A Lo Que Vinimos: Revitalization of Central San Jose, Costa Rica

Paradoxically, perhaps, as the economic fortunes of Costa Rica have rebounded from the downturn and regional political crises of the late 1970s and 80s, the life and vitality of the central area of San Jose – its capital and largest metropolitan area – have declined appreciably. Propelled by accelerated outward peripheral expansion, the now sprawling greater metropolitan area in the country\’s central region has risen in population to around 2.2 million people, accounting for 57 percent of Costa Rica\’s total, up significantly from 42 percent in 1973. By contrast, the resident population of San Jose\’s central area has declined from around 180,000 inhabitants to about 65,000. Similarly, many employment opportunities in Costa Rica\’s now more diversified economy have been deployed to locations largely on San Jose\’s periphery. Commercial activities have also followed, with, for instance, the recent establishment of over 20 malls and retail outlets, eroding the significance of the traditional city center. These phenomena are, of course, not uncommon elsewhere in the world where automobile oriented urban decentralization has taken its toll on central areas. In San Jose, however, they have arrived relatively late, or are still in the process of occurring, placing severe strains on the metropolitan area\’s under-developed infrastructure, relative lack of planning and environmental carrying capacity – a sensitivity to which the nation as a whole has otherwise become a world renowned. Moreover, concentration of public institutions, banking, cultural facilities and urban tourism remain predominantly in the city center, despite its declining security, relatively neglected public amenity, lack of quality services, traffic congestion, and deteriorating housing choices. In aspiration, most in public office and many within the private sector appear to decry the central city\’s decline and espouse a desire for orderly compact city development. Nevertheless, the profound and recent shift in needed policy emphasis from largely rural to urban development has caught many up short, as municipal and regional authorities strive for better balanced solutions to urban growth. The aim of the studio will be to generate, explore and demonstrate strategies and physical planning and design proposals applicable to the central area of San Jose. based on short preliminary exercises, urban structure plans and urban-architectural proposals will be prepared for all or significant parts of the central area, addressing issues of more appropriate mixed use, infrastructure alignments, cultural conservation and urban-environmental amenity, capable of bringing people back to the central city and making it a desirable place, once again, for metropolitan residents, sojourners and tourists. Throughout, a local perspective should be emphasized, roughly congruent with a municipal vision, although the implications of broader regional planning approaches should not be ignored. Work will be conducted in collaboration with the Universidad del Diseno in San Jose, and sponsorship will be provided mainly through a grant from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard and with the support from the Municipality of San Jose. The studio will be open to eligible students in urban design, architecture, urban planning and landscape architecture at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, and a field trip will be conducted between October 6th and 12th, 2007.