By Jennifer McEntee
On a recent cloudy day, volunteers and Urban Corps workers used the lunch hour to plant several 15-gallon trees along a southwest corner of San Diego’s Balboa Park. It was a modest but tangible step toward the Balboa Park Conservancy’s larger Tree Balboa Park reforestation effort to put in 500 new trees by June 2019.
“It’s like the old saying, ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now,’” said Balboa Park Conservancy president and chief executive Tomás Herrera-Mishler. “Sadly, nearly 20 percent of Balboa Parks trees are in poor condition, critical, or dying due to disease and drought.”
Restoring Balboa Park’s tree canopy is just one of the many preservation projects undertaken by the Balboa Park Conservancy, a public-benefit 501(c)3 nonprofit organization focused on the long-term needs of the 1,200-acre urban park. The conservancy is private, non-political, and works in partnership with the City of San Diego’s Parks and Recreation Department and an array of Balboa Park stakeholders.
The Balboa Park Conservancy was formed in 2011 and ultimately launched in 2014 to help the city tackle an ever-growing backlog of deferred maintenance at the park. Herrera-Mishler took the conservancy’s helm in 2015.
He said the conservancy’s role as a private partner of the City of San Diego means it can uniquely seek out donors, pursue park-wide initiatives, and rally hundreds of volunteers.
“Balboa Park is a wonderful park, and Parks and Rec does a great job of maintaining it within the limits of their resources. Still, there’s a gap between what we have and what we would all like to see,” Herrera-Mishler said. “We’re advocating for the best version of Balboa Park for future generations.”
City of San Diego Parks and Recreation director Herman Parker said the city maintains a large and diverse array of 423 park sites, spanning from the San Diego coastline to open space preserves to municipal golf courses. The city tends to focus on capital improvement projects that don’t leave a lot of budget for extras. Given the scale of San Diego’s park system, the work of volunteers and nonprofits like Balboa Park Conservancy is invaluable, he said.
“We can’t do it alone,” Parker said. “We have a world-class park system but it takes all of us working together to keep it working successfully.”
“Parks and Rec values its relationships with organizations like the conservancy that add value and enhance the experience for guests. We need and want the support they provide to help keep our parks looking good,” Parker said.
The Balboa Park Conservancy’s work so far has included planting some 400 trees throughout Balboa Park, developing its popular “Food Truck Fridays” program, improving signage around the park, and fostering expanded volunteer programs.
The conservancy has also undertaken a restoration and enhancement effort for Balboa Park’s Botanical Building, the iconic wood lath garden space that is deteriorating with the effects of time and weather. Herrera-Mishler said a phased revamp is being planned by architectural firm Roesling, Nakamura and Tejada and a committee comprised of stakeholders and subject-matter specialists.
“The building itself is really beautiful, but it’s showing signs of age,” said Herrera-Mishler, explaining that the initiative includes plans for expanded educational programming. “We want to maximize the Botanical Building’s use for students, visitors, and locals.”
Also on the conservancy’s to-do list: restore the historic Alcazar Garden, including the two ornate tiled fountains, and enhance the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden just across the pedestrian bridge from the San Diego Natural History Museum.
The conservancy is able to take on these tasks with a combination of volunteer help, tax-deductible donations, corporate partners, and grant funding.
“We work with volunteers and philanthropy to make really great things happen in the park,” Herrera-Mishler said.
The conservancy was recently awarded a grant valued at $50,000 through the Southwest Airlines Heart of the Community program to hold a “Placemaking Visioning Workshop” to further Balboa Park’s public spaces for community gatherings.
Placemaking – the concept of reimagining or reinventing a public space for better community use – is at the core of many of the conservancy’s initiatives. Food Truck Fridays, for instance, have attracted new visitors to the park on what is normally a quiet evening to sample fare from nearly 20 gourmet food vendors.
“In the absence of positive activity, there will be negative activity. We want to add a positive wherever we can,” Herrera-Mishler said. “This is a really positive activation of the park.”
The conservancy also keeps the park stocked with volunteers, from information booth ambassadors to the volunteer staff at the Balboa Park Visitors Center in the House of Hospitality building. A roster of volunteers has been trained to work as “tree stewards,” tracking and reporting the health of trees throughout the park, while contributing data to the interactive Open Tree Map smartphone app that lets Balboa Park visitors learn about the species, height, diameter, age, and annual ecosystem benefits of individual trees.
“We bring additional resources to the park so we can achieve a higher level of excellence,” Herrera-Mishler said.
Want to learn more about how the Balboa Park Conservancy uniquely serves Balboa Park, and about how you, too, can become a park advocate? Check out balboaparkconservancy.org.