San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Glass half full

4 ways San José excels in urbanism – no, that’s not a typo

A car runs a stop sign, almost taking a mother and her small child along for a ride on the hood. People walk alongside a highway because it’s where the bus dropped them off. Pedestrians stare at the ground in order to avoid a sudden fall into a meter-deep ditch.

These are some of the images that come to mind when I ponder Costa Rican urbanism, or lack thereof. Others have vented their frustrations to me throughout my brief three months of living in Ciudad Colón, west of San José; there is a tendency to simply shake your head and wonder, “What can you do?” As for the capital itself, any prospective visitor who reads a travel guide will have dismal expectations at best. Guidebooks all but guarantee petty crime, if not worse, should one dare to cross the city. The Coca Cola bus station is described as a crime haven for anyone who masochistically wishes to part with a passport or wallet. This, added to my initial perceptions of vehicular hostility toward pedestrians, made my first trip to “Chepe” feel obligatory more than anything else.

However, the Costa Rican capital is far from an urbanism black hole. I was positively surprised by San José. Sure, much of the architecture leaves something to be desired, but the city excels in modern urbanism in ways I had never seen in many U.S. cities. Here are four examples:

1. Pedestrian boulevards

Creating space solely for pedestrians is a defeating, uphill battle in many parts of the United States. In my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, closing one block of one street from traffic was considered a monumental win, and cars are still able to pull onto the street for valet parking. So, needless to say, I was floored when I came upon the Avenida Central boulevard, which, like the parallel east-west boulevard in the southern half of the city, features block after block of storefront businesses accessible only to pedestrians in the heart of San José.

San José’s La Sabana Park.

Mónica Quesada/The Tico Times

2. La Sabana

After just two visits to San José, my preconceived notions fundamentally broken down, I began to notice another recurring theme: parks. Simply put, San José nails public spaces when it feels up to the task. On just one Saturday morning, I came across a marching band practicing in a large park space, hula hoops spinning furiously, shoppers at an organic fair, markets brimming with life, and yoga practitioners finding their inner Zen underneath an impressively designed gazebo with musicians playing along on a set of bongos and a xylophone. Again, these are all rare feats in many U.S. cities where suburban sprawl drains downtown areas of morning activity on the weekends, and keeps area residents segregated into their respective communities where driving is a requirement to do just about anything.

Most impressive of all is La Sabana. With obvious exceptions, such as New York City’s Central Park and Chicago’s lakefront, for example, I wonder if there are other similarly sized, high-quality urban park spaces in U.S. cities. The running, the ponds, the skating rink and race track with the National Stadium towering in the background easily makes La Sabana an urban gem. If the city can fulfill the long-held dream of a bike path to connect La Sabana to the University of Costa Rica, east of the capital, San José will stand out in a way that some supposedly more “developed” cities cannot currently fathom.

La Cuesta de Moras, in front of the Legislative Assembly.

Alberto Font/The Tico Times

3. Absence of parking craters

A brief look back at a half-century of U.S. urban renewal: Once the Highway Act was approved by Congress in the 1950s, high-speed thoroughfares quickly began gutting urban areas and becoming the foundation of younger, western cities. Highways separated well-established neighborhoods, and downtowns were hollowed out to make space for cars in the form of lifeless surface lots or parking garages. While cities are trying desperately to remedy these errors, the legacy of U.S. parking craters continues to hurt local economies and social life.

To the contrary, parking craters seem nonexistent in San José. Its private parking lots are tiny in comparison to U.S. parking craters that can stretch for blocks in any direction. Fortunately, Costa Rica has never come close to matching the United States in cars per capita, so the demand for demolishing buildings for parking lots has been relatively limited thus far. Residents of many U.S. cities are regretting ceding so much space to cars. San José is all the more attractive as an urban destination because it has maintained its structural integrity.

Enamórate de tu ciudad brings urban residents into public spaces on weekends.

Alberto Font/The Tico Times

4. Variety of public events

Any Tico Times reader knows that there are no shortage of public events in San José. The attributes above make these public events possible. That is, infrastructure dedicated to pedestrians instead of cars brings people to urban areas, and the powers that be have given them something to do while they are here. From the aforementioned yoga and markets to live music and theater, San José has a little bit of everything for everyone. Again, many U.S. cities would kill for the kind of activity and vibrancy on a Saturday morning that you can find in Chepe.

Of course, the four achievements I’ve listed do not change the fact that San José is in dire need of a cultural shift when it comes to people and cars, but this city is hardly alone in that regard. Broadly speaking, and this goes for the world at large, drivers and governments that fund transportation need to accept that humans are more valuable than cars. That might sound obvious, but countries and cities that truly embrace this as a priority show a measured shift in drivers’ mentality as soon as they get behind the wheel. In Switzerland, for instance, pedestrian culture runs so deep that cars will stop on a dime for a pedestrian crossing the street. They will then wait patiently, seemingly well aware that time is not more valuable than life. No pedestrian in her right mind would expect the same treatment here.

