Last month, the Balboa Park Conservancy marked the 150-year anniversary of Balboa Park’s founding by convening a special community workshop to explore the remarkable history of the park’s early development. Balboa Park stakeholders, from both within and outside the park, heard and discussed the latest findings from a comprehensive cultural landscape study currently underway. The workshop is part of the Conservancy’s ongoing collaborative conversation with civic leaders, community members, and park stakeholders.

The Cultural Landscape Report, prepared by cultural landscape specialist Vonn Marie May, highlights developments in the park from 1868 to 1910 and serves as a vital tool for determining the historical significance of Balboa Park’s landscaping, gardens, and architecture. The findings are indispensable in planning the preservation, restoration, and enhancements of the park’s valuable cultural assets.

After key details from the Cultural Landscape Report were presented, Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, led a panel discussion with local experts on a historically informed vision for the park’s development. The panel included Vonn Marie May, Wayne Donaldson (FAIA, architect), Nancy Carol Carter (historian and Professor of Law at USD), Kelley Stanco (Sr. Historic Preservation Planner, City of San Diego), and Tomás Herrera-Mishler (Conservancy President and CEO).

Among the key takeaways from the workshop was a much deeper understanding of the founding history of Balboa Park, from the period before the exposition era (1915–1936). The vision and important contributions of several key figures of the park’s early development, including Kate Sessions, George Marston, Mary B. Coulston, Samuel Parsons Jr., and George Cooke, were brought to light in this context. It was eye-opening to realize that these founding visionaries started more than 45 years before anyone even conceived of the Panama California Exposition.

The area that we now know as Balboa Park began as 1,400 acres of brush-covered canyons and mesas set aside in 1868 by the City of San Diego’s Board of Trustees. Simply dubbed City Park, very little was done with this vast urban greenspace until the turn-of-the century when a master plan was commissioned and prepared by the famous Samuel Parsons Jr., who was the lead Landscape Architect for New York City’s Central Park.

What’s especially significant about the Cultural Landscapes Report is that it reveals our relationship with the land over time, dating back to this early period. For example, it shows that the predicate layers from the Parsons Master Plan remain intact today. These include circulation patterns (trails and roads), tree and vegetation diversity, the clever use of topography to create vistas, and land-use patterns. Whereas the footprint around the Central Mesa buildings of Balboa Park is protected as a National Historic Landmark, the rest of the park landscape has no such designation and therefore needs to be thoroughly studied and analyzed in order to ensure its proper preservation for generations to come.

After sharing and discussing important findings from the Cultural Landscape Report, workshop panelists and attendees considered next steps. The consensus was that the historical elements that still remain today from that early period can and should be honored and protected as much as possible while the park is maintained, and plans are implemented for future park improvements. These improvements include adding interpretive signage for heritage trees and noteworthy views and vistas.

An important outcome of the workshop was the inspiration for envisioning the next 150 years of park maintenance, operations, and planning. The Cultural Landscape Report and the takeaways from the community conversation will serve to further educate, advocate, and chart a course for a sustainable future for Balboa Park. In addition, Charles Birnbaum’s participation at the stakeholder workshop has resulted in the formation of a unique partnership with local landscape architect firms, the local Historic American Landscape Survey, the San Diego chapter of American Society for Landscape Architects (ASLA), and the Cultural Landscape Foundation. Their aim is to create and promote a publication and tour guide for the historic landscapes of San Diego, to be launched in connection with the next ASLA Convention, hosted in San Diego in November 2019.

Historic photo of Sixth Avenue courtesy of the San Diego History Center.