Connecting people to places

Posted: May 4th, 2018 | Art on the Land, Featured | No Comments

By Delle Willett | Art on the Land

Leigh Kyle grew up drawing and playing outdoors in the Hudson River Valley, an area with very interesting topography and geology and the birthplace of the Hudson River School of painting. Perhaps this is where she became interested in creating memorable places.

After graduating in the mid-’80s from Swarthmore College with a degree in religion and film studies, Kyle spent more than 10 years building film sets, mostly on period films on location up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Research and detail-oriented driven, with an education in vernacular architecture and landscape, and thinking about how people live — this type of work suited her well.

Leigh Kyle, Spurlock Landscape Architects

In the ’90s, while earning a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University, Kyle discovered what interested her the most is the relationship of building to site.

“Had I gone to a school with programs in both architecture and landscape architecture, I likely would have made the switch to landscape architecture,” Kyle said.

Landscape architects have the opportunity to create places that people attach themselves to. Places they return to again and again, places that evoke a sense of place and connection to a place. Landscape is the cohesive, connecting element on a complex site, explained Kyle.

After graduating from Columbia, Kyle worked at Quennell Rothschild and Partners, a landscape architecture practice in New York specializing in campus and public realm projects. One of her first projects was designing animal enclosures for the redesigned Tisch Children’s Zoo in Central Park.

“The public-approval process for this was extensive and the degree to which people felt passionate and proprietary about their park — both from the perspective of the historical significance of Central Park as well as their personal and unique connections to it — really resonated. I committed myself to doing public open-space work as much as possible,” Kyle explained.

The Embarcadero (Photos by Delle Willett)

Kyle said she feels that an interesting aspect about working in San Diego and its environs is that it is a comparatively new city and still evolving. Will it go the sprawling route of Los Angeles or start to go denser, improve traffic, etc.?

“There’s the sense that the die is maybe not yet cast and good urban planning and design can have an impact. San Diego also poses a ton of technical challenges: terrible drainage, no water, salty soils, hardpan, all of which keep us on our toes,” said Kyle.

Today Kyle works at Spurlock Landscape Architects, on Hancock Street, near Old Town where she became an owner (principal) with Andy Spurlock, Brad Lents and Yu-Ju Liu in 2016.

“We are a design firm with a very long and strong legacy of thoughtful work in our region. I’m very proud to be a part of this body of work, marrying good design thinking to public and civic problems large and small, finding elegant solutions.”

As co-owner, she sets the vision for the practice along with her partners, directs project management and business development, creates and maintains a creative work environment with integrity, humor, and intelligence.

Celadon at Ninth and Broadway

Leigh is project principal on a wide array of projects from corporate campuses, to parks and schools to botanical gardens. “I am a loop-closer and direct-communicator by nature, good at synthesizing information. My eclectic background and pretty broad frame of reference keep me flexible and ready for surprises,” says Leigh.

Some of Leigh’s favorite projects include the San Diego Federal Courthouse on Broadway — particularly the loose seating under the sycamores which is heavenly on a warm afternoon; Celadon — an affordable-housing tower on Ninth and Broadway with a very robust suite of on-structure terraces including a community garden on the fifth floor — a great combination of visionary client and creative collaboration between architect and landscape architect.

Her greatest satisfaction comes from working directly with the “amazing team of creative people in our office who are extremely interested in rolling up their sleeves and getting to the problem-solving.”

In her spare time, she likes to travel, read, cook, eat and garden, take walks, and poke around looking at things. She can’t leave home without Chapstick and sunglasses

A self-described baby boomer, Leigh lives in Clairemont with husband James McCarthy, a marine molecular biologist.

— Delle Willett has been a marketing and public relations professional for over 30 years, with an emphasis on conservation of the environment. She can be reached at

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