The tasks ahead for urbanism in Costa Rica and South Africa

The focus should be on the potential of young generations born in poverty and the creation of good public spaces.

Nejc Frece


I had just arrived from Costa Rican capital city San José, where I spent the last 4 months doing research, when I attended Edgar Pieterse’s lecture at IABR–2016 on African urban development, specifically focusing on Johannesburg. I said to myself that this might be a chance to draw some parallels between the two urban areas.

The two cities have a similar function in their surrounding areas. They are both the main hubs of large urban conurbations, which in the case of Johannesburg consists of more than 8 million, and in the case of San José of almost 3 million inhabitants. Pieterse mentioned that it is very important to be aware that the city is never an individual entity, but always embedded in a wider area. The same would go for San José, as it is tightly related to other urban settlements in the Costa Rican Central Valley, which hosts more than 60 per cent of the country’s population. It is a main transport node of the conurbation as all the people that want to travel from one part of it to another, have to cross the city. The dispersed transportation system and a daily influx of more than 2 million passengers from other parts of the Central Valley result in extremely unsustainable conditions with heavy traffic, air pollution, and serious delays. Proposals are made to battle these conditions, such as a highway system around the city, and a train system. However, in a country with many institutional barriers and obsolete thinking in terms of urban planning it is challenging to implement new ideas, something that according to Pieterse also is the case for Johannesburg.

Pieterse emphasized the importance of localized institutions and systematic thinking. I dare to claim that in San José, institutions do not pay enough attention to understanding how urban systems work. The lack of comprehensive urban plans, which were only recently updated, resulted in many urban issues, such as heavy traffic congestions and crime, and an overall bad reputation for the city.

As both cities are situated in developing countries, the most obvious similarity between them is the occurrence and proliferation of informal settlements, so called slums, with inadequate living conditions and poor inhabitants. In San José, there is a ring of slums encircling the central part of the city, called ‘cinturones de miseria’ in Spanish, or ‘belts of misery’. Pieterse stressed the importance of offering young people from slums alternative options, so they can divert from joining criminal groups. I volunteered in an organization in San José that is offering free educational activities in several slums. It was inspiring to see how much potential and motivation the children from slums have. They only need the right opportunities.

In South Africa, plenty of money goes to physical interventions to counter crime, and then there is no money for cultural programming. The situation in San José is similar, with investments to expand police force on the streets, and much less money going to the prevention of crime through, for example, education. Police presence in the streets is of course necessary, however it is only effective on a short run. It only focuses on the implications, but not the structural causes of crime and therefore cannot be a long-term solution. I have interviewed many San José residents, as well as criminologists, and I have repeatedly been told that the most effective way to lower crime rates on the long run would be to show children from kindergarten on what their positive opportunities are. I can strongly agree with Pieterse when he stresses that a feeling of security is the fundamental thing in cities. However, many cities in developing countries lack this quality, and residents fear using public spaces due to a sense of insecurity. Based on my research findings in San José, I believe some of the main elements to focus on should be the creation of welcoming public spaces that offer cultural and sports activities, increasing their attractiveness through visual elements, better illumination, and greenery. Good public space contributes to a sense of trust in the city and in one’s fellow citizens.

There are many parallels between the two cities, even though they are located on separate continents with many differences in historical development. The similarities, however, should be used in thinking about future urbanism in developing countries. The focus should be on the social and cultural potential of young generations who are born in poverty, and on the creation of welcoming and attractive public spaces that offer a sense of trust.

Nejc Frece is a Master student of International Development at Utrecht University, holding a Bachelor of Geography from the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. He has undertaken two internships in Costa Rica on the topics of renewable energy, and crime in relation to urban planning, during his studies.



3411469811_c60fe20269_bSan José, Costa Rica. Image: Flickr/flx.flx