Why do people live where they do? And what impact does one’s location have on quality of life?

These were the driving questions behind our geography project this past semester. We wanted to learn about the contrasting opportunities and constraints presented by different environments. In other words, how does your location impact what you do both now and in the future?

This took us on two very different field trips. In Term 1, we toured the Central Business District of San Jose, seeing the major institutions, museums and high order services at the heart of the nation’s capital. In Term 2, we visited La Carpio, a low-income neighborhood located in La Uruca, squeezed between two highly polluted rivers, a cement plant and a towering landfill.

Viewing the main streets from the security of our bus, students identified low order services, critical urban infrastructure and common building materials. “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be. Look, there are kids out there walking on their own!” someone observed as we passed the new Escuela Finca La Caja (opened in 2018).

We learned that La Carpio is classified as an informal neighborhood that was established in 1993 on a former coffee plantation. Today, there are more than 25,000 residents, divided into 9 sectors. It has a school, an EBAIS and a police post. Many buildings are now 2 storeys, built with cement blocks.

Arriving at the community center built by the Costa Rica Humanitarian Foundation, we were welcomed by CRHF director and founder Gail Nystrom.

Students were put straight to work, carrying boxes of expired produce donated by Automercado up a long narrow flight of stairs to where it would be sorted into boxes for distribution to members of the community.

Earlier in the year when we had been studying migration, Gail had visited our class as a guest expert and told us about her work with refugees.  Now we were going to meet many of the people Gail had told us about.

Students were going to interview residents of La Carpio to identify the push factors that had made their original homes unlivable, and the pull factors that had drawn them here. We were specifically interested in physical factors that had pushed them from their homes, such as weather conditions, resource depletion or natural disasters.

We split into 5 different groups, each one with a teacher. Some students interviewed the older generation – ‘las abuelas’ – the founders of La Carpio. Others interviewed high school students, or working heads of households. Students had to classify them as dependent or productive.

Students had different roles: to record, to take notes, to ask questions, to follow-up. Approximately half of our interviewees had been born in La Carpio. The highschoolers shared their goals once they graduate. “One girl wants to become an accountant. They also are wondering about the FARO tests,” a student shared. 

The majority of those who had been born elsewhere came from Nicaragua because of civil unrest, environmental degradation and natural disasters (earthquake).

It proved challenging to ask all our questions in the hour we had with our new friends. There were so many different stories! Our original question – why do people live where they do? – showed a number of factors at play: presence of family or friends, promise of security and jobs, and affordability. 

“These people went through a lot to get here, and they made something out of nothing,” one student noted, following a grandmother’s account of using a fallen tree-trunk to cross the river, and setting up her shack with plastic and discarded wooden pallets. “They had no water, no sewers, no roads, no electricity.”

And what impact does one’s location have on quality of life? This question is still being studied, as we finish processing the interviews in early August. 

Through this project, students completed Topic 1 (Human Geography), which represents approximately one third of the 2-year IGCSE course. 

Our specific learning goals included: 

By Angela Jarman, Geography Teacher

 Photographs by Leandro Natale