By Carolina Bell Meoño – Student of International Relations

Why has the capital of Costa Rica (San José) been unable to become a sustainable-smart city? San José is Costa Rica’s economic engine where most of its economic activity, innovation, and development takes place. Throughout the years, it has been noticed that San José is lagging behind some other Latin American cities in terms of development. This article explains what sustainable-smart cities are, why these are relevant for the development of countries, and provides three reasons why San José has been unable to become a sustainable-smart city in recent decades. Finally, it compares San José to Medellín (Colombia) as this city has been able to overcome multiple adversities and become a role model in Latin America in this regard.

The “Emerging and Sustainable Cities” program sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) in the region, defines them as cities with an infrastructure based on human scale, capable of adapting to the effects of climate change (resiliency), providing opportunities, access to basic services, energy, housing, transportation and more to all inhabitants with the objective of improving their quality of life in the long term (IADB, 2015). It’s also a must for these cities to have effective local governments (municipalities) with fiscal and administrative capacity to sustain economic growth and development. Aside from that, the development of sustainable-smart cities is 1 of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which establishes that the world is becoming increasingly urbanized, as since 2007 more than half of the world’s population has been living in cities, where Latin America has not been the exception (UN, 2015).

Based on the program’s key performance indicators, the biggest reason Costa Rica is lagging behind is due to its highly fragmented public sector. This means that the central government is in charge of implementing strategic public policies, while municipalities are in charge of only services. In addition, municipalities have limited budgets (approx. 4% of total public spending), being the municipality of San Jose one of those with scarce economic resources. It’s the lack of clear objectives and strategic priorities, inexistent association from the policies implemented by the central government vs the municipalities’ needs, and the reduced participation of citizens that has limited the development of San José to become a sustainable-smart city in Latin America (IADB, 2015).

On the other hand is Medellín, which is considered a completely different story, with the “Smart City Index 2020” ranking Medellín 72/109 in terms of sustainability and innovation (IMD, 2020). Medellín is still highly impacted by local drug cartels and high poverty rates since the 90s, which has impacted its economic, social, and political development in previous decades. However, Medellín was able to successfully implement the “Proyecto Urbano Integral” and the “Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial” which focuses on topics like integration, mobility, governance, poverty, and violence reduction (AFD, 2015). Both projects promote strategic initiatives that seek to improve the citizens’ quality of life, with municipalities playing a bigger, more active role in defining the strategy that the city will follow to overcome adversities and manage resources, which undoubtedly has contributed to defining clearer objectives and strategies.

In conclusion, San José has urbanized at an incredible pace in recent years, but its infrastructure, services, public transportation, and policies have lagged behind due to a critical fragmentation of functions between the central government and the municipality. The opposite has happened with Medellín, a city that has centralized its efforts and resources to speed up processes. In essence, future scenarios for development in Latin America will require sustainable-smart cities to be on the map of governments, and the centralization of efforts and resources is clearly an element that needs to be present for these cities to be successfully designed and implemented. This includes cities like San José, who will require important structural changes through proper planning and management.


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• AFD. (2015, May 26). Modelo de transformación Urbana.
• IADB. (2015, December 18). San José Capital: de la acción local a la sostenibilidad metropolitana.
• IMD. (2020). Institute for Management Development. Smart City Index.
• UN. (2015, September). The 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). The United Nations: Department of Economic and Social Affairs.: