authenticity in a brand-new community.
At my previous firm, LandDesign, in North Carolina, I had the opportunity to work on plans to repurpose and redevelop the land that had once been occupied by Eastland Mall, which had been abandoned in 2010 and eventually demolished. I really loved this chance to rethink underutilized space. Since joining Civitas, we’ve studied an old Pepsi bottling plant in the RiNo district to consider ways its 29 acres could be repurposed. These urban adaptive reuse projects offer the opportunity to bring new life to often neglected portions of a community while paying respect to its historic culture and story.
WHAT EXPERIENCES (OR PEOPLE, OR PLACES) HAVE HAD THE MOST INFLUENCE ON YOU AND/OR YOUR DESIGN APPROACH?
I could share a long list, but near the top of the list would be the urban design program at UNC-Charlotte, which through Deb Ryan’s leadership does an excellent job of balancing academia with the realities of the profession. José Gámez leads the community development program, through which we learn the subtle-yet-harsh nuances of designing for underserved communities that are often facing significant problems. Through this program I learned the hard way that listening before designing is imperative, when I felt a backlash to something I’d tried to design prematurely. I recognized immediately that I need to work to build trust and reach understanding first.
WHAT ACCOMPLISHMENTS DO YOU HOPE OR ASPIRE TO REACH IN THE FUTURE?
I hope to see the impact that I believe our work on projects like Painted Prairie and Windler can make not only on their communities, but also on the industry at large, redefining what the “suburbs” can be for future generations.
HOW WOULD YOUR COWORKERS DESCRIBE YOU?
No matter what, they’ve made me feel comfortable and welcome at Civitas right away, and I hope they see me as dependable and passionate, with a sarcastic sense of humor.
WHAT DO YOU DO OUTSIDE OF WORK TO HAVE FUN, OR RELAX, OR LEARN?
I still love art and painting, as I have for years, and I also enjoy reading. Lately, much of my free time has been filled with renovation projects for the 1950s-era home that my wife and I bought during the pandemic. We love to travel too, and will finally be taking our honeymoon to Italy this fall for our one year anniversary. Previous travels and time studying in London and Berlin, India and China, have had a big impact on me so I look forward to exploring more places
WHAT ARE YOU READING THESE DAYS?
I love to read and still organize an ongoing book club with old friends from college. I recently read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which was a challenge but very thought provoking. The book club (which typically focuses on classic literature) is currently reading Prisoners of Geography, which analyzes the often-overlooked influence of geography on a country’s politics and culture.
DESCRIBE ONE NOTABLE OR INTERESTING ITEM THAT’S CURRENTLY ON YOUR DESK
Three things stand out: the first is a rubber alligator souvenir from a recent trip to New Orleans, Shark Attack. The second is a laser-cut model of a “Texas doughnut”—a joking reference to the number of hours we spent studying these parking garage structures in school. And the third thing is a jade owl, which was a gift from a fellow student at graduation. She’d picked gifts for each of us that reflected our personalities, and I’ve since identified the owl as my spirit animal so maybe she was on to something.
DESCRIBE ONE ITEM THAT YOU NEVER LEAVE HOME WITHOUT
I always have a sketchbook as well as multiple books to read.