“these spaces are often just a gravel parking lot with a few concrete benches stacked along the edge”
Reflecting on a 3 month stay in Lisbon, Janine Loubser, an urban planner returns to Cape Town, with inspiring ideas and lessons for the Mother City.
By Janine Loubser
Miradouro – meaning viewpoint – is one of the first Portuguese words that any first time traveler should learn when visiting Lisbon. As the nickname “the city of seven (well actually 8) hills” suggests, Lisbon is a city with a very unique topographical landscape and therefore no shortage of magnificent miradouros. During a 3 months’ stay I made it my objective to visit these viewpoints as often as possible, using these destinations not only to navigate myself through the often densely narrow streets but also to reflect on professional observations and the application thereof in Cape Town. It is with this mind filled with renewed perspectives on public space and urban development that I translate some of these thoughts into ideas, challenges and fresh opportunities for my home at the foot of Table Mountain.
The view of Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara from the rooms at The Independente Hostel in Principe Real
Lisbon and Cape Town are both cities hosting great examples of how creative urban interventions and celebrated public spaces can successfully be implemented. But there is always more to learn, especially from a city as comparable to Cape Town as Lisbon due to its topographical, social and economic nature, its orientation around harbour activities and the associated processes of regeneration. Since the late 15th century Portuguese travellers started exploring the South African coastline on route to India – can we continue our strategic ties through learning from each other’s urban processes towards more sustainable growth and social development? Here follows 6 ideas for exchange and inspiration for the Mother City.
Idea 1 : Bringing life and locals back to city viewpoints
As is the case in many European cities, visiting popular viewpoints often lead to congested tourist traps filled with high entrance fees and selfie sticks. What makes these spaces in Lisbon much more pleasurable is the lack of fencing or entry gates and that you will always find yourself in the middle of lively activity; be it music, markets, dance classes or barbeques. Although each has a completely different distinguishing character, Miradouros are continuously in use by locals and tourists alike and have grown into meeting points where musicians, children, artists, lovers, all seamlessly share a space in which to congregate, enjoy a post-work drink, take the dog for a stroll or just enjoy a moment to breathe.
Spatially, each miradouro contains various standard elements that add to this vibrancy. One such element is the iconic “quiosques” seen all over Lisbon serving cold drinks and snacks and providing the daily news to “lisboetas”. These Parisian styles pavilion-like structures date back to the 19th century and were once seen as the staples of city life. However, in 2009, thanks to a partnership between local businesswoman Catarina Portas and architect João Regal, a process of revitalisation was initiated and today these stands – that had been abandoned due to lack of maintenance -and are once again a focal point of life in Lisbon. Photographers are flocking to the streets to capture architectural series and local nostalgists have even recreated postage stamps in their honour. Through luring passers-by with their quaint designs and the smell of a fresh espresso or “sumo de laranja”, this city-wide public viewpoint network not only creates a continuous place of comfort but also ensures for a consistent presence of human occupation in public squares and spaces.
- Esplanada do Largo kiosk and viewpoint (Hendrik Bohle)
Capetonians will tell you that the city is home to some of the best views in the world. Yet these spaces are often just a gravel parking lot with a few concrete benches stacked along the edge. Is there a way in which the mother city can show off her assets in a more interactive and lively fashion while also creating great public spaces? Through establishing a series of viewpoints that are safe, attractive, bustling with activity and in close proximity to local neighbourhoods, our viewpoints could impress tourists while at the same time create safe meeting places for locals.
Idea 2 : Locally led, inclusive rebuilding and regeneration. Is it possible?
At 9.40 am on the first Saturday of November 1755, eighty-five percent of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed by the most disastrous earthquake that the country has ever seen. Less than 40 minutes later, a tsunami engulfed the harbour and downtown area, rushing up the Tagus river and flooding some of the most prestigious examples of Portuguese 16th-century architecture. Remarkably and without hesitation the king and prime minister immediately launched efforts to rebuild the city and in little more than a month, Manuel da Maia – chief engineer to the realm – presented five options for the re-building of Lisbon. His fourth option boldly proposed a complete reimagining of the city – raising the entire Baixa quarter and “laying out new streets without restraint”. Needless to say, this option was favoured by the king who immediately commissioned the construction of big squares, large rectilinear avenues and tree-lined boulevard streets.
