Six miles west of the San Ysidro Port of Entry sits Friendship Park: a historic landmark that is symbolic of the region’s binational identity and a showcase of the stunning San Diego-Baja Norte coastline.
But visitors to Friendship Park confront physical and political barriers to access.
Park visitors must enter through Border Field State Park and then hike a 1.8 mile one-way journey to Monument Mesa. Occasionally, rain water washes out the trail and/or causes a complete closure due to possibly contaminated runoff. These conditions make the 1.8-mile journey challenging, especially for older adults and young children.
To access the park by car – there is no public transportation – a vehicle road provides a quick route, but it is often closed for six months each year due to flooding along the Tijuana Estuary.
In addition to these physical barriers, the 150-foot area between the two border walls that stretches for a quarter-mile across Monument Mesa to the beach on the U.S. side of Friendship Park has been closed by U.S. Border Patrol for two years with no commitment to reopen.
Thousands of families, many of whom reside legally in the U.S. but don’t have a status that allows them to travel to Mexico, depend on Friendship Park to reunite with their loved ones.
Established in 1971 as part of First Lady Pat Nixon’s vision for a binational friendship park, the general public has been deprived for the past two years of experiencing the park as a place to make friends with people on the other side of the border.
Friendship Park is the ultimate symbol of Via International’s mission to promote sustainable community development and connect people across borders. The local nonprofit, a Thrive Outside network organization and Opening the Outdoors grantee, is working to reopen Friendship Park while pushing for policy changes that will improve environmental protections and increase access.
Changing the Narrative
In 2021, Via International received support from The San Diego Foundation Opening the Outdoors program to honor Friendship Park’s 50th anniversary on Aug. 22.
Despite the park’s closure, Via International collaborated with local officials on both sides of the border to facilitate several activities to bring both communities together.
The event was hosted by Friends of Friendship Park, which Via International supports as a partner and fiscal sponsor. Together, the organizations amplified “Build That Park!” to envision a truly binational park without fences or borders.
“This is the most support that we’ve had for this idea of having a truly binational park and for changing the narrative at the border,” shared Dan Watman, Borderlands Coordinator and Director with Via International.
“There’s a facet of society that is holding on to the old mentality of separation and division, and I think that’s what we’re up against,” Dan added when asked about the challenges to realizing the “Build That Park!” vision.
“A reflection of that mentality is border policy, which doesn’t include cross-border environmental collaboration or cross-border friendship or reunion of families, which is what the park has been used for traditionally for the past several generations,” he emphasized.
Community and Advocacy
While Friendship Park is one of Via International’s major programs, the organization also focuses on global education and advocacy.
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Via International facilitated group tours, connecting international visitors with local community leaders to learn about efforts to address environmental concerns in the border region.
When these trips came to a halt due to the pandemic, the organization pivoted to develop Via Cafe, an online virtual tour platform to educate supporters and connect them with local communities along the border. Today, online visitors can directly support community organizers in Mexico and take Spanish courses through Escuela Amistad.
Funding support from The San Diego Foundation helped expand these efforts to bolster the growth of a leadership network among South Bay residents who support park development efforts and advocacy.
“We would really like to work with the local community to try and resolve some of the issues of access,” Dan shared, adding that the local community often experiences the most difficulty getting to the park due to the lack of public transportation and frequent closures.
He underscored the importance of community-led efforts, expressing that Via International is working with community members to develop solutions.
Resilience Beyond Borders
Too often, Dan shared, Mexico is left out of conversations regarding environmental protections, climate solutions and access in the border region.
“If we want to preserve the land in California, we have to work binationally because the environment doesn’t respect the border,” he emphasized. “It is time we adapt the approach of the region’s first people, the native Kumeyaay, who for 8,000 years before the border existed migrated to this very spot six months of the year to fish and live off the native flora and look at themselves as belonging to the earth instead of the other way around.”
Via International’s efforts are helping build resilient communities, a pillar of The San Diego Foundation’s Strategic Plan, by addressing equity barriers to the outdoors and creating more inclusive and accessible outdoor experiences.
About Thrive Outside
Building upon the success of The San Diego Foundation Opening the Outdoors program, in 2019 San Diego was selected as one of the Outdoor Foundation’s four inaugural Thrive Outside communities.
The vision for Thrive Outside is to build regional capacity through collective impact by bringing together multi-sector stakeholders for greater coordination across education, advocacy and programming. Via International and other Thrive Outside partners are working to address environmental inequities across the region.