Gensler Participates in Costa Rica’s Sustainable Development

By Erika Schnitzer, Associate EditorSan Jose, Costa Rica—Gensler, the global architecture, design and planning firm, recently organized a public conference on sustainable development in San Jose, Costa Rica, alongside the international engineering firm Buro Happold. “We wanted to focus on the vision of being able to give back to the communities we work in,” says Bob Balder, director of planning at Gensler, which has an office in San Jose.“San Jose: The Livable City” featured presentations by experts in multiple fields that focused on the sustainable growth of San Jose. At the forum—at which there were an estimated 400-500 attendees—a new vision for a proposed urban transit system was presented publicly. “Costa Rica has a fabulous reputation as a deeply sustainable country. In some cases that’s true, as it relates to habitat conservation and preservation of land,” notes Balder, who presented at the conference session, What is the Livable City? “When it comes to the urbanized area, it’s a totally different world. [The country] wants to move in the direction of following the framework of the USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) model, which is moving onto a worldwide stage and is emerging in Costa Rica.”Despite receiving accolades from the international community for its commitment to the natural environment, Costa Rica’s urban area is severely lacking in sustainability measures. Currently, 60 percent of Costa Rica’s population is living in cities, which Balder predicts will only continue to grow over the next 20 years.“We have been working on the idea of trying to create a framework of a more sustainable city, and part of that is the integration of a more comprehensive vision of their transit system,” Balder tells MHN, adding that once the system is in place, the city can begin to build housing along the rail. “We are trying to promote the idea of transit-oriented development as the driving force behind the transit plan. The only way to do that is if your transit planning is totally integrated with land planning,” he says.The proposed new urban transit system, or TREM (Tren Eléctrico Metropolitano), would reuse a part of an old industrial right-of-way that would serve as a backbone for the transit system and would—hopefully—unify San Jose and link the city to the airport and surrounding cities. This system, says Balder, “would allow for the advent of true multifamily housing at a level that would be more sustainable.” In a catch-22 of sorts, he adds that the city needs to promote dense multifamily housing along the corridor to get the ridership needed to support the proposed transit system. The conference was designed to shed light on how the principles of sustainable urban development should frame the long-term growth of the city. “They have the underlying DNA to support a very walkable, high-quality urban center, but right now, you’d find that a lot of housing has not been reinvested in. Housing [in San Jose] never graduated from single-family housing of one to two stories into a more traditional urban form that you’d see in a more developed city,” says Balder.However, Balder notes that the time to forge ahead is now, as the city is in the process of adopting a large, regional master plan. Furthermore, while the current President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias Sanchez, is advancing the transit plan, his tenure is nearly over and the candidates for the next election have not yet been announced, so whether the new president supports the planned infrastructure remains to be seen. Thus, the transit system is currently “very crude but it’s functioning on a pilot level to get people introduced to the idea,” notes Balder.According to Balder, the transit planning work and implementation is expected to be returned within the next few months, at which point Gensler hopes to submit proposals for the city. “We are looking to advocate for more smart development in urban centers and come back to multifamily housing,” he says.The Costa Rica conference is the culmination of a year-long “Gensler University” class, a program sponsored by Gensler that identifies future leaders in the firm and asks them to apply their skill sets in an intensive think-tank environment. The class partnered with ten engineers and transit specialists from Buro Happold, and the resulting research and concept will be offered to the people of Costa Rica as pro-bono work. Other conference participants included Karla Gonzalez Carvajal, Costa Rica’s minister of transportation; Eduardo Brenes, regional planner for PRUGAM (Proyecto Regional Urbano de la Gran Area Metropolitana); Juan Sauma, TREM  project manager for CNC/MOPT (Consejo Nacional de Concesiones/ Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes); Manrique Arguedas of EARTH (Escuela de Agronomía de la Región Trópico Húmedo) University; and Aris Stamatiadis from Colliers International.