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Bob Cunningham: Quiet Crusader
updated: Sep 07, 2013, 11:00 AM

By Billy Goodnick

I've been meaning to put Bob Cunningham on a pedestal for, oh, about, 30-plus years. But I'm not one to rush into procrastinating, so here goes.

I can think of no one who has had a more profound effect on my professional career than Bob. He is a deeply talented, generous, community-involved, environmentally crusading landscape architect who's probably touched your life, too, if you've spent any time living in and around Santa Barbara. And I think he's worthy of the attention of Edhat readers, as well.

How does one person rate such a high degree of adulation? I'll tell ya…

Laying Down My Shovel

In 1981, when my L2 and L3 vertebrae convinced me to put down my trenching shovel and apply for a degree in landscape architecture at Cal Poly, SLO, Bob interviewed me to work in his two-desk office on Garden Street. He listened to my horticultural aspirations and frustrations. I recall shifting nervously as he thumbed through my skimpy portfolio. Good enough, I guess, cuz he sent me home to "audition" by drafting an irrigation plan from his rough sketch.

As I exited his office with butterflies in my stomach, he added "And do it in ink." (Make that butterflies in a cold sweat.) With the courage I mustered from a shaky shot of Bushmill's, I did the deed, adding the bonus of a few Swiss cheese holes from overly-exuberant erasing. I got the job and worked part-time while attending SBCC and awaiting my acceptance letter. The hands-on experience I received from a year in that office was the reality check I needed to go off to school and put all the academic learning in perspective.

Carry Me Back to ‘Ole Santa Barbara

One year out of school, living and working in the Bay Area, I had stumbled into a very odd job: landscape architect for the U.S. Navy's on-shore facilities, like Treasure Island. Six miserable months into it, and feeling like my career had donned cement shoes, I received a large envelope from Bob.

Treasure Island, San Francisco Bay

In it was an announcement for the City Landscape Architect position for Santa Barbara and a note from Bob saying "I think you can do this." I sent off the application (including a letter of recommendation from you-know-who), got an interview and landed the gig. Ironically, for 22 years, I held the same job Bob had worked years earlier.

And when Lin - my spousal support unit - and I returned to Santa Barbara for the job, Bob hired her as his office manager, and even turned us on to the duplex he was vacating in '88. Talk about having a guardian angel!

So, enough about me. On to Unka Bobby, as he's affectionately known around our house.

Who Is This Guy?

Bob Cunningham and his family moved from Culver City to Santa Barbara when he was 11. His dad owned and ran the concession stand at Goleta Beach and Bob attended Santa Barbara and La Colina junior highs, then graduated from San Marcos HS in '65. He bounced in and out of City College, and, for a while, worked full-time for a landscaper.

"I wasn't much of a scholar at the time. But I enjoyed plants and had an artistic side I wanted to express. I thought, ‘Maybe I'll study landscape architecture'." So he headed off to Cal Poly Pomona, graduating in their first Masters program. His specialty was coastal lagoons and was hoping to land a gig with the California State Department of Beaches and Parks. (Given his passion for beach volleyball, perhaps he was also looking forward to lunch hours?) Instead, he ended up designing at Caltrans for a few years.

Parks for People in Santa Barbara

Much the same way he tipped me off to my job at Parks and Rec, Bob's mom sent him a clipping for the landscape architect's position with the city. Good thing for them, too.

Bob was in the vanguard of a new era for children's playgrounds. For decades, park "designs" consisted of independently placing monkey bars here, a swing set there, and a slide across the way.

"Playground design was starting to benefit from research in childhood development" Bob says. "At Ortega, Oak, Alameda and others parks, I designed play spaces that created a continuous flow of play, using giant concrete pipe tunnels, clatter bridges and recycled materials like cable spools. This approach stimulated kids' creative energy and were more visually appealing."

During his tenure, he also designed the landscaping around the airport terminal, improved sports fields, and lent his horticultural artistry to open spaces from the waterfront to the foothills.

Off On His Own

By 1979, private practice beckoned. Bob founded Cunningham Design, taking on residential and commercial projects and anything else that came his way. The scale of his work expanded, including civic work like the renovation of downtown State Street's world-famous landscaping, the Institute of Theoretical Physics building at UCSB, Girsh Park, and Maravilla in Goleta.

As his ambitions expanded, Bob combined forces with other three landscape architects to create Arcadia Studio in 2001. Their portfolio runs the gamut from stellar residential gardens to wineries, public parks, institutional projects like the Santa Barbara Historical Society Museum, UCSB campus improvements, and most recently, the expansion of Cottage Hospital. This last project required a special skill-set: applying the principles of therapeutic landscape design and infusing the space with artwork to create a cloistered refuge along the Oak Park Lane side of the new grounds.

Giving to the Community

Throughout his professional life, Bob has carved out time for his community, serving on numerous city and county design review boards, the street tree advisory committee and serving on the Summer Solstice board. (You'll find him serving up plates of pasta at the annual Pascucci's annual "Dine Out for Solstice" fund raiser every year.)

Rainbow Eucalyptus in Fairchild Botanical Gardens of Coral Gables, Florida

His passion for plants hasn't flagged. Bob is passionate about assuring that Santa Barbara's park and street tree inventory continues to offer more than the usual fan palms and Jacaranda's we've grown accustomed to. He's continually searching for the less common, but beautiful plants - like the multihued Rainbow Eucalyptus (E. deglupta) - that make our Tree City USA urban forest a diverse collection of attention-worthy plants.

If you're at Elings Park almost any Saturday, there's a good chance you'll encounter Bob, Alea, his lovely wife, and Aye'la, their Golden Retriever, hard at play. Or, you might run into this youthful 68-year-old athlete doing his Karch Kiraly imitation at East Beach a couple of times a week. He's a gentle, soft spoken guy and was the picture of humility when I told him the working subtitle for this article was "Quiet Crusader". [A note from my copy editor and wife, Lin: "And he's got one of the most beautiful mischief-laced smiles I've ever witnessed." Thanks honey.]

But, hell, when somebody does you so many good turns in life and puts you on the road to fame (someone at Trader Joe's once asked, "Hey, aren't you the guy who posts ugly plants?") and fortune (I can live like a king in the Kalahari) like Bob has for me, I feel compelled to shine a light on this local treasure.

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Eucalyptus photo courtesy of Teresa Watkins, Sustainable Horticultural Environments


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