Lisbon, Portugal—the site of La Fabrique de la Cité’s international conference, “Tools for Optimizing the City,” where I spoke about “Transforming America’s Legacy Cities for the Next Economy: Critical Next Strategies” (slides available here)—is a European city that has experienced trends similar to those of many U.S. legacy cities: depopulation, vacancy, and sprawling development to outer ring suburbs.
Lisbon, a beautiful city situated on the Tagus River that flows directly into the Atlantic Ocean, has many natural attributes as well as historic, Gothic-style, monumental buildings dating from Portugal’s Age of Discovery in the 16th century. Lisbon city officials are taking a proactive approach to revitalization by targeting resources in historic neighborhoods that are focused on preserving buildings and attracting new populations. One such neighborhood is Mouraria, where the authentic Portuguese music, Fado, was said to have its origins, and where gang and drug activity had more recently taken hold.
Situated in an attractive, hilly part of Lisbon, the Mouraria neighborhood is seeing the fruits of public investments. Municipal and national government grants and incentives leverage private sector investments in the Mouraria neighborhood, which is adjacent to another historic neighborhood (Alfama) and anchored by a centuries old castle (an “anchor institution,” if ever there was one…) that stands atop of one of the many hills.
With the scourge of crime eliminated, new younger populations are moving in and commercial enterprises are occupying once vacant spaces. Older residents are able to remain in the area as well, taking advantage of rent-stabilized arrangements.
When asked, city officials stated that demolition plays no role in their strategy and seemed puzzled by the idea, as they are most concerned with preserving and showcasing the unique, attractive qualities that distinguish their city from others. They fear loss of structures would destroy the fabric of future preservation efforts.
While many aspects of Lisbon differ from American cities, certainly there are some lessons to be learned from our European colleagues.