Urban Culture Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, a country typically known for its protected nature, already more than 60% of the population is living in areas that are qualified as urban. The majority is situated in the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM), which consists of the four historical cities and peripheries of Alajuela, Cartago, Heredia and the country's capital San Jose.

The population perceives each of these cities differently: San Jose is the capital where all powers are centralized (executive, legislative and administrative). It is also referred to as the "city of chaos", due to a lack of urban planning and the amount of people that pass through every day by foot or car, typically resulting in huge traffic congestions. Alajuela is known for the international airport, agriculture and local artisans. It is called the "city of mangos", a reference to the mango trees on the central square, an important public meeting place. Heredia is called the "city of flowers", referring to the presence of flowers in front gardens in earlier days and the beauty of the heredian women. It is also known as the town where primary school teachers are educated, thus making it "the city of education". Cartago is called "city of fog" in reference to its climate. Consequent to a high level of precipitation and humidity, a lot of agricultural businesses have settled in the area. Moreover, this previous capital of Costa Rica is known as a conservative and religious center: every year, one million pilgrims from all over the country gather at the Basilica of the Virgin of Los Angeles, the nations' patron saint.

In recent years, the four cities and its peripheries have started growing together: the threat of earthquakes, combined with the rural value to own a house and a piece of land, has created a culture of constructing buildings of maximum two floors high. This culture has led to a preference of residing in the urban periphery and the parallel abandoning of the historical urban centers. The resulting large-scale low-density suburban sprawl is continuously substituting the green mountains surrounding the central valley that houses the GAM.

Throughout this inhomogeneous growth, the GAM has developed into a large inhabited territory with different life worlds, the sum of which is neither urban nor rural. In fact, the result is a socially segregated and spatially fragmented "rurban" hybrid. Middle class neighbourhoods have given way to gated communities housing the high to middle class and low class marginalized areas. Although these typologies occasionally border each other, their inhabitants hardly interact. The individual life worlds have their own schools, shops, recreational areas and other services. The maximum social interrelation might be a functional one: low class people that work as maid, guard, gardener or constructer in the high-class fortresses.

This consultancy aimed at acquiring a thorough understanding of the urban culture in Costa Rica with the goal to inform a governmental program for the regional urban planning of the GAM (PRUGAM); the work was co-financed by the European Union.

Some of the key questions were: How do the inhabitants shape their life worlds? What is the dominant culture like? Which subcultures can be identified? What are the biggest threats and what are the greatest potentials of the cities? How do the inhabitants perceive their city?

Apart from focus groups dynamics and semi-structured interviews, a methodology for Socio Cultural Mapping was developed in order to catalogue the cognitive images of the inhabitants of the GAM. The results were published in: GAM(ISMO). Cultura y Desarrollo Urbano en la Gran Área Metropolitana de Costa Rica


A Company (Marije van Lidth de Jeude, Oliver Schütte) with the Latin American Faculty for Social Studies (FLACSO) for PRUGAM

Location: Greater Metropolitan Area, Costa Rica

Status: Completed

Year: 2007