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Gustavo LaRotta

PLAN 1010 Community Analysis


11/30/2014

San Juan, Puerto Rico: A Community Analysis

Introduction
Puerto Rico, La Isla de Encanto (translated island of enchantment), lies in the Caribbean Sea
with its capital, San Juan in the Northern part of the island. The first settlement on the island of Puerto
Rico was Caparra, founded in 1508 by Juan Ponce de Len, a Spanish explorer and conquistador best
remembered for his supposed quixotic quest for the fountain of youth in Florida. San Juan, with its
strategic port location, provided the Spanish a perfect place to settle and defend itself from pirates.
Nowadays, San Juan is a booming tourist destination. The historic Old San Juan along with its famous
castle, El Morro, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. American tourists flock to San Juan to experience a
piece of the Caribbean without the need for a visa, as Puerto Rico is considered American soil. The old
section of the city is home to cultural monuments such as museums, colonial-era buildings and
churches. This, along with its beautiful beaches and booming nightlife make San Juan the place to be for
many tourists. Economically, San Juan is the home port for many major cruise ships and is among the
most important ports in the Caribbean.1 This paints a rosy picture of the city when in fact, upon further
research, San Juan suffers from urban sprawl, traffic, lack of green spaces, financing issues and
building/environmental decay. The San Juan that the tourists see, albeit beautiful, has been in steady
decline and threatens the economic viability of the region. Because of all this, change must be made.
This paper will focus on identifying the problems within the city of San Juan, demonstrating the current

Minister, Christopher. "The History of San Juan, Puerto Rico." About. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
<http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/caribbeancities/p/sanjuan.htm>.

choices for healing, and then offering my point of view, applying my knowledge of urban planning to
make recommendations.

Planning Issues
The Puerto Rico Planning Board was founded in 1942 as part of the New Deal and served as
the central authority on planning issues. Much like in the US, development in post WW II Puerto Rico
was designed to dependent on the car for transportation, leading to sprawl. However, during the 1970s
the local governments gained more autonomy with regards to planning within their jurisdictions. This
may seem like a victory for the local governments, but made collaboration between cities very difficult.
Thus, this leads to the current problem of the difficulty on deciding on planning methods and a
disintegration with other areas of Puerto Rico.2 Along with that, planning and environmental
assessment is done using a lengthy and unpredictable evaluation process3. However, the government
recently created the Office for Land Use Planning in response to the current inefficiencies.
Many of the problems in San Juan are outlined in the Walkable City plan, in my opinion the
best view of the future of San Juan. The fact that historical landmarks are becoming hidden from view
with the construction of new buildings threaten the historical integrity of the region. Run down
neighborhoods such as La Perla suffer from building decay and a lack of integration with the rest of the
city. Over 30% of the city is underserved by public transit. Over 8% of the citys Isleta (Small Island on
the northernmost tip of San Juan connected to the mainland by bridge) is vacant, including over a mile
of oceanfront land. The over 77,000 cars that enter the Isleta every day exceeds its capacity for cars,
leading to traffic and congestion. 18% of the coastline, much of it facing the ocean, is under serious
2

"Portal De La Junta De Planificacion De Puerto Rico." Portal De La Junta De Planificacion De Puerto Rico. N.p., n.d.
Web. 26 Nov. 2014. <http://www.jp.gobierno.pr/>.
3

Martinuzzi, Sebastian, William A. Gould, and Olga M. Ramos Gonzalez. "Land development, land use, and urban
sprawl in Puerto Rico integrating remote sensing and population census data." Landscape and Urban Planning 79.3
(2007): 288-297. Pg 2.

threat of erosion due to the wave action of the ocean. 43% of the buildings in the Isleta are considered
decaying and of the 7.5 miles of coastline, only 30% is accessible by the public. Finally, the pedestrian
experience is miserable, characterized by a disconnection with open spaces and sidewalks that are in
poor condition, with few crosswalks and even fewer areas of shade.4
Basic elements of transportation are in decay as well, as outlined below5:

Need for new right or left turn lanes and intersection channelization or to improve or extend
existing turn lanes and channelization

Significant pavement deficiencies (poor drainage, potholes, uneven pavement)

Insufficient roadway lighting or lack of lighting

Insufficient pavement markings or lack of markings

Deficient traffic signs or lack of essential signing

Inadequate or poorly coordinated traffic signals or lack of needed signalization

Capacity constraints and hazardous conditions resulting from reduction in number of traffic
lanes or obstacles immediately adjacent to traffic lanes

Visual obstructions caused by illegal signs, foliage, and other roadside features

Need for installation or replacement of median or roadside safety barriers

As is evident, vast changes must be made to make the simple experience of transportation not only
more enjoyable and tolerable, but safe so as to avoid unneeded accidents, crashes and fatalities.

