As landscape architect for IU, Mia Williams is building the image of the University — all eight campuses. She called her job “diverse,” with irony in her voice.
“On any day I could be at any of those campuses, and I’m involved in pretty much everything that goes on outside of the buildings,” Williams said.
“Everything” includes designing not only landscaped and wooded areas, but also athletic venues, sidewalks, even patio furniture used for seating on campus.
Although landscape design is not just gardening, Williams said one thing that drew her to landscape design was her lifelong interest in gardening as a hobby.
“I grew up in a family where both of my parents did a lot of gardening,” she said. “You know, we had a vegetable garden, and my parents’ yard had wonderful flowering trees and shrubs and all of that stuff, so I grew up enjoying it.”
One summer, she traveled abroad and met students who were studying landscape design. She said something clicked.
“I could not believe that someone would pay me to do that,” she said with a small laugh. “I do that for fun, I do that to relax.”
In her time at IU, Williams has worked on a variety of projects, from helping coordinate the upgrades to Woodlawn Field to planning the tree and flower planting on campus for the spring season.
Planning the tree planting is not as easy as sketching out a few locations and choosing the one she likes best, she said. Williams has been working at IU since 1996, and knows from experience that the trees she and her colleagues at the Physical Plant choose to plant will remain in the same place for decades.
“When you’re planting these trees and they’re 10 feet tall, you have to think ‘someday that thing is going to be 60 feet tall, and how will it feel in this place?’” she said. “It’s a little bit of a guessing game, but I’ve been at it long enough now that I’m seeing some of those first plantings I did really mature ... You learn as you go.”
Similarly, Williams has to take into account many factors when designing the layout of a flowerbed or a wooded area.She said they try to use hardy plants, often perennials native to Indiana. The emphasis is on plants that will survive without special treatment, such as the pansies planted in campus flowerbeds every spring.
“We can make this pretty and keep it in budget, but we also have to make sure it’s maintainable,” she said. “We do also have some annual planting that we keep to specific areas, but for the most part, we try to be responsible with what we design.”
The planting this year was only slightly delayed by the unfavorable weather conditions in the last two weeks, she said. Planting conditions were not good because the ground was frozen in some flowerbeds, but they usually postpone planting sensitive flowers until after the last frost at the beginning of May anyway.
This is helpful for Trent Chitwood, a general supervisor in the Campus Division, who leads the maintenance crew that takes care of the arboretum and the area around Herman B Wells Library. Although this area is not as extensive as the areas covered by other crews, he said the workload is just as heavy.
“All the other crews just have to maintain the area and keep trash picked up,” said Chitwood. “In the arboretum, we spend a lot more time trying to improve the landscape there.”
Despite the amount of work, Chitwood said working on improvements is his favorite part of his job.
“Basically, whenever you can take an area on campus that looks bad and make it look better ... you can take pride in something,” he said.
Williams said her favorite part of the job was knowing the change her improvements would make on the campus.
“I think for me, it is standing on campus and projecting how the campus is going to look 10, 20, 30 years from now, and trying to make the right choices to make sure that it stays as beautiful as it is and people are able to enjoy it the way they do now,” she said. “That’s what I spend a lot of my time thinking about, and I think it’s a worthy pursuit.”