"The pollinators were the key," says Edgar Mora, reflecting on the decision to recognize every bee, bat, hummingbird and butterfly as a citizen of Curridabat during his 12-year term as mayor.
“Pollinators are the consultants of the natural world, supreme breeders, and they don't charge for it. The plan to turn each street into a bio-corridor and each neighborhood into an ecosystem required a relationship with them ”.
The movement to extend citizenship to native pollinators, trees and plants in Curridabat has been crucial to the transformation of the municipality from a suburb of the Costa Rican capital, San José, into a pioneering haven for urban wildlife.
Now known as “Ciudad Dulce” - Sweet City - Curridabat's urban planning has been reinvented around its non-human inhabitants. Green spaces are treated as infrastructure with ecosystem services that can be used by the local government and offered to residents.
Geolocation mapping is used to target reforestation projects on older residents and children to ensure that they benefit from the removal of air pollution and the cooling effects that trees provide. The widespread planting of native species underscores a network of green spaces and bio-corridors throughout the municipality, which are designed to ensure the prosperity of pollinators.
“The idea came from a narrative that people in cities are prone to defending nature when it is far away, when it is a distant concept, but they are negligent when it comes to protecting nature in their immediate surroundings,” says Mora, who has since became a senior design strategist with the global architecture firm Gensler, after a brief stint as minister of education.
"Urban development must be, at least to some extent, aligned with the landscape rather than the other way around," he says.
"Cities are far behind"
The metropolitan area surrounding San José is home to more than 2 million people, roughly half the population of Costa Rica, despite covering less than 5% of the country's area.
If it weren't for the lush volcanic peaks that surround Costa Rica's central valley, it wouldn't be immediately obvious that you were in the heart of one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. Humans rule and the country's cloud forests, unspoiled coastline, and iconic sloths can feel a long way from concrete and traffic.
“We attract a lot of tourists because of nature and conservation, but there is still friction in the city,” says Irene García, head of innovation in the mayor's office in Curridabat, who oversees the Sweet City project. “Places like San José do not represent what we sell as a country or what you see in rural areas or on the beaches. Costa Rica has significantly differentiated itself, but our cities are very far away ”.
Urbanization is one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss around the world, according to the Intergovernmental Science and Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), with urban areas having doubled since 1992. In mid-1992 century, the UN projects that 68% of humanity will live in towns and cities, putting more pressure on ecosystems and rapidly disappearing habitats.
But many urban planners are trying to change this relationship and the importance of green spaces in towns and cities has been recognized in a draft UN agreement to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity, often referred to as the Paris agreement for the nature.
Sweet City is just one of a series of biocurrents across the country that allow the genetic spread of species to maintain its strength. In Central America, this concept has been developed since the early 2000s following an agreement to form a bio-corridor network to connect jaguars.
“The gray infrastructure makes the city too hot. So, the idea of connecting green areas is to cool parts of the city, return the ecosystem services that were there previously but that have deteriorated, ”says Magalli Castro Álvarez, who oversees the network of bio-corridors in Costa Rica with the National System of Conservation Areas (Sinac)
“Interurban bio-corridors have a dual objective: they create ecological connectivity for biodiversity but also improve green infrastructure through roads and tree-lined riverbanks that are linked to the small forested areas that still exist in metropolitan areas. They improve air quality, water quality and provide people with spaces to relax, have fun and improve their health ”.
Many Costa Ricans are happy to talk about the benefits of the policies of schemes like Sweet City, as their response to the challenges of bringing nature to the city is part of a deeper national sentiment. It is not in the DNA of this small Central American country to behave as if humans are somehow separated from nature.
It was a Costa Rican, Christiana Figueres, who brought the world together to reach the Paris agreement. More than 98% of Costa Rica's energy comes from renewable sources and it plans to fully decarbonise by 2050, one of the most ambitious goals on the planet. The country has also successfully reversed one of the highest deforestation rates in the world.
"In Costa Rica, you can start your day in the Caribbean, in the Atlantic Ocean, but then you can travel and on the same day, you can see the sunset in the Pacific," says the country's president, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who accredits the Costa Rican tradition of pacifism and respect for nature with its desire to tackle major environmental problems.
And he adds: “Although we have a small territory, its characteristics allow us to have 6% of the world's biodiversity on our land. Those are traits that are special. I had to travel very far to understand that many of the answers were at home and that the challenge was to take that legacy to the next level. "