The small Costa Rican city’s strategic vision is using bees, butterflies, bats, and hummingbirds to improve the quality of life of its citizens.
Sometimes, it is the little things that count.
When Curridabat wanted to enhance the wellbeing of its 72,500 residents, large scale infrastructure projects were not the main focus of that improvement. Instead, this small city of 6.3 square miles on the edge of the Costa Rican capital of San José, decide to focus on small creatures that have a large impact. The plan is to give each inhabitant more than the existing 104 square feet of green space per person. Beginning this massive shift for Curridabat was enough to get the city noticed by the Wellbeing City Award.
Call it, the “great pollination,” led by bees, butterflies, bats, and hummingbirds. Could it be that Curridabat’s agents of change and prosperity are those small flying creatures? Yes, they are, and the city’s development vision depends on them.
“We call them our gang of pollinators,” quips Irene Gargia Brenes, Director of the Mayor’s Office for the City of Curridabat. Gargia and others in the city government, believe that a Curridabat that is good for bees, will be good for humans. The first municipal animal welfare program in Costa Rica was established in Curridabat, which serves as an example of how much people in this city care about animals and the environment. In this city, animals, along with plants and trees, are citizens too.
Since 2015, the Sweet City initiative has created community events where residents plant flowers and trees native to Curridabat, and even some exotic plants. Citizens, businesses, and institutions are provided with the Sweet City Greenery Guide, a document detailing what and how to plant. Anyone from primary school children to the elderly can learn which plants will bare fruits, the creatures that like each plant, and which types are medicinal. They are made aware of the climatic conditions ideal for each plant, the watering regimen required for growth, the urban context where they should be planted, and other factors. All this extra vegetation gives the “gang of pollinators” more places to work. As thousands of these creatures return to pollinate Curridabat, the city becomes sweeter. The natural process of ecology takes over, causing plants to thrive, and citizens to be healthier. The city has already built almost 5,000 linear feet of gardens for plants adjacent to new sidewalks as a way to encourage walking.
Curridabat’s five dimensions of urban life that citizens experience daily are what Sweet City strives to improve: habitat, coexistence, biodiversity, infrastructure, and productivity. Those might seem like obvious issues for a city to want to improve, but what is different about Curridabat is that instead of forcing nature to fit within the built environment, they are forcing the built environment to fit into nature. For habitat, they want the built environment to accommodate every inhabitant regardless of status and ability. Often accessibility is only an afterthought, but when you care about the experience of the creature citizens, you will care about all human citizens. As Karel Dollekens, a city administrator in Breda, Holland who specialises in accessibility said in recent article, “people aren’t disabled; the environment they live in is.”
For coexistence, the city recognises that they need to serve the most vulnerable citizens, which also includes animals, and not only focus on serving taxpayers or property owners. For biodiversity, the aim is “to bring the park back into the neighbourhood, (and) to bring the river back into the city,” as the Sweet City magazine describes.
For infrastructure, they consider the journey that a single drop of water makes in the city. Whereas many cities use infrastructure to drain the water away, Curridabat uses infrastructure to become a “sponge city” that captures, holds, and reuses the water for vegetation. This is something that they already started to work on with Deltares, the Dutch institute for applied research in the field of water management. Finally, Curridabat wants to become a productive city that does not have to rely on farms in the countryside for its food, and electricity from rural plants for power. It already has at least six community gardens and a new farmer’s market.
The city is hoping that the improvement of those five dimensions of urban life result in outcomes that transform how their people live. What are the positive outcomes for the most vulnerable citizens who share experiences and commonalities? What is the optimal desired consequence that the city needs to outperform to make positive change for its citizens? The scope of work required to meet and exceed both of those outcomes challenges the city to consider the wellbeing of all of its citizens. To complete the task, the city considered the overlapping experiences that influence quality of life, and specified seven that they want to improve.
It all begins with the experience of one drop of water, which depends on water management. Then they considered the experience of an earthworm, which can be used along with composting to create rich soils for vegetation, and that is also connected to the experience of citizens accessing healthy foods. That access is also related to the directing of public and private investment to improve transit access to desired destinations. Following that are urban spaces that are safe, inclusive, and places that promote good mental health. Finally, there is the experience that people have with their local government, which is more attentive to their needs.
It makes sense that a place like Curridabat would come up with such a vision. Typically, small cities lack the political power to create large-scale change at the local level. Then there is urban planning, something that is taken for granted in large cities, but in small cities it is often lacking. What most small cities do have in their favour is nature. Curridabat lies in a climatic region conducive to the growth of a variety of plant life that is exclusive to the area. By making Sweet City its vision for the future, Curridabat is focusing on its strengths in the face of those challenges. However, Curridabat seems to be the exception and not the rule. In Costa Rica, there is no federal minister responsible for urban planning or development, which has hurt Curridabat for decades.
“Latin American cities have been copying European city visions,” explains Garcia. “They are not similar to our context. This vision is developed by our own experience and it is inspired by nature.” With Sweet City, the forest reclaims its rightful place as the most important part of Curridabat, with the city becoming of secondary importance, or as Garcia says: “we don’t say the forest in the city, we say the city into the forest.”
It is difficult for Curridabat to compare their vision with other Costa Rican cities. Each city does what is best for them, without an overarching national strategy to follow. “Our city plan is very different from other cities in Costa Rica,” Garcia says. “There are cities in Costa Rica that do not even have a city plan.” Why is it that Curridabat has one, but the others don’t? The city benefitted from the political stability of having the same party in power in the mayor’s office for 16 years. A local, neighbourhood-based party, that is unrelated to the federal parties. “We had a great mayor in the past who is now the minister of education,” Garcia explains.
In 2017, Curridabat developed a summer research program in collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Design, that detailed the consequences of the city’s growth over its history. Having developed on agricultural land just outside of San José, many of the former plantations became suburban housing projects in a piecemeal fashion. That uneven and unplanned development, produced disjointed infrastructure, poor public transportation, and no high-density living. “We have a car-oriented city, like every Latin American city,” laments Garcia. “We have not been educated to use a bicycle or public transportation.” To help with that education, Curridabat and other Costa Rican cities, closed major streets to vehicular traffic for World Bicycle Day in the first weekend of June 2019. Hundreds took over the streets.
By focusing on the improvement of the five dimensions of urban life, and the seven overlapping experiences, Curridabat is thinking more strategically about its development.
“We have a lot of challenges regarding public transportation because it is not in our hands,” explains Garcia. “We have the capacity as a local government to do something, but we don’t have the competence, legally (speaking).” To gain more control over public transportation, Curridabat has been negotiating with the Costa Rican government, signing agreement after agreement. It is a tedious process.
Such is life for a small city that suffers from a lack of political power and a legacy of poor urban planning. With the Sweet City vision, Curridabat is creating a new legacy and sees itself as an example for other small and medium-sized cities to follow.
Words Phil Roberts