Cities are Made by their Citizens

Cities are made to enjoy. That’s the way it is and should be for everyone, the twenty-somethings and the older folks. Each interaction we have – as basic as it may be – from buying some gum at the gas station to participating in a weekend race, can become a great time, if we only look a little harder. Even if we only use the street to go a few steps, we still generate a brief interaction with the city in which we find ourselves. The more satisfied we feel and the more pleasant that interaction is, the more we participate in the city. And that’s because cities are made by their citizens. It doesn’t matter how big the territory, the greatness of communities is made by its members.

A few days ago I was listening to a podcast episode of The Urbanist. It was about How to create a healthy city. In short, it talked about how there are urban decisions and arrangements that contribute directly to creating a city that is good for our bodies and minds.

It’s important to understand how the brain works when we interact with the city. Nick Tyler, a civil engineer and professor at University College London, has dedicated himself to studying how the interaction of people with their surrounding environment works. Tyler explains how the brain responds to the stimulants it receives in the street. The human brain works instinctively, receiving data from the street in each minute interaction and at the same time discarding most of this data. The data it saves, however, are those stimulants that grab our attention and that we naturally enjoy. So it is vitally important to develop a city that, at the end of the day, its inhabitants enjoy. Tyler’s studies and their results go into much greater depth, of course (you might like to read a little about the studies – they’re fascinating!); but the point has been made and is very clear.

The idea is to have a better quality of life. If people can go out and receive stimulants that make their quality of life better, we will feel happier and safer, businesses will work better, and we will be more anxious to interact with the city and its inhabitants.

For various reasons, as with so many other cities in Latin America, San Jose has lagged behind in the search for that fun, daring, and livelier city. It may be due to that conservative tail we drag behind, culturally speaking. But we see cities in our hemisphere that have done their bit to break with that antiquated inheritance and today represent a spectacular destination for visitors and citizens alike. Bogota, Buenos Aires, Medellin, and Mexico City are benchmark cities that have a lot to offer, sleeping less and less as they go along. Endless gastronomical offerings, daily cultural events, and more and better ways to get around are only some of the examples on the menu offered by these cities, which lead the field in medals, and not by chance.

Thinking about cities that never sleep. If we take into account that we spend the day working, and after work holing up in our homes, we limit the time we have for enjoying the city to weekends. Clearly, cities with life after dark have much more to deliver. Nighttime has had a negative connotation since the start of civilization, and for some strange reason we still think that anyone who is outside the home late at night “can’t be doing anything good.” For some, urban nightlife would put our wallets on a diet, but the reality is that if we do it right, it would fatten wallets for most players. A nighttime economy could generate very interesting numbers, jobs, and an excellent source of income for local governments.

Mobility is another key aspect as far as improving citizen quality of life goes. There was a time when cities were based on one formula to serve all, where people only moved around at very specific hours. But today cities are more like a jungle, full of diversity, different cultures and groups with very different needs. So mobility should be a key point on the agenda.

The common denominators in cities topping the list today are safe streets, efficient public transportation solutions, and a vibrant cultural agenda. There is obviously a lot left to do in Costa Rica. As developers, we are a vital card in the game. Aside from investment in the most obvious points for citizen interaction with cities (which in our countries passed centuries ago into the hands of the private sector), we are the best indicated for innovating and making our cities sustainable.

Sustainability, comprehensive solutions for resource use, design, and culture – we have a lot more to say. Time is money, but we can always take out a moment. Until next time!

Cover Photo Credits: Street Artist Aakash Nihalani

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