Ask a middle-class Tico in San José where he’d most like to live, and the answer is almost invariably the same: Anywhere but San José.
This and other facts were revealed at a discussion of the findings of the United Nations Population Fund Annual Report, which this year, addresses the spread of urbanization worldwide.
The 99-page report, released last week, reveals that mid-sized cities in developing countries are booming, and encourages world leaders to look for opportunities to grow human services, education and improved sustainability in these places.
Costa Rica, it turns out, fits nicely with the world trend, according to Isabel Román, coordinator for the equality and social integration program of the State of the Nation.
In 1973, she said, 41% of the country’s population lived in urban areas like San José. Today, the percentage has risen to 59%, and continues to grow.
The U.N. report concludes that increasing urbanization in the world doesn’t portend disaster – in fact, it offers more opportunities for improving public services via economies of scale.
Román agrees with the conclusion – but cautions that opportunities are available only to those who wish to take advantage of them, and Costa Rica seems to be lagging behind.
“The problem isn’t that our cities grow quickly, it’s that we are not prepared for it,” she said. “What we’re seeing instead of benefits is an expansion of the harmful effects caused by disorganized development.”
Eduardo Brenes is director of the Regional Urbanization Project for the Greater Metropolitan Area (PRU-GAM), an organization designed to bring order to the chaos that most agree currently grips San José.
He spouts impressive figures about the Central Valley’s greater metropolitan area. The region incorporates 2,000 square kilometers, 31 municipalities and four major metropolitan areas. Roughly 57% of the country’s population lives within a commute – albeit a long one – of San José.
About 92% of the country’s industry is based in the area and 70% of the country’s gross domestic product emanates from businesses here.
Taken alone, they’re simple facts, Brenes says. Together, they comprise a new picture of a changing Costa Rica.
Many problems are associated with the country’s urbanization. Most of them are obvious, he says, because most of the country deals with them on a daily basis: roadway congestion, air pollution, lack of parking spaces, rising crime, telecommunications and other infrastructure deficiencies.
More statistics: The number of automobiles in the country rose from 180,000 in 1985 to more than 1 million in 2006, but there was only a 1% corresponding increase in roadway infrastructure, leaving the country, and particularly the greater metropolitan area, in gridlock.
Two accidents a day happen in Costa Rica, many are fatal, and the number keeps rising.
“There are too many cars, and our capacity to handle them is far too low. Cars are a relatively new phenomenon in Costa Rica –we have yet to develop a ‘safe driving’ culture,” he said.
The frustrations that result from congestion, inadequate public transportation and dangers on the roadways make all aspects of life difficult for metropolitan area residents, he said.
The goal of the regional urbanization project he directs is to assess these issues, then draw up a plan to improve things.
Step one, he said, is to organize development, and institute zoning plans in each of the Central Valley’s municipalities. Improving roadway infrastructure, connectivity between cities and suburbs and telecommunications is also required.
According to Kevin Casas, Minister of Planning and Costa Rica’s Second Vice-President, the U.N. report comes at an opportune moment.
“Lack of planning in our urban areas has become a critical issue for our country. The state of our cities is – well, I won’t go as far as deplorable, but at least very troubling,” he said.
The U.N. report, he added, has brought to light something that most Costa Ricans see on a daily basis – the spread of poverty and related problems, including violence, crime and homelessness.
“I suspect that the perception of poverty in our country has increased enormously in recent years. What I don’t know is whether it’s real, or whether it is simply becoming more visible as our cities grow,” he said. Casas said the ideals of a quaint, agrarian lifestyle must be put aside for the reality of urbanization – and the opportunities it presents.
“We must put aside our anti-urban prejudices and accept it as inevitable, but also, as a good thing. Cities create more opportunities to resolve our social, economic and environmental problems, if we take advantage of them and plan appropriately,” he said.
He points out the benefits for women, who thrive in more liberal urban societies, unbound by farm regimens and long-standing traditions of women as “home-workers.”
“Urbanization can have the effect of freeing people, allowing them to express themselves, to organize politically and socially,” he said.
Stronger local governments, more capable of handling regional issues, as well as zoning plans in accordance with international standards, are vital steps to ensure that Costa Rica’s urbanizing population doesn’t flounder in the future.
“It’s not urbanization that is hurting us. It is the way we are urbanizing,” Casas concluded