Public investment and urban planning, two disaster risk management priorities


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Barrio La Peregrina. San José, Costa Rica.
Barrio La Peregrina. San Jose, Costa Rica. Photo: Daniel Castro Zimbrón

Well-managed public investment and urban planning are two of the main strategies guiding countries' efforts toward sustainable socioeconomic development.  However, if these strategies do not consider the natural hazards to which a country is exposed - such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions - decades of progress can be undermined by disaster.

Costa Rica is a country that recognizes that, to achieve sustainable urban development, disaster risk reduction must be a central attribute of both public investment and planning at the urban and territorial levels. 

In particular, the Government of Costa Rica has been working on two key processes: the inclusion of disaster and climate risk analysis in all phases of the public investment processes; and land use planning for the recovery of degraded urban watersheds in the country from an integrated perspective.

The experience presented below can serve as a reference for countries considering strengthening their resilience to disaster risk.

A holistic investment

The Costa Rican experience shows how years of effort to advance socioeconomic development can vanish in a matter of hours when public investment does not consider disaster risk planning.

According to the Comptroller General of the Republic of Costa Rica (Contraloría General de la República de Costa Rica), the annual cost of disaster recovery and reconstruction rose from approximately USD 15 million in 1988 to USD 337 million in 2010; this amounts to more than 1 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Addressing the root of this problem requires a shift to a more comprehensive and inter-institutional approach.

Within this framework, the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) support the Ministry of Planning and Economic Policy (MIDEPLAN) in the process aimed at reducing the vulnerability of public infrastructure by updating guidelines for the formulation of resilient public investment projects.

The guidelines will provide project formulators with a comprehensive framework, including social inclusion and gender criteria, to assess disaster risk both during the investment planning phase and in its operational management and maintenance. As part of this process, MIDEPLAN has just published the Risk Analysis Methodology: A Probabilistic and Multi-Hazard Approach for Public Investment Projects, that introduces the conceptual and methodological framework that informs the updates of the new guidelines.


Greater capacities for resilient urban planning

Similar to the challenges faced by other countries in the Latin America and Caribbean region, Costa Rica concentrates 80 percent of its population in cities, as a result of an unplanned urbanization process, which includes the proliferation of precarious housing in areas prone to risk and with ecological value, such as urban watersheds.

This process has been intensified in the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM) of San José, which concentrates close to 60% of the Costa Rican population. In this context, the Municipality of San José requested the support of the World Bank to develop a pilot Master Plan in La Peregrina - Magnolias, one of the most vulnerable neighborhoods affected by the degradation of the urban watershed of the Torres River within the GAM. Based on a diagnosis, the Master Plan identifies a strategic investment plan for the socioeconomic transformation of the community and the recovery of environmental structures.

The La Peregrina - Magnolias Master Plan is a good example of how technical urban planning studies can be built from an integral vision of replicability and with the direct participation of the community:

  • First, the process of developing the Master Plan offers lessons on how to address multilevel participatory processes in a context of mobility and presentiality constraints resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Second, the Master Plan is structured around five multisectoral urban-level strategies: urban development, pedestrian connections, public space, environment and disaster risk reduction, and community public facilities.
  • Third, in line with the National Strategy for the Recovery of Urban Watersheds 2020 - 2030: Clean Rivers, the pilot Master Plan contributes to the objectives of urban watershed recovery and integrated urban improvement, providing the methodological basis for a model that can be replicated in urban communities in a context of environmental degradation.

Reducing disaster risk is an imperative to ensure the sustainability of development processes in Latin American and Caribbean countries.  These examples from Costa Rica are a reference for other countries and an important stimulus to achieve this through comprehensive approaches to urban planning and the promotion of resilience in public investment.


Haris Sanahuja

Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist

Alonso Brenes

Alonso Brenes - Disaster Risk Management and Territorial Development Consultant

Pol Nadal Cros

Urban Development Consultant at the World Bank

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