Focus: Micro cities

A Model to Behold

May. 1, 2019

Rising land costs, frustrating commutes, smarter technology, and a desire to live in more meaningful, comprehensive, and compact communities are driving developers to implement interesting new mixed-use development solutions.

Though the economist Philip Sargant Florence once quipped, “A city of a million is needed to give me, say, the 20 or 30 congenial friends I require," Plato was convinced the ideal urban conglomeration contained no more than 5,000 inhabitants. Given there are now more than 4.2 billion humans living in urban areas, Plato's dream seems as quaint and idyllic as it is improbable.

It is not, however, unprecedented. In 1500, when the Renaissance was already in full swing, half of Europe's 30 largest cities had 50,000 people or less. By today's reckoning, these would qualify as “micro-cities," while only one city in the world that year, Paris, would have qualified as “medium-sized" according to contemporary metrics, with 225,000 inhabitants.
Given these metrics, smaller, prosperous, urbanized, and progressive nations such as Costa Rica and Switzerland stand to gain the most from “de-urbanization" or micro-city trends seeking to create comprehensive, environmentally sustainable, and enjoyable urban spaces in much smaller confines. This is only part of the reason that Costa Rican developers are moving fast to develop spaces where sophisticated urban dwellers' commercial, residential, and recreational needs can be met in one space.
To be sure, Costa Rica's progress in transforming its urban spaces can hardly be restricted to small towns alone. For example, its capital of 1.5 million, San José, figured prominently in the latest fDi Intelligence American Cities of the Future 2017/18 report. Coming in at ninth for Latin American Cities of the Future—one position above Panama City and higher than anywhere in Central America—San José also ranked first in economic potential and fifth in business friendliness for all mid-sized cities in the Americas.

The report also praised several of the country's smaller cities, with Alajuela, a city of 300,000 in the central valley, the country's third largest, ranking third for cost effectiveness of mid-sized cities, and Heredia, a city of 140,000 some 10km north of San José and home to the National University of Costa Rica, ranking third in cost effectiveness and fourth for business friendliness among small cities. Santa Ana, whose core boasts no more than 12,000 people and whose greater canton has just under 50,000 people, was voted number one in cost effectiveness for Micro American Cities of the Future and ninth in economic potential.
How did this come about? First of all, the country's recent surge in more efficient mixed-use developments was spurred by higher land costs, mounting discontent with commuting long or time-consuming distances, and smarter technologies. Each of which has combined to bring about ground-breaking developments, such as Eco Heredia Urbano, a USD100-million eco-friendly mixed-use project that will contain 170 apartments, ample office space, and multiple recreational activities on merely 1.6sqkm in the heart of Heredia. Just down the road, in the municipality of San Francisco, developers are unveiling the groundbreaking Oxígeno retail and recreational space with entertainment, education, gastronomy, and shopping options all under one roof. With more than 130,000sqm of construction underway, the USD200-million project will include more than 15,000sqm of green public space, a 1.2km jogging track, and a spacious rooftop with spectacular views of the Barva and Poás volcanoes and Escazú mountains.

Just outside Grecia in the capital of Alajuela province some 40km northeast of San José, an ambitious project is underway to build 17 horizontal condominium plots interspersed with 53 subsidiary plots for office and warehouse space in what will soon be the first industrial condominium in the west of the country. Called Parque Activa Grecia, the USD46-million project is being designed to create a sense of belonging and synergy in the hills some 5km east of Grecia for the select community that chooses to relocate its business and residence to the complex's plush and modern confines. Planting 15,000 trees across 79 acres, Parque Activa Grecia is but one of many microcities set to change the landscape of Costa Rica and of much of the world's commercial-residential model.