The Balboa Park Conservancy was recently selected as one of only five urban park organizations to participate in the first-ever Central Park Conservancy Institute for Urban Parks’ Partnerships Lab program. The program leverages the resources and expertise of the Central Park Conservancy to help other parks create and maintain great public spaces. After several years of successful initiatives with the City of San Diego, the Balboa Conservancy is now seeking through the Partnerships Lab program to strengthen and define its partnership with the city—clarifying roles, authority, and accountability—to better serve Balboa Park and its millions of annual visitors.

The first phase of the Partnerships Lab included a workshop in New York where Balboa Park Conservancy CEO Tomás Herrera-Mishler met with leaders of other organizations selected for the program. Just back from the workshop, Tomás shared his initial impressions of the program and what it will mean for the Conservancy and the city.

How will your experience with the Partnerships Lab impact your work in Balboa Park?

The experience we had in New York City will impact the work of the Conservancy in a lot of different ways. One of the amazing benefits is the opportunity to build relationships with so many folks across the nation who are involved in similar work. We took a deep dive into a wide variety of topics designed to support urban park leaders. In fact, the storytelling session was second to none. Though we are focused on the importance of data and facts, it’s really the stories we collect and share with others that move people’s hearts to action. We also had meaningful training around the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is important in any field of work, but especially when you’re talking about a valuable community asset like Balboa Park. All of our sessions provided insights and tools we can use to increase our value and impact in the park.

How do other members of the Partnerships Lab cohort compare to Balboa Park and the Conservancy?

The other parks in attendance varied tremendously. The Detroit Park planning team is trying to revive a park system of a major American city that was closed a few years ago because the city was bankrupt. So they have a very different set of challenges than we do. Forest Park in Portland, a 5,000-acre urban wilderness, has a very effective stewardship agreement with the City of Portland. So we can learn from them: what works, what doesn’t work. For example, they have a robust volunteer management program that has a real impact on their work, similar to what we have been building toward here. Downtown Austin is doing some great placemaking that we can learn from as well. And the City of Baltimore has an excellent working relationship with the Parks and People Foundation, forming a public-private partnership that’s making first-rate parks happen in that large American city.

What is your biggest takeaway from your experience in New York?

I’m always in awe of the beauty and design power of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s original vision for Central Park and how that vision, which emphasized the importance of giving people access to beauty and nature in the city, has remained so vital today. They claimed urban parks were essential to human and mental health. And, gosh, they were right, weren’t they? Their vision serves as a compelling reminder that the reason we work so hard to preserve and enhance Balboa Park is that we just want to make sure we pass this park along to future generations in better shape than when we started, just like the folks at Central Park Conservancy.