Di Mambro, Antonio and Santini, Jorge. "Walkable City San Juan." Issuu. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
<http://issuu.com/sanjuannews/docs/finalreportsummary_walkablecity_july3-final>.
5

The Strategic Planning Office of the Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority Department of
Transportation and Public Works, comp. San Juan Urbanized Area 2030 Long Range Transportation Plan.(2010).
The Policy Committee of the Metropolitan Planning Organization. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
<http://www.dtop.gov.pr/pdf/JANUARY_2011_FINAL_SJUA_2030_LRTP_Feb4_2011.pdf>. Pg 83

Green infrastructure or urban vegetation, are vital to any city, because of their critical roles
in mitigating urban heat island and climate change, and for their provision of multiple ecosystem
services and aesthetics.6

As we can see, the urban area of San Juan is severely lacking any green space. This image was
constructed using satellite technology and was part of a study that concluded that of 20 cities in the US,
San Juan ranked only above Miami, New York and Chicago, bustling urban centers. This is something
that must change in order to enhance the quality of life for not only the tourists, but the locals as well in
an effort to bring wildlife back into the city to interact with humans.

Ramos-Gonzlez, O. M. 2014. The green areas of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ecology and Society 19(3):
21.http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-06598-190321. Pg 1.

There has also been a documented environmental noise problem within the urban space of San Juan.
After a study conducted by the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board, it is fair to conclude that
through the day, sound levels remained fairly high (63 decibels) until late into the night (11 pm) and
reach a low of 58 decibels around 3 am. These levels could be considered dangerously high since the
World Health Organization says that most people are moderately annoyed by levels above 50 decibels
and seriously annoyed by levels around 55 decibels.8 Noise pollution is clearly a serious problem that
must be fixed because of the numerous adverse effects on personal health and community.9 Thus I
believe that it is vital to introduce noise reduction measures which begins with the measurement and
analysis of data followed by the introduction of a committee dedicated to implementing measures to
reduce noise so as to promote a higher quality of life for those in the area, visitors or permanent
residents.
The problems of sprawl are also clear as low density developments are beginning to characterize
the urban form of San Juan. This, along with almost complete reliance on the automobile for
transportation lead to the weakening of the urban center of San Juan.
7

Ramos-Gonzlez pg 4.
Alomar, Osvaldo, Wanda Cruz-Vizcarrondo, Olga Vinas-Curiel, and Jose Alicea-Pou. "Monitoring of the
Environmental Noise Level in San Juan, Puerto Rico." (n.d.): n. pag. Print. URL:
http://www.bvsde.paho.org/bvsAIDIS/PuertoRico29/alicea.pdf. Pg 4.
9
Alomar pg 4
8

10

As mentioned in the study by Martinuzzi, many of the productive agricultural lands have been
transformed into urban areas around the area of San Juan and even forest reserves have come under
human pressure.11 As you can tell by the graph below, San Juan ranks last in population density with
other cities in the world with similar population numbers. This illustrates a major problem for
development for the city of San Juan, heavily pointing to the idea of land use reform for the local
government. Other problems for San Juan include its energy consumption and the need for renewable
sources of energy. Currently, electricity prices are 73% greater than in the US which clearly affects
quality of life, as air conditioning is mostly available within the bedrooms and turned on only when it is
time to sleep in an effort to save money. Thus, cheaper, more sustainable options would be welcomed
with open arms on the island and at the same time reduce the ecological footprint of San Juan.

