From the print edition
HEREDIA – It was once a sparsely populated countryside dotted with subsistence farms and coffee plantations. Its architecture was colonial, and men sat in groups in the central plaza chatting in the afternoon.
But in the past few decades, Heredia has become one of the hotspots of growth in Costa Rica, with modern homes and apartments popping up in sprawling urban and suburban complexes as developers vie for acreage of increasingly expensive and unavailable land. Though a booming construction industry can benefit an area, Heredia proves that it also brings its own set of challenges.
The population increase demonstrates the extent of change that has taken place in the former farming community. A census report indicates that from 1984-2000, the province of Heredia was the most desirable place to live in the country, attracting large numbers of people who moved there and didn’t leave. Since 2000, the province’s population has outpaced the rest of country in terms of growth. In the past decade, Heredia province has increased by roughly 90,000 residents, for a total of almost 500,000. Most live in the southern sector, near the city of Heredia. Heredia Canton saw an increase of approximately 27,000 residents in the same period.
Much of the influx is attributed to economic opportunity in the area. Manufacturing plants and processing facilities have provided jobs, while free zones such as Global Park, Metro Park, American Free Zone and Ultra Park have attracted large international businesses specializing in technology and English-language customer-service centers.
The southern region of the province, which is within commuting distance from San José, is a bedroom community for adults and their families who work in the capital, but don’t want to live there.
Those families are the demographic that Manuel Alberto Quirós, manager of Desarrollos Urbanísticos La Lillyana, targets. Quirós said Heredia offers a comfortable lifestyle with private schools, universities, a Wal-Mart and potable water sources, only 11 kilometers from San José.
La Lillyana, an urban development company founded 30 years ago, previously focused on projects in San José. But the company decided to shift its efforts toward the lucrative construction industry in Heredia. Quirós said the company has completed 12 housing projects there and is currently finishing two more.
Competition has since become tight between the half-dozen companies that build in Heredia, and new land prospects are increasingly scarce. Another company, Vivicon, notes on its website that it has built almost 1,000 new housing units in various projects around Heredia.
According to data compiled by the National Statistics and Census Institute, in the past decade, Heredia has seen between 2,000-3,000 residential construction projects each year, with the exception of 2009, following the housing crisis.
“Land is scarce now,” Quirós said. “Heredia has grown to the north, to the south, in all directions.”
The growth has happened so quickly that some areas were unprepared. Intense urbanization and increased population have strained ecosystems, leading to problems with contaminated river water and elevated air pollution. The National Emergency Commission reported that many of Heredia’s rivers are prone to flash-flooding, because people have built homes too close to river banks, destroying the natural buffer that previously allowed water to seep into the soil. Also, overdeveloped slopes void of vegetation can cause mudslides.
But challenges are not only environmental. Providing adequate planning and infrastructure, such as roads, sewer and other amenities to the boom communities is a large task. Judicial Investigation Police statistics show that from 2007-2009, Heredia had a general spike in illegal activity, including assaults and auto theft – phenomena a Heredia police commission said were partly attributable to population increase that hadn’t been matched with an increase in police resources.
Since crime peaked in 2009, more and better-equipped officers have helped to lower those numbers.
From a historical perspective, the rapid change of a region can also irrevocably change its character. National University history professor Rafael Ledezma said that modern Heredia is a far cry from its predecessor, where oxcarts loaded with dried coffee beans navigated dirt roads that became impassible when it rained. And although the colonial buildings and groups of old men can still be found downtown, everything around them is changing at a rapid pace.
Ledezma, a lifelong Heredia resident, said that in the past few decades, he has watched many of the old plantations, including the one in front of his childhood home, turned up by bulldozers and laid with concrete for housing foundations.
“This process has not only been in Heredia but also in Alajuela and San José,” Ledezma said. “These places started with small farmers and now they have grown rapidly and are very industrialized. The impact is impossible to ignore.”