Today da Maia’s unique city grid and grand avenues are one of the most significant features of the city’s urban landscape – seamlessly leading pedestrians towards key destinations and public squares. Not only did this transformation have a physical imprint on the city but also stimulated a mentality towards bold city building approaches which has sustained throughout the years.
After surviving the impacts of more recent modern day disasters such as the Financial Crisis of 2008 and its associated economic turmoil and debt crisis, the city of Lisbon is once again courageously pursuing the rehabilitation of historic buildings and neighbourhoods. Abandoned factories on the verge of obsoletion are being restored, streets are being reconfigured and funding mechanisms for local regeneration initiatives are vigorously being implemented. This movement is not only in response to a sudden boom in tourism, increased property markets, steady GDP growth and continuous falls in unemployment rates, but also reflects a direct political reaction to the needs of up-and-coming creative entrepreneurs that privilege these spaces as ideal choices for workspace. In this manner, with government as the key driver, urban renewal is facilitated through stimulating private response while ensuring that the process is continued in a localised manner.
Can Cape Town learn from Lisbon in developing a unrestrained yet socially informed public-driven approach and tools towards ensuring the required fundamental changes for the city – while dealing with tensions that arise? And how can this change be facilitated by locals and admired by visitors?
Idea 3: Locals can lead the reoccupying of street level spaces
A Lisbon-based initiative called Rés do Chão is currently leading the way towards community-led urban regeneration in Portugal. Although many still debate the origins of its name, Rua do Poço dos Negros was once a dangerous street in the centre of Lisbon associated with controversy, slavery and migrant poverty. The street has since undergone many changes and in recent years saw a dramatic decline in occupancy rates with many local residents abandoning their shops and homes. Until 2013, when 4 young local architects had a vision to revitalise the area and applied for a funding programme through which they could facilitate renovation and therefore attract occupancy to the long-forgotten ground floor spaces of this strategically located street.
The Rés do Chão project – literally meaning “ground floor” – is supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation as well as Bip/Zip – a municipal initiative that focuses on supporting local projects in priority neighbourhoods and zones earmarked for intervention. Working closely with anthropologists, local residents and key community figures, the team’s objective is to establish a new commercial lease model where they act as the direct bridge between owners and tenants through doing research on property ownership, potential occupants and facilitating the required discussions and negotiations to nourish these relationships.
Like Cape Town, Lisbon does not have a tax incentive that forces owners to avoid their buildings from standing vacant. In addition many owners often not living in the city themselves are put off by maintenance responsibilities, do not trust real estate agents and prefer not to go through the tedious process of looking for suitable tenants. This is where the Rés do Chão team come in. With their office situated in one of the original mini-mercado sites of the street, the renovated space now has a retail entrance selling local designer products and desk space is rented out to young artists or freelancers in search of affordable space in the city centre.
Spending a few days following their work patterns and observing their approach it was remarkable to see the positive relationship this small team has with locals and the positive impacts that their presence has had on establishing the street as an emerging core of creative activity, without ever excluding local residents. To support this balance they also distribute newsletters, host a monthly street market, and even give the elderly an opportunity to transfer their skills to the younger generation.
Last year the Rés do Chão team installed a temporary parklet and are now in the process of applying for permits for a permanent structure
Could Rés do Chão be a model placed forward in fast gentrifying neighbourhoods that could encourage more active, locally representative shopfronts and spaces, through utilising local knowledge and manpower to locate owners and identify potential tenants? (read more about their crowdfunding campaign here.) This model can offer transparent facilitation of this crucial relationship without the burdens of real estate commissions or the risk of an incoherent broader outcome.
Part 2 to come.
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