The design of a compact multifunctional urban center in San José's historical district El Carmen (C.C.M.E.C. according to its Spanish abbreviation) is an exemplary work to illustrate the potential of restructuring the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM) in Costa Rica. The concept is based on the guidelines of PRUGAM, a governmental planning program that is co-financed by the Costa Rican Ministry for Housing and Human Settlements and the European Union.

The GAM is a vast urban-suburban-rural conglomerate that houses more than half of the Costa Rican population. In recent decades, it has grown around the four historical cities of Alajuela, Cartago, Heradia and the capital city San José. Those cities are still being used as work places but the large majority of its inhabitants now live in low-density suburban conditions. In this context, and based on a study of the urban culture in Costa Rica, we propose to reorganize the current condition as a polycentric network system in order to improve the urban-suburban connectivity, limit suburban growth, protect the environment, strengthen the urban tissue of the historical centers, and optimize rural production for local consumption.

Our project responds to our five target issues of an integrally sustainable urban development: quantum change and transferability, ethical standards and social equity, ecological quality and energy conservation, economic performance and compatibility, contextual and aesthetic impact. The specific goals of each target issue will be explained here in detail.

(1) Quantum change and transferability: the ideas are transferable to any of the many cities in the world that deal with dying centers in favor of a car accessible suburban periphery, taking into account the location specific conditions. The imagery of this work will have pioneer effects by visualizing the potential urban quality through an optimization of urban transport in tandem with the introduction of green corridors for non-motorized transport and the environment. Furthermore, the project proposes to densify the urban population within the multifunctional urban cores and to provide affordable homes for the different classes of the urban society in Costa Rica, which currently finds itself trapped in a vicious circle of social segregation and spatial fragmentation. Inhabiting such a new urban form requires a quantum leap in terms of cultural change and to help people understanding the benefits of a reduced urban footprint. We introduce heterotopic and mixed use buildings with high quality public and private spaces. Those spaces and buildings are designed for different target groups, such as families, young professionals, students, tourists, etcetera). The proposed urban acupunctures are laid out to function as agents of change in the abandoned urban fabric and to create a new tropical urban lifestyle.

(2) Ethical standards and social equity: social equity is improved by offering affordable middle and upper class housing in a high quality urban space that is fit for living, working, shopping, and recreation. By using a participatory design methodology, we stimulate the citizens to co-shape and appropriate their own urban environment. We intend to stimulate a more inclusive urban culture by reducing the apparent social segregation and spatial fragmentation.

(3) Ecological quality and energy conservation: the proposed bioclimatic architectures react to the local natural habitat. All buildings are equipped with devices to harvest natural resources efficiently. Rainwater is collected in reservoirs on rooftops, creating natural water pressure for the inhabited spaces below. Organic waste is collected centrally and turned into biogas. Solar energy is harvested via photovoltaic panels on rooftops or the sun-exposed facades of the buildings. The interior spaces are positioned in a way to minimize solar heat gains and to ensure natural ventilation. Through such active and passive design strategies, we intend to minimize the energetic footprint of the built environment. A green trajectory is proposed to link the different buildings and public urban spaces for transport, leisure and recreation.

(4) Economic performance and compatibility: in reaction to changed consumption patterns (from local central markets to international malls in the periphery), we intend to stimulate the economy of the urban center by offering middle class households an area to live, work and consume in the same place. Curt a significant amount of the income of middle-class households is spent on transport, the project intends to reduce this dependency by reducing economic as well as ecologic costs. Private developers are attracted to co-shape the envisioned high quality urban environment by participating in the workshops with the citizens, representatives of local governance, stakeholders in the transport industry, and invited specialists.

(5) Contextual and aesthetic impact: A participatory design approach allows us to generate urban and architectural schemes that respond to the real needs and site-specific conditions. Typologies like progressive and productive houses allow for specific adaptations within the buildings now and in the future. Translating these components into a complex and integral design toolbox permits transfer to other sites according to their culture, context and aesthetics.

The project is developed in collaboration with Veritas University in San José, Costa Rica. The proposed bioclimatic architecture is a result of our studio on energy efficient architecture and urbanism. The participatory design process is generated through a multidisciplinary dialogue with the target population in El Carmen, this dialogue is guided by A Foundation with the support of invited professionals and students. One of the educational tools and to support the appropriation of the planned built interventions and urban restructuring is a comic strip called Urban Legends. It informs the citizens about the economic, environmental, social, and spatial benefits of the actual urban planning projects in Costa Rica’s Greater Metropolitan Area.


Team: A Foundation (Oliver Schütte, Marije van Lidth de Jeude, Laura Jimenez) with Veritas University (Carlos Chacón, Ronald Fonseca, Nicolas Marin, Rodolfo Schlager, Roberto Argüello, José Pablo Vargas, Alejandro Vallejo, Caleb Mata, Jean Paul Garnier)

Scope: Participatory Design

Location: Greater Metropolitan Area, Costa Rica

Status: Completed

Year: 2006-2009