10

Martinuzzi, Sebastian, William A. Gould, and Olga M. Ramos Gonzalez. "Land development, land use, and urban
sprawl in Puerto Rico integrating remote sensing and population census data." Landscape and Urban Planning 79.3
(2007): 288-297. Pg 8.
11

Martinuzzi, Sebastian, William A. Gould, and Olga M. Ramos Gonzalez. "Land development, land use, and urban
sprawl in Puerto Rico integrating remote sensing and population census data." Landscape and Urban Planning 79.3
(2007): 288-297. Pg 2.

12

Along with these physical problems San Juan suffers from, San Juan also experiences much
financial trouble. A major obstacle to mending these wounds and developing San Juan is the financing
needed to develop the city. Currently, the city and the island overall is struggling financially. One can see
the subpar creditworthiness of Puerto Rico with how the rates paid on its municipal bonds are strikingly
high, something that is seen when a debtor is not in good financial position to repay the loan.13

12

Martinuzzi, Sebastian, William A. Gould, and Olga M. Ramos Gonzalez. "Land development, land use, and urban
sprawl in Puerto Rico integrating remote sensing and population census data." Landscape and Urban Planning 79.3
(2007): 288-297. Pg 2.
13
"Puerto Rico Munis: Risks Increase - Fidelity.com." Puerto Rico Munis: Risks Increase - Fidelity.com. N.p., 01 Aug.
2014. Web. 27 Nov. 2014. <https://www.fidelity.com/viewpoints/investing-ideas/puerto-rico-munis-isksincrease>.

Recommendations
Currently in discussion are four major plans and visions for the future of San Juan. The first
of these is the Economically Sustainable City. This view is the dominant view from the states main
agencies and focuses on the strategy of regionalizing key areas on the island based on their economic
and social overlaps as well as capitalizing on their strengths. It emphasizes a participative focus and that
the people are to decide with their choices how resources are to be allocated.14 The second plan is
called the Livable City. This plan emphasizes the marginal social and ecological aspects of the city. The
end goal of this view is to recover the city and make it livable, efficient, orderly, safe, beautiful and
accessible to those who have been marginalized in the past. It defines itself against past unsustainable
urban patterns of sprawl as committed to the revitalization and conservation of land resources.15 The
third vision is the Ecologically Sustainable City. This plan values the sustainability of the natural
ecological systems. No institution specifically endorses this view, but has risen to the surface of
discussion by way of communal discourses and actions of NGOs. Key ideas include the connectivity
amongst the different and unique ecological systems and the vision of a city with a reduced ecological
footprint, with great connectivity and aesthetically pleasing16. The final view of the city is the one that I
hold to be the best option for the future of San Juan, the Modern City. Also known as the Walkable City,
this plan is a reflection of the aspirations of former Mayor Jorge Padilla and calls for the redevelopment
and revitalization of the main urban cores. This vision emphasizes making the city visible, attractive and
modern and new so as to promote external investment critical to the economic development of the city.
Although highly ambitious, I believe that with teamwork among the different levels of government and

14

Muoz-Erickson, T. A. 2014. Multiple pathways to sustainability in the city: the case of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Ecology and Society 19(3): 2.
http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-06457-190302 pg 4.
15
16

See note 14 above


See note 14 above

community, that this vision will give the city and the island as a whole something that it has yearned for,
something to be proud of. This sense of identification and connection with something of their own will
lead to an enhanced sense of community and connection, ideally leading to an economic and social
revitalization of not only San Juan, but Puerto Rico as a whole. Thus, the redevelopment of San Juan, if
done well, will have effects throughout the entire island, affecting multiple communities and is indeed
much larger than the geographical lines that separate San Juan from its neighboring municipalities.
The Walkable City plan is keen on capitalizing on the positives San Juan has to offer while
eliminating the negatives outlined previously. Among the positives is the fact that San Juan has a vibrant
culture complete with exquisite cuisine and Latin music. Its historic heritage is to be emphasized, as over
600 years of history is to be celebrated. Its topography allows access to wonderful views of the ocean
and other landmarks and its quality of open spaces allows for the potential for a great pedestrian
experience. Many of its weaknesses can be identified as strengths, as the existence of building decay
and vacant plots of land allow for a redefinition and rededication of that land to new, vibrant
developments. The potential for success is clearly there for San Juan.
The Walkable City plan proposes 10 strategic actions in order to realize the vision of the
Walkable City. They are outlined below.17
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
17

Introduce integrated public transit system


Implement state of the art public realm
Establish pedestrian waterfront loop
Pedestrianize old San Juan
Revitalize rundown neighborhoods
Protect the Isleta from erosion and sea level rise
Protect and celebrate Isletas historical assets
Develop and integrate north and south waterfronts
Diversity and repopulate the Isleta

Di Mambro, Antonio and Santini, Jorge. "Walkable City San Juan." Issuu. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
<http://issuu.com/sanjuannews/docs/finalreportsummary_walkablecity_july3-final>. Pg 14.

