Expert Blog Post - Costa Rica 

Dr Vanesa Castán Broto, Senior Lecturer, The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, University College London

When you imagine Costa Rica’s forests and exotic beaches, the last thing you might think is that this is a quickly urbanising country. However, the growth of urban population in Costa Rica in the last years has been spectacular. As of 2014, 75% of Costa Ricans live in urban areas. It is predicted that by 2050 90% of people worldwide will live in cities. Costa Rica serves as a great example of how urbanisation is likely to shape the future of our societies and our ability to respond to climate change.

Recently, cities have received much attention in the climate change agenda. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) attributes the majority of the world’s carbon emissions to cities. Cities also concentrate population and assets which are vulnerable to climate change impacts. But what really attracts policy makers to think about cities is that they open multiple opportunities to develop low carbon, resilient urban systems.

Climate change action in cities is diverse. Climate policy scholars speak of ‘experimentation’ because there are no tried and tested actions to combat climate change. We have found that, all over the world, many different people (government, businesses, civil society, and communities) feel compelled to act in every way they can. These efforts may lead to unsuccessful attempts to deliver climate change action but, equally, they can generate alternative and unexpected successes (for a full analysis and numerous examples see: Bulkeley et al, 2014).

When looking at the possibilities for climate change action in cities, particularly in cities with great inequalities and/or poverty, it is easy to overlook the potential of those who are most disadvantaged. In doing so, we are in danger of overlooking the vital role that disadvantaged people could play in making low carbon, climate resilient cities. While our team was working in Maputo in Mozambique, for example, we quickly realised how important was to incorporate the voice of the people in any process of planning for climate change. We already knew that participatory methods are important because of the moral imperative to put communities at the centre of planning. However, what we discovered in Maputo was that this is also the most efficient way of planning for climate change. Disadvantaged communities in Maputo held invaluable practical knowledge about the specific impacts of flooding, which could be applied directly to deliver a more resilient city.

Costa Rica cannot become ‘carbon neutral’ without cities which are also carbon neutral. Cities have a big advantage when it comes to innovating for climate change action: their diverse populations. We need to recognise everyone’s capacity to act, even for the most disadvantaged actors. Poorer populations should not be excluded, especially because carbon neutral aspirations may foster new economic sectors and create livelihood opportunities (which can include jobs, but also includes things like access to resources like sanitation)’. Costa Rica is also in a position to challenge models of low carbon development based on high density, high-rise buildings. Its colourful capital, San José, for example, is a relatively green and walkable city. San José could become carbon neutral in the near future. And there is a faster way to achieve this goal: foster experimentation and enrol urban citizens.