San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Municipality Project Brings Trees to Capital

Anyone who has walked through La Sabana Park, west of San José, knows what a reprieve of fresh air and greenery a group of  trees can bring to an urban area. A projectunder way by the San JoséMunicipality seeks to maximize the benefit of trees through environmentally educating the public and injecting the city with a dose of green.

The project, called the Urban Tree-Planting Plan (PLANARBU), initiated in 2003 with the goal of eventually “recreating the urban forest,” explained project coordinator Gabriela Sánchez.

“Trees in an urban environment traditionally aren’t valued much,” Sánchez said. “Everyone thinks of trees in Talamanca (in the southern Caribbean) or in the OsaPeninsula (in the Southern Zone), but trees are just as important in urban areas.”

Among the benefits trees provide include reducing noise and air pollution, protecting against soil erosion and producing oxygen for photosynthesis. They also play a vital role in the water cycle, trap harmful gases that can produce the greenhouse effect and create shade, which is crucial to a city’s “sustainability,” said Bruno Stagno, Director of the Tropical Architecture Institute and one of the architects involved in “San José Possible,” a plan to improve downtown by improving transit and sewer systems and moving electric wires underground, among other changes (TT, Aug. 12, 2005).

“In an aesthetic sense, adding living elements among buildings creates a very attractive contrast. And the shade created makes the city cooler, filters dust and cools buildings, which reduces energy consumption,” Stagno said.

To achieve this long-term vision of a greener San José, PLANARBU’s coordinators first began a “diagnostic” of the city’s trees. Working district by district, workers from the municipality’s Parks Division are counting and measuring every tree including those in yards, sidewalks and parks.

“We needed to be able to look at the trees in an organized and systematic way, and the diagnostic is a work tool to be able to evaluate what types of trees are here – which ones do well and which ones don’t,” Sánchez explained. “Each tree gets a chart like the one you have at the doctor’s office.”

Municipality workers have finished counting approximately 20,000 trees in seven of San José’s 11 districts: El Carmen, Catedral, Hospital, Merced, Mata Redonda, Uruca and Pavas, and Sánchez said she hopes to finish counting the remaining four districts by the end of the year. Checking up on trees once they’ve been counted will be an ongoing process.

Meanwhile, project coordinators are planting 1,700 trees per year in these seven districts, choosing native species that are suited to city living – generally less than two meters tall with leaves that are more resistant to air pollution, such as jupiters and some varieties of oak.

But it doesn’t make sense to plant trees without teaching people why they’re important, Sánchez said, and education is another important component of PLANARBU. An environmental education program is being carried out in 10 San José area schools using kid-friendly booklets, and tree-planting days are also held in communities that request them.

Creating a legal framework to protect urban trees has been another important step. Because the Forestry Law protects trees only in forests, PLANARBU coordinators decided to work with the Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MINAE) to develop a law to protect those in urban areas. The result: the Regulatory Law of the Use, Maintenance and Conservation of Urban Trees, published in 2005.

“We didn’t necessarily want to sanction people for harming or cutting down trees, but we wanted to establish penalties such as having to buy and plant five trees for every tree someone cuts down,” Sánchez said. “It’s more geared at getting people to appreciate trees.”

Additionally, several “parallel projects” also fall under PLANARBU, touching on different aspects of the city’s environmental well being.

For example, an air-quality study is being carried out by Universidad Nacional (UNA) over three years (TT, Jan. 27). A study of the city’s butterflies is under way by the University of Costa Rica (UCR), and birds are being studied in coordination with the NationalMuseum. Knowing what types of birds and butterflies exist in the capital gives planners an idea what types of trees to plant, Sánchez explained.

The results of an acid-rain study, also carried out by UNA scientists, will be released this year, the first study of its kind to be carried out in San José.

In addition to helping the Municipality plan its tree-planting efforts, these studies provide data for San José Possible.

Finally, preliminary plans are in the works for a botanical garden to serve as both a tourist attraction and a seed bank to supply the constant replanting of trees in San José. No time frame has been established yet for the project, and because of its costliness the municipality may look for a foreign embassy to fund it, Sánchez told The Tico Times.

Other PLANARBU projects are funded largely by the municipality, though private businesses and nonprofits can contribute by becoming “environmental partners,” who buy and plant trees in certain areas.

“Planting trees is very expensive, and when partners buy 15 or 20 trees it really helps with the cost,” Sánchez said, estimating that each tree costs between ¢10,000-15,000 ($20-30). Large companies like Ericsson as well as small businesses such as the popular Asian food restaurant Tin Jo have contributed.

For more information on PLANARBU projects, call the Parks Division of the San JoséMunicipality at 295-6272 or 295-6271.


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