Aggregate Effects: Re-Tooling the Small City for Environmental and Social Impact at Multiple Scales

Discussions on the contemporary city often focus on the challenges of large metropolitan areas. The convergence of competing economic, geographic, and environmental systems constitute not only intractable challenges but also, it is often argued, the potential for addressing the effects of environmental degradation and climate change. In this seminar, we will take an alternative approach, and consider cities of less than 100,000 inhabitants.  Because they are numerous, and distributed in and around metropolitan centers, their aggregate environmental effects are potentially significant.

Our case study will be the city of Curridabat in Costa Rica, an autonomous municipality in the metropolitan area of the capital San José. Costa Rica is known for its biodiversity, its rain forests, and its many volcanoes. Approximately one fourth of the land (27.44%) is protected, which indicates a strong conservation policy. A second characteristic of this Latin American country is that it has enjoyed a stable democratic system. These two conditions account for a robust eco-tourism industry, which is the base of its economy. However, while these conditions point to a strong environmental policy at the federal level, the reality at the municipal level is very different. Costa Rica’s lush eco-friendly image is contradicted by the reality of its urban environments. Cities cluster densely in the Central Valley, and do not have enough green or recreational spaces per capita, or a system of resilient landscape structures.  Municipal governance generally lacks the tools to translate national policy to the local scale, and the know-how to understand landscape as an essential instrument in city-making. 

Curridabat itself, with a population of about 75,000, presents challenges that are typical of small cities located in metropolitan regions: a fragmented landscape with remnants of its old agricultural economy, river corridors that pass through without engaging the city, uncoordinated, mostly private, development, generally poor connectivity, and the increasing presence of suburban amenities such as shopping malls. A weak public realm, physically and institutionally, is symptomatic of limited citizen engagement.

The product of the seminar will be an atlas of the city that documents the ecological, economic, and social forces that have shaped it through its history, and the contestations, pressures, and challenges that play a role in its present.  We will be collaborating the municipality’s Innovation Lab and the Major’s office to expand recent award-winning initiatives on citizen engagement. Ultimately, the atlas will reveal possible scenarios for re-directing municipal priorities toward environmental and social impact locally, but positioned to contribute to the larger environmental agenda of the metropolitan area and beyond.