Balboa Park Cultural Partnership

Designing for inclusivity in San Diego’s largest urban park

The Balboa Park Cultural District is a 200-acre area within San Diego’s 1,200-acre urban park, which is home to a wealth of cultural attractions including museums, restaurants, gardens, performing arts venues, and educational youth organizations. Seeking to create a more distinctive and inclusive experience for its visitors, the Cultural District leaders selected Openbox to create a strategy for their vision.

Key to this project’s people-first approach was centering the experiences of regional voices that have historically been excluded: San Diego and Tijuana’s Spanish-speaking border communities, Kumeyaay Indigenous groups, and Black and Asian families, among others. Through quantitative and qualitative community research that included site surveys, visitation analysis, in-depth interviews with community members and stakeholders, and intercept interviews, our team assessed the experience of a diverse and expansive set of communities who engage with the Balboa Park Cultural District. This deep engagement with the community allowed our team to develop a design strategy that welcomes people from both inside and outside the trinational region.

Potential application of the experience plan recommendations at the WorldBeat Cultural Center and Centro Cultural de la Raza in the Cultural District.

How we did it

  • Assembly of a multifaceted project team of a landscape architect, operations planner, local arts and culture leader, and neighborhood youth arts group, in order to provide a well-rounded strategic plan.
  • Digital and analog tools to facilitate conversations about different places in the Cultural District including 360-degree video footage, oversized maps, and placement of game pieces on top of the maps that represented different Cultural District destinations for reference and orientation.
  • Design strategies and recommendations that span physical, spatial, programmatic—as well as long-term policy, governance, and partnership—considerations.
  • Implementation plan with tangible first steps and pilot opportunities for stakeholders to build momentum and highlight existing assets.
(1/5) Research participants imagined a travel brochure for an ideal Cultural District, one with attractions, events, and food that would draw members of their community.
(2/5) We covered the 200 acres of the Cultural District using an oversized map and game pieces to mark major attractions and landmarks.
(3/5) In between interviews, we connected with different Cultural District partners in their spaces, including with leaders of the WorldBeat Cultural Center.
(4/5) Excerpts from zines created by students The AjA Project to express their individual reflection and research exploring welcome and belonging in the Cultural District.
(5/5) Expanding the existing tram route is one of the recommendations that enhances accessibility in the Cultural District by leveraging existing infrastructure.


Over decades, many plans have been created for the Cultural District; however, implementation has remained a challenge. Knowing this, we created an experience plan emphasizing high-impact and low-resource design strategies, with immediately actionable steps to unify stakeholders and build momentum for continued collaboration. Focusing on shared benefits, we took a “rising tide lifts all ships” approach. Our recommendation to develop thematic briefs for different zones of the Cultural District, for example, encouraged institutions to collaborate with neighbors to develop itineraries that tied their attractions together using existing assets.

Touring a 200-acre site in 1.5 hours

The challenge of exploring the 200-acre Cultural District in conversation in sometimes as little as five minutes required innovative and scrappy design. We made 360-degree video footage of the park in order to transport community members to different parts of the Cultural District by tablet or laptop screen. Whether our interview happened within the park or in people’s neighborhoods, our ability to “plop” people in various locations throughout the park enabled us to take a sped-up virtual journey together, and understand the responses people had to diverse site conditions.

Empowering youth to be contributors to their neighborhood

We built our design team to include The AjA Project, a City Heights youth arts organization that uses documentary arts for participatory storytelling, in order to include the perspective of local youth. To empower their participation, we hosted a number of in-person and virtual sessions to share our project and co-designed an exploratory, two-month community research sprint where they conducted interviews and surveys with individuals in their communities. 

Six students synthesized the results of their research into photo, collage, and writing in zines. One student told us, “I feel represented at the Centro Cultural de la Raza. However, it is sort of tucked away from the main attractions, so people may not know it’s there and can miss out on all the awesome things it has to offer!”

Going the extra distance to meet community where they are

For credible touchpoints and entryways into various communities, we traveled across the San Diego–Tijuana border to meet with community leaders and organizations where they were. We showed up for education visits at the Barona Museum, the Kumeyaay Community College, and Felicita County Park; we hosted interviews with members of Casa Familiar in both San Diego and Tijuana. Traveling to various contexts allowed us to meet participants in spaces where they felt safe and able to have honest conversations. By going the extra distance, Openbox was able to gain valuable insights and design Balboa Park in a way that meets the needs of the community.