Urban designer’s career path takes a U-turn

The career path of Westpac Future Leaders scholar Alison Phillips took a twist when a well-timed internship gave her the opportunity to merge her graphics skills with urban design.

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Alison Phillips (right) with fellow student Darshini Rajeshwaran in Berlin. Photo: Andrew Giannasca

The career path of Westpac Future Leaders scholar Alison Phillips took a twist when a well-timed internship gave her the opportunity to merge her graphics skills with urban design.

“I always knew in high school that I wanted to study something creative and artistic,” says Phillips, who completed a Bachelor of Design at UNSW Art & Design. “But when I started working as a graphic designer I realised I’d only feel fulfilled by a career that had real-world impact.”

The realisation led Phillips to apply for an internship with award-winning landscape architecture firm McGregor Coxall – she is now part of their full-time team.

“They really took a punt on me,” says Phillips. “I had graphic design experience and knew how to use all the software but I’d never developed plans before. I started off working on landscape projects and then got interested in water-sensitive urban design. I loved the idea of big picture thinking, so then I asked to start working on master plans. McGregor Coxall have really supported me through my journey.”

Despite her increasing industry experience, Phillips decided she needed a postgraduate qualification in Urban Design to complete her new career choice.

Enter the Master of Urban Development and Design (MUDD) at UNSW Built Environment.

We’re really lacking that in Australia – we need younger, inspirational people who are fascinated by urban planning to get into politics.

“It was the degree I wanted to do but financing study and living in Sydney was going  be tough. I just happened to look at my emails one day and saw that the Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship applications were open, so I applied.”

The Westpac scholarship, worth up to $120,000, is designed to support exceptional graduates with the potential to shape Australia’s future, with an emphasis on social change, technology and innovation, and strengthening ties with Asia.  

Phillips describes the scholarship selection process, which included a series of interviews and an online testing process, as “intense but amazing".

The Future Leaders scholarship supports the costs of study, global opportunities and a nine-month leadership development course in conjunction with UNSW’s Australian Graduate School of Management.

Phillips’ global opportunities included travelling with fellow MUDD students to Berlin to complete an international design studio in association with the Technische Universität focusing on urban interventions on the River Spree.

The Berlin studio was convened by UNSW Built Environment's Dr Scott Hawken and Professor Karl Fischer. 

Phillips and her team came up with a hypothetical design for an innovation precinct in a former metalworks site in south-east Berlin.

“The trip to Berlin made me realise the power of the people – they really want to fight for their city and they have a strong voice and government listens to them.

“We’re really lacking that in Australia – we need younger, inspirational people who are fascinated by urban planning to get into politics.”

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One of Phillips' designs for the Schonewweider Eco District on Berlin's River Spree.

She also returned to UNSW Art & Design, but this time as a mentor on an international studio Mad.Lab in Chongqing that designed urban interventions to improve China’s streetscapes.

Mad.Lab was a collaboration between UNSW Art & Design, Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, Priestman Architects and incubator CQubed.

“The vitality and vibrancy of Chongqing’s streets has been taken away by rapid urban development, and some areas are unsafe and derelict, so the students were trying to find solutions to that. It was incredible to go there as a tutor because the students have such innovative and creative ideas, it was really inspiring.”

Now a MUDD graduate, Phillips hopes to continue working in the Asia Pacific region on river-front water remediation projects.

“Water is one of our most important resources so we need to protect it and find ways to reuse it,” she says. “I’d love to keep teaching students and educate them about small-scale water remediation projects that can be implemented at the community level.”

The MUDD program’s graduate exhibition, Infrastructure and the City – Sydney | Berlin | New York, will be on display at UNSW Built Environment’s Red Centre Gallery on Wednesday, 8 March. The exhibition is held in association with the 10th Annual Paul Reid Lecture in Urban Design.