San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Planners on Different Pages

San José can’t cry over a lack of attention.

The capital city is full of ideas, architects, urban planners, builders and engineers. In fact, city hall has a department for each.

Private architecture and design institutes, local initiatives, university experts, the myriad utility companies, and government housing and planning ministries all have schemes and visions to order, improve and beautify the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM).

In 2007, the private initiative San José Possible helped transform San José’s Avenida 4, converting a dingy city street into a pleasant and popular pedestrian thoroughfare.

The Culture Ministry has allotted funds to refurbish historically significant buildings.

Meanwhile, the Costa Rican Railway Institute has revived two metropolitan trains and is planning to extend service to reach provinces and cities to the north and the east, at the same time that the Water and Sewer Institute is overhauling the city’s water treatment infrastructure.

And between 2004 and 2010, the Regional and Urban Plan for the Greater Metropolitan Area (PRUGAM) restored parks and boulevards, bus stops and train stations and, in one of San José’s more ambitious urban planning projects to date, mapped out regulatory plans for all of the GAM’s 33 municipalities. Most of the area has never had basic zoning plans to guide development.


A Plan in Limbo


The PRUGAM effort, partly funded by the European Union, cost ₡18.5 million (more than $24.2 million) and received support and pats on the back from former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, as well as praise from experts. Jimena Ugarte, an architect for the Tropical Architecture Institute who directed San José Possible, called PRUGAM “super necessary” and said that “it took a necessary look at the micro and the macro.”  

But PRUGAM’s plans were never legally binding, and were always subject to the Housing Ministry’s approval. And, what’s more, the final blueprints don’t fit some municipalities’ visions for their cities.  

Now, almost 10 months after PRUGAM handed over its stamped and sealed plans to the Housing Ministry, they are still being reviewed.   

Eduardo Brenes, who directed PRUGAM, has returned to his post at the National Power and Light Company.  

Frustrated, he said he hasn’t received any word of PRUGAM’s progress through the Housing Ministry’s approval process.  

“They have taken us completely out of the picture,” he said. “The only thing we have seen was that several weeks ago, the plan was announced as one of [President] Laura Chinchilla’s top goals. Other than that, we haven’t heard anything that’s clear.”  

In hopes of modernizing the GAM’s most recent plan – an effort dating to 1982 – the Housing Ministry must review PRUGAM’s work and emit a set of guidelines for the Central Valley’s municipalities to create or update regulatory plans.  

The Housing Ministry told The Tico Times in an e-mailed statement that evaluating and approving the plans are “urgent,” but said it does not have a deadline for finalizing the framework.  

As far as resolving differences between PRUGAM’s vision for the region and their own, the government institute declared that “the Housing Ministry is the rector of the sector and proposes the final procedures on the topic.”    

PRUGAM’s Guidelines  

PRUGAM’s team of experts, which included urban planners from public institutions as well as specialists from the private sector, identified a series of environmental fragility zones that defined areas where municipalities could and could not develop.

To establish these zones, geologists and planners determined where aquifers and waterways needed to be protected, where landslides were likely to occur or where tectonic plates merged, among other factors.

For Allan Astorga, a geologist who helped create the zones, ignoring these guidelines could lead to “dangerous and disorderly development.”

While some municipalities look forward to receiving the final draft of PRUGAM’s six years of labor once they are reviewed and revised by the Housing Ministry, others, such as the planners at the San José Municipality, are heading in a different direction altogether.

In 2008, PRUGAM submitted the environmental fragility index and zoning recommendations to San José’s municipal government, which rejected the plan.

“It wasn’t that the information was bad, it was just that it wasn’t faithful to the situation of San José,” said Royeé Alvarez, an architect in San José’s urban management department. “We already have an idea about what we want for our city and PRUGAM’s suggestions just didn’t fit that vision.”

Planners in San José claim that PRUGAM’s plan lacked specifics and didn’t take into account important infrastructure, such as new water treatment and electricity networks.

According to Alvarez, San José was placed in the same environmental development category as rural zones, an assignment that he claims “doesn’t reflect realty because San José is 100 percent urban.”

Vladimir Klotchkov, the head of the city’s Urban Management Department, added that following PRUGAM did not make “planning sense” for the city.

 “It had too much of an environmental emphasis and didn’t mention economic or social or management capacity factors,” he said.

In place of PRUGAM, San José hired The Sustainable Urban Development Research Program, a consulting group from the University of Costa Rica, to create a separate plan, one that the city’s planners believe is a more accurate reflection of the city’s vision and needs.

And while other municipalities may also seek independent counsel if city planners are unhappy with the final GAM plan, it may prove costly.

Klotchkov estimates that hiring a private planning consultant will cost between ₡30 million and ₡60 million (roughly $50,000 and $120,000), a bill that smaller, less affluent municipalities might not be able to foot.

“We are fortunate,” Alvarez said, “PRUGAM had good suggestions, but they just didn’t work for us.”

An Urban Rebirth?

In spite of these behind-the-scenes urban planning differences, many a pedestrian has noticed a brighter San José in recent years.

The National Museum has been painted and pedestrian walkways recovered. Trees have been planted and parks have been cleaned up.

Once a blot on Costa Rica’s map that most visitors tried to avoid, planners hope to transform the capital city’s reputation as an unsightly and disorderly mess. 

“We abandoned this city,” said Ugarte from the Tropical Architecture Institute. “It’s not the city’s fault. No one bet on San José and everyone left for the periphery. But, little by little, things are starting to change.”

Several years ago, the municipality launched an initiative to promote San José as a residential hub.

Under the municipality’s Regeneration and Repopulation of the Four Central Districts Plan, the city began to renew basic services such as new pipes for drinking water and installing underground fiber optic cables.

Buttressed by La Sabana’s lush landscape and the district’s bustling activities, the west side of the city has seen condominiums soar and new businesses arrive.

“The park is like lungs for the city,” said Alvarez. “The utility services there are good, and that’s a marketing plus that has helped attract investment.”

Architects are also hoping to make the city more pedestrian-friendly.

Having already recuperated several pedestrian malls downtown, planners are turning their eyes to creating new walkways. Alvarez said that the city is considering extending the Calle 2 pathway southward to the Pacific Station.

And, while the municipality cannot legally offer tax incentives to developers and architects for improved designs, the city is encouraging builders to install first-floor green spaces in an effort to make a walk through the city a bit more pleasant.

San José may have a long way to go before it can compare with the world’s great metropolises, but it appears to be receiving more attention than ever.

While change is difficult in a city where budgets are tight and the bureaucracy is exhausting, renewal is slowly blooming.

“It is starting,” Ugarte said. “And really, it just makes sense to rejuvenate the city. Look at those people walking down the new boulevards in San José. They are in love with life.”

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