San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

San José Moves Toward Sustainability

THEY’LL start by putting parkingmeters along the city’s streets. Then a newstorm water drainage system will be builtthroughout the capital.In the end, if everything goes accordingto the Municipality of San José’s plan,a widespread repopulation of the downtownarea will occur in the comingdecades.With help from the Canadian governmentand private sector, these are some ofthe steps the city of San José is taking tobecome a model for the world as a “sustainablecity.”Although most projects are only partiallyfunded, the municipal government isdreaming big. For more than three years, ithas been a part of Canada’s SustainableCities Initiative (SCI), which includesapproximately 17 cities worldwide.The International Centre for SustainableCities also recently invited San José tobecome part of a network of 30 “sustainablecities.”WHAT is a sustainable city?Generally, it means a municipalityapproaches city planning comprehensively,with the goal of improving the qualityof life for many future generations, accordingto Steve Guertin, SCI City TeamManager for San José.The idea is that improvements are notjust “Band-Aid solutions,” but insteadintegrate social, economic and environmentalconsiderations for the long term, heexplained in a phone interview fromOttawa, Canada.For example, it means that when a governmentconsiders investing in health care,officials also think about investing in parksto create a healthier population. It meanswhen investing in these parks, the governmentwill also take into consideration publictransportation to arrive at them.It also means that when San José cityofficials plan to put parking meters on thestreet, it is not just to generate revenue, butalso to create a new government presencedowntown, according to VladimirKlotchkov, Director of Urbanism for theMunicipality of San José.“THE same officers who are there tomonitor the meters are also there for publicsecurity,” he said.The parking meter plan was one of thecity’s first projects with SCI, which partnersCanadian firms with the municipalityand provides seed money for feasibilitystudies.Other early initiatives include a studyof the city’s storm drain system that willresult in a proposal for specific improvements,and a survey of land use and ownershipin San José.Understanding the city’s land ownershipwill help the municipality achieve itsmore ambitious goals as a sustainable city:bringing more residents to downtown SanJosé, creating improved cooperationamong the 12 municipalities that make upthe Greater Metropolitan Area, and developingan environmental approach to allfuture city planning.“WE are working with a more humanisticvision about the quality of livinghere,” said San José Deputy MayorMaureen Clarke.A lack of government interest andinvestment in the downtown area causedexoduses of residents in the 1970s andbusinesses in the 1980s, according toKlotchkov.In a survey of downtown businesses ayear and a half ago, 300 businesses saidthey wanted to move out of the downtownarea. Many cited security and pollution asthe reasons.“There is too much pollution; there istoo much delinquency; there is too muchinsecurity; and there are not enough recreationareas,” agreed 25-year-old JimmyVindas, when asked about the prospect ofliving in the downtown San José area.Vindas, who works at his mother’s fruitstand in downtown San José, lives in theeastern suburb of Curridabat.KLOTCHKOV’S department, withthe help of a study by a Canadian firm, hasspent the past year evaluating how tochange policies to reverse this reality.City officials have encouraged constructionof new condominiums and housingdowntown by suggesting land opportunitiesand helping firms through the permittingprocess.“Downtown has the best infrastructure,the best health in terms of hospitals andclinics, the best schools, but there are not(enough) people living there,” Klotchkovsaid.Some area residents see the benefits aswell.“There could be more families livingtogether, sharing space, and everythingwould be nice and close – you could walkto the Mercado Central,” said 44-year-oldAlbin León, a taxi driver from the San Joséneighborhood of Cristo Rey.GERARDO Hernández, 52, who livesin Tres Ríos, east of San José, agrees thatliving downtown is attractive – for thosewho have money.“But there is no way I could afford it,”he said.The Municipality of San José wouldlike to offer economic incentives to businessesand new residential projects in thedowntown area to avoid total gentrification,but such incentives must come fromthe state government, Klotchkov said.That is where the real challenge of asustainable city comes in, Klotchkov andClarke agreed. Any real changes require anew level of coordination among numerousmunicipal and national governmentagencies in Costa Rica.In addition to the 12 municipalities,much of the planning and regulation of theGreater Metropolitan Area comes fromnational bodies such as the Ministries ofHealth, Public Transportation, security andEnvironment, Klotchkov said.ATTAINING a well-defined system ofcoordination among these institutions maybe the most ambitious of the city’s sustainablegoals.“We have to figure out how to sharethis vision with the other authorities, theother policymakers in the area,” Clarkesaid. “We all have to sit down at the sametable.”City officials would like to create a setpath for city planning between these agenciesin which environmental protection is apriority.For example, if a developer wants toconstruct an apartment building, theywould need to get the same approval andmeet the same environmental criteria,regardless of whether the project is indowntown San José or in Desamparados, asuburb south of the city.“WHAT they have here is somethingvery ambitious, and something that quitefrankly will take a couple of decades toachieve,” Guertin said, in reference to thiscomprehensive, environmental approachto urbanization.Unfortunately, the city may be runningout of time.The Canadian government has guaranteedfunding to SCI, which operates underthe Economy, Industry and CommerceMinistry, only through 2006, although itcould be extended.While SCI provides seed money for theprojects, once the initial studies have beencompleted by Canadian firms, these companiesmust request funds from theCanadian International Development Association(CIDA) to either do more studiesor go ahead with the projects.CIDA will finance what it considersfeasible projects for between $200,000 and$300,000. If funding beyond this is necessary,it must be obtained from the WorldBank or some other international financingorganization, Guertin explained.SAN José also is competing for CIDAfunds with the other cities in SCI, includingSalvador, Brazil; Qingdao, China;Córdoba, Argentina; Durban, South Africa;Valparaíso, Chile; and Dakar, Senegal.“More important than money though,we have to change the way people think,”Clarke said.Klotchkov agreed.“If we a build a bridge today, it will behere 50 years from now, or 100 years,” hesaid. “It is very important for people tounderstand that the decisions we make forSan José today, we are proposing for thenext 100 years.”

Comments are closed.