10. Expand and diversify Isletas tourist assets

18

Above is a great visual summary of the changes the Walkable City Plan plans to introduce.
Bearing in mind the page limit for this paper, I will only examine in detail Strategic Action 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6.
The introduction of an integrated public transit system is very much important as only 5% of
workers use mass transit to get to work.19 The major problem with introducing this is that Mass transit is
very difficult in high crime environments. This is because people often dont want to associate
themselves with strangers who may be criminals. Another problem is that of race, lower-class

18

Di Mambro, Antonio and Santini, Jorge. "Walkable City San Juan." Issuu. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
<http://issuu.com/sanjuannews/docs/finalreportsummary_walkablecity_july3-final>. Pg 15
19

"Puerto Rico 2025." Stakeholders' Plan for Achieving Puerto Rico 2025 Vision (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
<http://gis.jp.pr.gov/Externo_Econ/Programa%20de%20Planificaci%C3%B3n%20Econ%C3%B3mica%20y%20Social
/2004.09-PR_2025_Ingles_(Sep-2004).pdf>.

individuals are dark skinned and white upper-class citizens may shy away from public transit if it means
associating who those of different classes. Another key development is to extend the current public
transit system Tren Urbano (translated Urban Train) to Old San Juan as depicted below. Currently no
mass transit system services the Isleta (where Old San Juan is) nor the international airport, which is out
of view in this image and off to the right past San Jose Lake. Another novel idea is to bring in the use of
water taxis to escape the congested traffic that currently ails San Juan. A direct route following the blue
arrow is one possible water taxi route that can take advantage of the existing waterway and take
passengers to the Isleta.

20

The proposed extension of the Tren Urbano will be a light rail system, as opposed to the Tren Urbano
with utilizes an elevated bus system. This light rail system will be easier to install and will introduce
much needed public transit in the Isleta, which will in turn make it more sustainable and also walkable.
As you can see below, the dotted lines on the water are proposed water taxi zones and one can also see
the stops the light rail system will make on the Isleta. This, in conjunction with pedestrianizing San Juan,
can make this area a hub for commerce and social life.

20

Freemark, Yonah. "San Juan Unveils Plan for "Walkable City," Hopes for Light Rail on Isleta." The Transport Politic
RSS. N.p., 16 July 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.

21

Strategic Actions 2 and 3 are very much intertwined and will be critical aspects of creating a
modern, beautiful, walkable San Juan. Creating a state of the art public realm mandates many levels of
creativity. One of the best features of the current proposal is to connect the currently disconnected
north and south water fronts of the Isleta by way of green corridors.22 By doing this, this fixes the
problem of the lack of green space and provides the potential to invite wildlife back into the public
realm. This, in conjunction with noise reduction measures can lead to a unique area in San Juan, where
both human and wildlife are able to interact. Another aspect of this proposal is to make the Isletas
gateways memorable and beautiful. Currently, driving onto the Isleta has been a painful experience due
to the number of on ramps and congestion of cars. This area is denoted above by the arrows and is
where the Isleta is connected by bridges to the mainland. A beautiful area here will help make the
driving experience more tolerable and demarcate this historic region from the rest of the city. Along
with that, those that live within the Isleta can identify with this monument as the entrance to their
home and their community.
Strategic action 3 is my favorite aspect, as it is the aspect that will transform San Juan into a
regional social and cultural hub. The establishment of a pedestrian waterfront loop filled with open
21

Di Mambro, Antonio and Santini, Jorge. "Walkable City San Juan." Issuu. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
<http://issuu.com/sanjuannews/docs/finalreportsummary_walkablecity_july3-final>. Pg 17.
22

