Torre Universal, designed for Portafolio Inmobiliario by Gensler in San José, Costa Rica.
A large building with many windows.

A Q&A with a Costa Rican Mayor about the Future of City Design

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Costa Rica has long been recognized as a model on the benefits of investing in the environment. The country was one of the first to realize the value of eco-tourism — an industry that adds billions to the national economy each year. The value of the flora and fauna has put an end to harmful deforestation and agricultural practices. Costa Rica has also invested heavily in renewable energy, committing to becoming the world’s first carbon free economy by 2050.

If there’s one area the country could improve upon, it’s the coexistence of its largest city San José with the surrounding natural ecology. At least that’s the opinion of Edgar Mora, a former Costa Rican official, as well as a former senior design strategist in Gensler’s San José office. According to Mora, the pandemic and the global health crisis present an opportunity to create a more sustainable city.

Before his time at Gensler, Edgar Mora spent 12 years as the Mayor of Curridabat, a municipality on the east side of San José that’s known locally as Ciudad Dulce or “Sweet City.” During that time, Edgar pioneered a ground-breaking approach to city planning that included making local flora and fauna “citizens” so that they would have certain rights, which would make the city more resilient.

Edgar sat down with Tom Lindblom, an architect and colleague in Gensler's Costa Rica office, to discuss the challenges of COVID-19 and climate change, and how design can reimagine issues of global wellness and sustainability. What direction can Costa Rica take in response to the current pandemic that may be applicable to other world-class destinations? What can Costa Rica do to become an even stronger brand and continue to live up to its well-known motto, Pura Vida (Pure Life)?

Tom Lindblom: The climate crisis has only gotten worse since the pandemic started. The icecaps are still melting, heat waves and droughts in Europe, Australia, and the US are as bad, if not worse, than last year. A few positive results of the pandemic - clean air in Delhi, jelly fish in the canals of Venice, and the eerily quiet streets in the major cities of the world – are perhaps overshadowed by the huge global economic decline and resulting impact on people’s lives. What has changed in your views in the past several months and what needs to be emphasized regarding environmental planning for cities?

Edgar Mora: It’s critical to understand the impact that cities have on the climate crisis. City planners must ask, “How can we consider the productivity of the city so that it adds value to the planet instead of taking it away?

That question should be the starting point when considering possibilities for urban development. It’s not enough to put a band-aid on this situation.

Also, we must seriously consider the fact that the pandemic is a product of the alterations we’ve made to the natural landscape and the lack of harmonization of our cities with nature. We have to start adapting cities to the landscape, to nature, and not the other way around.

TL: You (and others) are saying we are facing a pivotal period of upheaval in human history. There is a lot of hard work to get things right, to make fundamental changes to address problems that are all caused by human activity. Where do you start?

EM: Cities in Latin American have many challenges that are directly related to the history of their design. Design is a representation and a measure of our aspirations as humans, which is why it’s so important. Traditionally, Latin American cities have been composed to exclude nature, which of course also excludes human life from the natural world. This separation has negative impacts on both city life and the natural ecosystem. It also breeds actual segregation and inequality in the population. These are two serious problems that have a root cause in the structural design of cities.

TL: Everyday, there are new predictions about what the world will look like after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic passes. There is a binary response - we are facing either a dystopian or utopian future. Less apocalyptically and more likely, we need to navigate the many challenges ahead while remaining optimistic about the impact we can make as urban planners and designers. How are you filtering the information and what are your strongest observations about what is possible and essential going forward?

EM: The pandemic has introduced a very uncertain future. What’s happening now was unimaginable only a year ago. So, when we consider what the situation can look like over the next several months and years, it’s safe to say that we can expect a very different future.

That being said, it’s vital that we use what we’ve learned during the pandemic to take us forward.

Take the workplace as an example. For many of us, the idea of ​​work changed dramatically in March. Before that, work was a place you went to, but now, we realize that work is a function that can be done virtually.

We know from our Work-From-Home Survey that at least in United States most people want to return to the office, though they also expect changes to the workplace. Nevertheless, we expect the new workplace to be a hybrid of virtual and in-person experiences. In short, work and the workplace has become less infrastructural in the way it used to be. We don’t all have to go to the workplace at the same time, on the same day, using the same transport links. A large percentage of a city’s population can now carry out work remotely rather than in an office. To a certain extent, our domestic life will become more transactional and our working life will become domesticated.

The idea and function of the house and the neighborhood will take on new prominence. Without doubt, many changes will come. This could mean that we will focus more on the importance of transportation, services, and other infrastructure closer to home.

TL: Can you tell us more about the planning principles for Curridabat, the Ciudad Dulce or “Sweet City”?

EM: As you know, when I was mayor of Curridabat, we made the local flora and fauna ‘citizens’ so that we could protect them. The idea was that the plants and indigenous creatures were a critical part of creating a more resilient and prosperous community. And by recognizing pollinators as agents of prosperity, we can find a purpose for the city, while also giving us another important mediator in the development of the city.

