San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

San José, a ‘City of Mountains and Rivers’

Mario Vindas hates his drive to work in the morning. Sitting in his car for over an hour during his ride from Heredia to San José, all he sees are bumpers and red brake lights.

Once he arrives at his office in San Pedro, an eastern suburb of San José, the view doesn’t get any better. The view through the broken blinds on his window offers only a tall, concrete-gray building with antennas on the roof.

“It’s horrible,” the 48 year old said. “The city has no plan.”

On the weekends, Vindas stays as far away from the capital city as he can. He explores places in the mountains above Heredia, north of the capital, or visits family in the country town of Ciudad Colón.

“There is nothing attractive about this city,” he said. “I see enough of it during the week.”

The unsightly scenes that mar Vindas’ Monday-through-Friday routine and force his weekend exodus were the focus of three urban planning experts who visited San José last week from the United States and Europe. Hal Moggridge, Kathryn Moore and Peter Bosselman analyzed the city’s layout and resources and declared San José to be a city of “mountains and rivers.”

Unfortunately, the mountains aren’t always visible and the rivers are often hidden.

“The urban development in this city doesn’t allow for the enjoyment of the rivers and the fantastic scenes of the mountains and green areas,” Moggridge said during a conference at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) last week.

Carlos Jankilevich, director of the UCR’s Masters program in landscape architecture, agreed. “They made a very common sense statement,” he said. “Costa Rica is known all over the world for its natural parks and biodiversity in the mountains and forests, but in the metro area, where half the country lives, people can’t enjoy these natural characteristics.”

The lack of urban planning in San José dates back to the 1950’s when the city made a quick and drastic change from a quiet agricultural valley town to a booming financial and political center. A lack of foresight and planning forged a city that was built more around the idea of a quick fix than a sophisticated metropolitan area.

But the three foreign planners said it’s not too late to change.

Moore recommended tackling the pollution that chokes the city: “A city that is sick and dirty is more expensive than a healthy city,” she said.

A recent study by the National University (UNA) indicates a cost of approximately $1.5 billion to clean the area’s rivers. The Japanese government coughed up some $700 million to help find a solution to the Costa Rica’s sewage debacle.

“If we don’t do something now, it could get more expensive and impossible to solve,” Jankilevich said.

Eduardo Brenes, director of the Regional and Urban Plan for the Greater Metropolitan Area (PRUGAM), said the rivers are contaminated partly because they aren’t visible and therefore “not on peoples’ minds.”

Because of security and flooding issues, neighborhoods that share corridors with rivers build walls between their homes and the water for protection. PRUGAM’s plan involves removing the walls and enhancing the riverbanks with natural features such as trees and plants.

“If the rivers are the centerpieces of the community, people will be more inclined to preserve them,” he said.

Moore also suggested building pedestrian bridges across rivers to integrate the waterways into the city – an idea that is already covered by PRUGAM’s grand plan.

As for the mountains, the national and visiting experts were on the same page. In order to take advantage of the scenic panorama that the peaks provide, development in certain areas must be limited.

Jankilevich, along with Moggridge, Bosselman and Moore, believe that construction of any sort should be forbidden at points where the mountains meet the valley. Brenes said that creating policies that restrict such development would preserve “green areas” and views.

This protection, combined with building taller buildings in the center of the city, will allow for more opportunities to enjoy the sight of the mountain ranges, Brenes believes.

The plans and options laid out for San José’s transformation are ambitious at the very least, but all the planners agreed that a small-scale plan isn’t much of a plan at all, especially if the goal is to improve life for city dwellers.

“I’d love to visit San José on the weekends, but it’s just so ugly,” Vindas said. “If it looked better, I would come.”



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