Di Mambro, Antonio and Santini, Jorge. "Walkable City San Juan." Issuu. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.
<http://issuu.com/sanjuannews/docs/finalreportsummary_walkablecity_july3-final>. Pg 19.

areas, green infrastructure, monuments, shops and restaurants can come to define the new San Juan.
Finally, the wonderful views of the ocean can be capitalized in boardwalk fashion for the community.
Ones imagination can only start to think of the possibilities for this. Bicycle tours, already prevalent in
San Juan, will only get increased participants with the introduction of a beautiful waterfront loop and
increase the health of the community.23 Aside that, parks for children, amphitheaters for musicians and
more can truly elevate San Juan to an international hub of travel and local source of relaxation,
entertainment and social gathering. It is in this pedestrian loop that I sense the mix and manifestation of
culture, music, food and people that San Juan and Puerto Rico has to offer.

24

Strategic Action 5 calls upon the revitalization of rundown neighborhoods, among these, the
famous barrio (Spanish for neighborhood) La Perla (translated the pearl). Seen below, La Perla occupies
the area to the right of the green space in the middle of the image. As one can see, La Perla, albeit a
slum, lies on highly valuable real estate. This is something that I believe must be capitalized. Instead of
forcing the individuals to move out, I suggest that the state government buy the lands from these
peoples at high prices to incentivize the people to sell. Not only will this allow the government or an

23

Gwenn. "Take a Bicycle Tour in Old San Juan." Puerto Rico Day Trips Take a Bicycle Tour in Old San Juan
Comments. Puerto Rico Day Trips, 21 Sept. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2014. <http://www.puertoricodaytrips.com/rentthe-bicycle/>.
24

Di Mambro pg 24.

external third party to redevelop the land, but will also allow the impoverished people in La Perla a
financial boost to help their families get out of poverty.

25

Strategic Action 6 employs the use of sustainability that is also deeply intertwined with the
creation of the pedestrian waterfront loop. To protect the coastline from erosion and sea level rise, the
implementation of protective coastal reefs will limit erosion along the northern coastline storm surge
barriers along the northeastern and northwestern ends of the Isleta will protect is from sea level rise.
These precautions to the viability of the substantial investments the creation of the waterfront loop will
entail and serve as a commitment to the decision to make San Juan a destination spot for tourists and
locals. Another good idea would be to integrate the existing vibrant oceanic ecosystem with the
populace by introducing methods and ideology from Blue Urbanism.
In addition to these strategic actions, I would also recommend to create a renewable energy
plant especially in the JFK area of San Juan from methane from the neighboring landfill.26 Another cool
idea to help with the integration of nature in the community is to introduce ecotourism into the area
with the creation of jogging trails, bike paths and parks designed to welcome wildlife. Ecotourism has
the potential to be real popular in San Juan due to the temperate weather the region has year around.
25

Calderon, Jean Martin. "Safety Perception and Tourism Potential in the Informal Neighborhood of" La Perla", San
Juan, Puerto Rico." IJSSTH 1.4 (2013): 1-23. Pg 6.
26

Santini, Jorge. "San Juan: The Economic Engine of Puerto Rico." (n.d.): n. pag. Print. URL:
http://www.camarapr.org/presentaciones/British/9-British_Santini.pdf

The introduction of ecotourism would be working towards a local biophillic community, one where both
humans and nature coexist. Along with this, it also promotes health among the local community, leading
to a higher quality of life.

Conclusion
I have much pride in the recent developments in planning a vision for my hometown of San
Juan, Puerto Rico. However, I realize that much work, cooperation and dedication is needed to make
this vision of San Juan possible. My city is one full of potential and promise and it is sad that the current
situation was allowed to get to the point that it is today. The disintegration of the urban form of San
Juan has led to a style of living that is simply unsustainable. Although the visions of my community are
positive, action must be done quickly in order to better the quality of living for those currently living
there so as to prevent them from moving out. A buzz in the city must be created to get the community
behind this movement. Most importantly, financing these projects will require creativity and potentially
partnerships with third parties. Whatever has to be done must be done to alleviate the current situation
and it is my hope that my people back home will welcome these ideas with open hands. If achieved, this
vision will transform San Juan and Puerto Rico into an international hub in the Caribbean and lead to the
economic vitality of a region that recently has been hurting greatly as a result of the recent recession in
the US.