More specifically, there are steps San José (and any Costa Rican town, for that matter) can take to set such a shift in motion. Proven examples from other countries include adding more speed bumps to slow down cars, increasing penalties and enforcement for driver negligence, lowering speed limits, and improving infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians that will get people out of cars and off their motorbikes.

This is doable. It may sometimes feel that San José or other parts of Costa Rica are far behind in terms of modern urbanism, but the gap is not as broad as it might seem. To the contrary, San José clearly has a great deal to offer an urban soul, and plenty of reason to hope.

Joe Baur is an author, writer and filmmaker who has worked for a variety of publications, including Matador Network, Yahoo! Travel, National Geographic and BBC Travel. He lives in Ciudad Colón. Follow him at @BaurJoe and joebaur.com.

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epicatt2

What a nice, refreshing article about San José. It is often far too maligned a city. In this article are some of the things that the much-loved, recently-passed, columnist Jo Stewart, who loved San José, used to write about. She used to write a weekly column for the Tico Times, and more recently for AM CR.

I seem to be among the few expats who likes San José. One of the things I have always liked about San José is its surprising number of parks of all sizes scattered about the city so that a person is likely to stumble across one quite unexpectedly. A few parks are large like La Sabana or Parque de la Paz. Many are about a block in size like Parque Nacional, Parque Central, Parque La Merced, and Parque España, which is my favorite, tranquil, with its shady tropical foliage which surrounds you and shields you from the urban hubbub.

But there are parks of all sizes some as small as only a dozen or so square meters like the tiny sort of triangular one, Parque de los Mercaditos, that I came across at the corner of a small intersection in one SE San Jose barrio. It had only four or five benches around its perimeter and one large tree offering some shade.

Parks in San José offer one the option for sitting in the shade and watching the Tico world walk by. You are likely to see some of most every aspect of the culture go past you as you sit there.

This is all at great contrast with urban parks in the US. They’re there but for the ost part seem to be in rather short supply when compared to San José’s abundance of them.

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Ken Morris

Well, keep working on this.

Actually, pedestrian boulevards are a mistake, or at least an easy and ultimately unsuccessful urban scheme.

The real challenge for cities in the automobile age is not to set aside streets for pedestrians (which in turn sets other streets aside for motor vehicles) but to integrate the two. What you want are places like the north side of the Central Market more or less all the way to Coca-Cola, where there are both shops with pedestrians and cars, although currently in an uncomfortable mix. Also, if you notice, the pedestrian boulevards tend to become mall-like, lacking both the small shops and the mixed residential areas that make for a vibrant city. As a result, they become dangerous at night, precisely because they aren’t mixed use.

Also, while I like Sabana Park too, and it is mercifully still on the outskirts, large urban parks like it are bad for cities (and after dark Sabana Park becomes dangerous too). What you want are the small parks, and fortunately San José has plenty of these. However, the urban parks movement that began with New York’s Central Park and swept the US is bad for cities, since it tries to mix rural with city life. The two don’t mix, except in the suburbs.

With one small and another large exception, your final two points are fine.

The small exception is that you want speed humps rather than speed bumps. Bicycles can handle the humps, but not the bumps, although the two have the same effect on traffic calming.

The larger exception is that I personally suspect that San José is living on borrowed time attributable to low incomes. Ticos of any affluence move to the suburbs, and for the most part that’s where the new office parks and shopping centers are (as well as the tax-free zones). My sense is that San José only works as well as it does now because some 75% of the Ticos ride the buses to work and have to transfer in San José, while some other portion remains too poor to move to the suburbs. Given any kind of serious economic development, I think you can count on San José being decimated. Whole neighborhoods already are. And I don’t see any pro-urban policies or sentiment in place to prevent this. San José is like many US cities of the 1950s and 1960s in that it only works as well as it does because the people don’t yet have the means to leave it, although they eventually will.

The most proximate challenge is to change the custom that allows motorists the right of way whether going straight or turning. This makes it impossible for pedestrians to cross the street at intersections, where the law says that they must cross. It also encourages pedestrians to long for the day when they too can drive cars and be kings of the road.

You are right, one of the toughest parts of urban planning is to manage motor vehicles and pedestrians in the same mix. So far Costa Rica shows no interest in doing this. The result is bound to be more suburbanization and the destruction of San José, which at the moment is only hanging on by the thread of low incomes.

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Ethan Kelley

I’m glad to see San Jose depicted in a light different than that of gloom and doom.

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