The Casa del Prado in Balboa Park. Photo by Chris Jennewein
The historic Casa del Prado in Balboa Park. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Balboa Park is an extraordinary place by any measure. It boasts an extensive collection of museums and cultural organizations, historic architecture, landscapes and plazas, and hosts popular events that draw thousands every year.

Its 1,200 acres also provide a wide range of recreational amenities including everything from lawn bowling, disc golf, tennis and swimming to ball fields and 65 miles of trails. While not the largest urban park by any means, it provides one of the richest park experiences imaginable and welcomes more than 28 million visits each year.

150 years ago Balboa Park (then City Park) was established by a group of civic visionaries. Shortly after its founding, early advocates formed what was the beginning of a long history of public-private partnerships designed to enhance and sustain the park.

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Remember Kate Sessions? Sessions was perhaps Balboa Park’s most notable private partner, negotiating an agreement with the city of San Diego to plant 100 trees in the park annually, in exchange for her nursery acreage on the northwest corner of the park near Upas Street and Sixth Avenue.

Fast-forward to 2008.

In light of concerns about the growing maintenance challenges in Balboa Park, then Mayor Jerry Sanders appointed a task force of community leaders to study thriving parks across America and make recommendations for improving Balboa Park’s maintenance and management. They found that all these vibrant and well-managed public landscapes were the result of public-private partnerships—without exception.

In 2011, the mayoral task force recommended the formation of the Balboa Park Conservancy to serve as the city’s private partner in Balboa Park. The conservancy officially launched in 2014, when the newly formed organization merged with Balboa Park Central, the established nonprofit responsible for managing the visitors center and gift shop, as well as the operations of the House of Hospitality.

So what exactly is a conservancy? A conservancy is a private, nonprofit organization that partners with a public agency to care for a special asset. This may be a historic, cultural, recreational or environmental asset.

Tomás Herrera-Mishler

What does the Balboa Park Conservancy do? The conservancy advocates for the greater good of Balboa Park. We work with the city of San Diego and the many passionate park stakeholders to ensure that the best version of your Balboa Park can be shared with future generations.

In partnership with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, we develop a shared vision for park improvement. We then sustain and enhance the park through a range of priority projects and programs that range from reforestation to visitor accessibility, from deferred maintenance to creative place-making.

One of the most established public-private park partnerships is New York City’s Central Park Conservancy, created by Elizabeth “Betsy” Barlow Rogers. We owe her much gratitude for creating a vision and overcoming significant obstacles to develop what is now a world-class model of park sustainability.

Beginning with a simple handshake, the partnership between the conservancy and New York City grew to a “paradigm of excellence in park administration,” according to Rogers. She wisely counsels that “it’s the three P’s: patience, passion, and persistence” that are essential ingredients to establishing a successful Conservancy.

Rogers also adds that a “slightly Polyannish” leader is essential. I couldn’t agree more.

Tomás Herrera-Mishler is CEO and President of the Balboa Park Conservancy. He is a Mexican-born landscape architect with experience managing conservancies and parks in Buffalo, Boston and Philadelphia. To keep in touch with the conservancy, sign up for their monthly newsletter.