We went from asking, ‘What’s the neighborhood you want?’ to asking, ‘Now that we are including the life of the pollinator in our plans, what’s the best neighborhood that we could have with the resources that we have?’

The answers about neighborhood design improvements are completely different with questions like that. They’re more friendly, and more impartial. For us, it nurtured the idea that nature is such a critical part of the city, and you end up with colorful, hummingbird-friendly gardens attached to each house, streets as ecological corridors, and neighborhoods as ecosystems. That idea is a powerful one that the most progressive cities in the world are beginning to understand and follow.

TL: There is a disconnect between the beauty and attraction of Costa Rica’s natural environment and the urban planning problems of San José and surrounding municipalities.

Living and working in the Costa Rica, what is your view about Gensler’s global commitment to addressing the climate crisis, including our Cities Climate Challenge, which challenges the architecture and design industry to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions associated with the built environment? What are the opportunities and challenges for Costa Rica and our capital city, San José?

EM:The design of cities hasn’t been guided by nature’s design patterns, and this has been true since colonial times. Spain decided how cities in Latin America must be built over 500 years ago, and not much has changed since. In particular, the old way of designing and programming cities excludes two key characters in the city and our lives: nature and women.

We should stop thinking about cities as an interruption of the natural landscape and think of them as the continuity of nature. The built environment can and should be mixed with the landscape.

Also, women have long been excluded and marginalized in Latin American cities, and the result is that the urban experience for Latin American women has become unfriendly at best and threatening at worst.

We have an opportunity to solve these particular challenges in Costa Rica and be a model for the rest of Latin America.

TL: These are big observations that point to fundamental issues within our city. They can seem overwhelming to solve. Nudge theory can work to make smaller, consistent, deliberate steps required to lead to broader, meaningful change. The over-reliance on energy-intensive air conditioning might seem like an unlikely issue that can help change our cities. This is especially true in Costa Rica, where the natural world is the main attraction and there is an abundance of outside fresh air. Do you have other ideas for nudging us towards change?

EM:We have to think differently and bring the public together with the private to try to transform human behavior. How can the city add value to the planet instead of taking value away?

One idea is to consider the principle of “minimum sufficient” outcomes. It’s not a stretch to view the past century of urban planning and development as the pursuit “maximum possible” outcomes. We install more air conditioners than we need because it’s easier to plan for the most extreme outcome than it is to create a more strategic plan for finding a more appropriate solution.

The Pareto paradigm states that if you modify 20% of the critical variables in a system, all circumstances are changed. It’s similar to the difference between a Walkman and a smartphone. The Walkman has 20% of the critical variables to listen to music, the smartphone has endless critical variables, but we really require only 20% to have a tremendous listening experience. They are two opposite models. I prefer the minimally sufficient solution because I think it’s the one that can add value to the planet.

TL: Escazu is a village here in Costa Rica that has grown together with other villages to form the greater San José region. Gensler is working with the officials in Escazu now to improve the pedestrian experience and see how we can undo years of ad-hoc development that has given priority to the automobile over pedestrians. What design process are you using on this project?

EM: It’s an exciting opportunity to try and make a fundamental improvement to civic life in a great community with a rich history. Our research started with taking a close look at how people get around. We identified five distinct pedestrian journeys and experiences: the family walking to the park, the daily trip to school, walking to the bus stop, the person with mobility problems going to the supermarket, and the trip to places of worship.

We then studied the roadways. In Escazu, there are four distinct street typologies.

To understand the pedestrian experience, we combined the types of roadways with the five types of journeys and produced a matrix of 20 different experiences. This allows us to study various blocks in the city and find ones that combine many if not all of the 20 kinds of experiences. Then we will focus on new patterns of design for a prototype block in Escazu.

This methodology finds the minimum sufficient solution rather than the maximum possible. We are looking for the appropriate design and construction solution for improving pedestrian journeys that can apply to the wider city.

TL: I’ve lived in Escazu for almost a year now. I walk and ride my bicycle, use Uber for longer journeys in the city and rent a car for trips outside San José. How are you approaching the pedestrian project differently than some of your other design assignments at Gensler?

EM: The pedestrian journey — not the automobile journey — is the basic building block or design pattern that needs to be studied to improve the quality of life in cities.

That’s because you can modify the experience of one type of pedestrian — a wheelchair user, for example — and that will modify the experience of everyone else. In this way, we create impartial space. Applying the idea of impartial design can become part of our proposals. Can Gensler bring to the market an approach to design that doesn’t focus solely on privilege, but looks at design through an impartial lens to deliver more profound kinds of solutions that benefit all people. This is a way of creating conditions in the city that by design doesn’t degrade the serious issues of exclusion, racism, and inequality.

TL: Humans created all the problems we are now facing and the past several months have made these issues more urgent than ever. How do we use design, a powerful and flawed tool as you have noted, to improve our chances?

EM: Yes, we will be the ones to find solutions to our problems, but we need to observe our problems from other’s perspectives. I became a better mayor, for example, when I started to observe the city from the bee’s point of view.

As designers, we must strive to create experiences that are good for everyone — not only for those who can afford it.

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