Landscape architecture for the long term

Posted: September 1st, 2017 | Art on the Land, Columnists, Featured | 1 Comment

By Delle Willett | Art on the Land

When Gail Garbini was studying in the early 1970s at San Diego State, she was pursuing her bachelor’s degree in art. That changed when she read the list of classes for landscape architecture in the UC Berkeley class schedule.

Within a year, she had transferred from SDSU to California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and switched from working with paint and canvas to the design of large-scale exterior spaces, using both organic and in-organic materials.

The park at Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade alongside the Gaslamp Hilton (Photo courtesy Garbini and Garbini)

Two of Gail’s influences were her father, an architect who was passionate about the landscape, and one of San Diego’s iconic landscape architects, Joe Yamada, of Wimmer Yamada & Associates (now Wimmer Yamada and Caughey).

Yamada had designed many projects in East County, where Gail was raised, including the East County Performing Arts Center and Super Block.

“I loved the immediate affect of the Wimmer Yamada landscape, with the large trees and fluid topography and shrub massings,” Gail said. “The use of large shade trees had the effect of an oasis in the hot climate of El Cajon Valley.”

Eventually, she did a dual internship with Wimmer Yamada and her father’s architectural firm, Arthur D. Decker & Associates, A.I.A.

In April 1984, Gail opened her own practice and was joined by her husband, Rick Garbini, in 1988. Today, the award-winning Garbini & Garbini Landscape Architecture, Inc. is located Downtown at 715 J St., Suite 307, across from Petco Park.

Gail and Rick Garbini, principals of the award-winning Garbini & Garbini Landscape Architecture, Inc. (Photo by Delle Willett)

Rick Garbini earned his BA in landscape architecture from West Virginia University and has a masters in landscape architecture from Cal Poly, Pomona.

In addition to being influenced by mid-century landscape architects, Garret Eckbo and Dan Kiley, Rick was attracted to the profession by his older brother, who was majoring in architecture at the University of Virginia. He was also influenced, by proximity, to the major urban centers he often visited while growing up in Penns Grove, New Jersey.

What Rick likes most about his profession is the fact that landscape architecture covers a wide array of activities and project types from environmental design to urban design.

“My favorite project is generally my current one and includes several mixed-use urban projects and hotel projects including the Hard Rock San Diego Hotel and the Omni San Diego Hotel next to Petco Park,” he said.

The dining terrace of the Omni Hotel (Courtesy Garbini and Garbini)

This diversity has served Garbini & Garbini well over the years, with their range of projects including hospitality and historic preservation; urban housing and military design-build; K–12 and college campuses; re-vegetation and restoration of native habitats; streetscape medians and traffic calming; pump stations and water-reclamation plants; as well as fire stations, libraries, and parks; just to name a few.

Gail’s favorite projects include the House of Hospitality Reconstruction Project in Balboa Park, which they completed in the 1990s, and the South Bay Water Reclamation Plant, completed in 2001.

The latter project included a public art component and was built as a 13-acre demonstration garden, showcasing the use of recycled water.

Unfortunately, the facility was closed to the public after 9/11, but designed as a sustainable facility that has endured.

The Garbini firm is known for its quality design.

“That quality can be described as landscapes designed for the long term, called ‘sustainable design,’” Gail said.

The firm made a definite impact on the aesthetics of the pool area at 13th and Market. (Courtesy
Garbini and Garbini)

In her ongoing efforts to contribute to the local design community, Gail has been working with a subcommittee of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) called HALS — Historic American Landscape Survey group — part of a nation-wide effort to identify endangered landscapes in the U.S.

Begun in 1984, the committee was reactivated in 2016.

A group of local historians and landscape architects are currently collaborating to inventory cultural and designed sites around San Diego.

“We are losing many of our important cultural and designed spaces and this activism has brought to the attention of the design community the potential loss of important landscapes in our local community,” Gail explained.

Exposure to and an understanding of the early landscape history of the local area has actually helped provide a background for sustainable design in San Diego over the long term.

“There’s nothing like identifying trees and vines that survive today from 1890 or 1915 to give perspective to what may do well in local landscapes,” Gail said.

She feels fortunate to have served two terms with the city of San Diego’s Historic Resources Board, first from 1987 to 1992, and again from 2008 to 2016. Rick has served on various ASLA committees, as well as having served as both vice president and president of the association.

The Garbinis first met in 1980 while both worked at Kawasaki Theilacker & Associates (now KTUA Landscape Architecture and Planning). They live in a historically designated home in Talmadge — designed by Cliff May with his characteristic indoor and outdoor spaces — with their cats, Ray and Normy.

To see some of their Downtown work, visit 

—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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