Report! Metropolitan Field Trip Lisbon

The resurrection of a do-it-yourself generation

This City Report is written following the Metropolitan Field Trip to Lisbon from March 12 to 15, that was organized by Academia Cidadã and Pakhuis de Zwijger in the context of New Europe – Cities in Transition. We were traveling with an international group of City Makers from various organisations in Europe such as Locality (UK), Mörchenpark (Berlin), Deltametropolis Association (Rotterdam), Zeppelin Association (Bucharest), the Ministery of Interior of the Netherlands (the Hague), KuRbiN (Utrecht) and Holzmarkt (Berlin). 

‘So here we see the statue of São Sebastião, the child king that has left his mark on today’s Portuguese identity,’ says Joana Jacinto while pointing at the neo-manueline façade of Rossio station in the touristy heart of Lisbon. The myth goes that the king was killed almost immediately after going to war in 1578, however his body was never found. Years of political unrest followed while the Portuguese people waited for São Sebastião to return and rescue them.

‘This has remarkably determined the DNA of the Portuguese people, we tend to lean back with our arms crossed and wait for someone to save us. We even have a word to describe this mentality: Sebastianismo.’

Joana Jacinto is the young and energetic initiator of Lisbon Sustainable Tourism, a start-up that takes small groups of tourists on responsible guided tours through unexplored neighbourhoods. The money she earns is used to offer less advantaged citizens – such as groups of elderly and blind or youngsters that live in the outskirts of Lisbon – the chance to experience the city the same way as tourists do. Joana herself shows no sign of Sebastianism whatsoever.

Tourism and foreign investment

A 2008 survey showed that with all those buildings around Rossio Square, only four people really live there. The rest is occupied by hotels, used as storage room for commercial activities or simply left vacant for speculative reasons. As most European cities today, Lisbon faces the risk of being hollowed out by mass tourism. Ever since the austerity measures were implemented by the European Union, the government seems to rely on foreign investment for support. Apart from the expected rampant growth in chain hotels and multinational stores this has caused, even public facilities are being sold overseas. The former national electricity company became ‘privatized’ in 2012, to end up in the hands of a consortium partly owned by the Chinese state. ‘It basically went from being owned by our state, to a foreign one,’ says Pedro Santos of Academia Cidadã. The question is what the municipality should and will do to regulate this advent of foreign investment, to make sure that the revenue generated actually falls to the benefit of the inhabitants of the city of Lisbon.


Mouraria neighbourhood

On the slopes of one of Lisbon’s seven hills lies Mouraria, a neighbourhood historically known for being neglected by the city. The first settlers were the Moorish that were driven away from Alfama by the Portuguese conquerors to find refuge on the shadowside of the same mountain. And until today the neighbourhood remains, also figuratively speaking, in Alfama’s shadow. Alfama is an attraction for tourists on the search for Fado and other Portuguese authenticity and now has over 70% of its apartments on Airbnb.

Mouraria may have the same potential due to its central location, similar traditional architecture and cobbled streets. Despite it is known as a deprived area, the drug market of the city, and therefore ‘the ugly sister of Alfama.’ However, Mouraria also has a multicultural community of 51 nationalities and almost as many exotic supermarkets and restaurants! Something the people behind Renovar a Mouraria discovered too. With the support of the municipality they created a map showing all the ethnic restaurants in the neighbourhood, in order to attract a new crowd and improve the business of the restaurant owners. Renovar a Mouraria redeveloped a derelict building owned by the municipality into a small cultural centre with a cafe and office space for their organization. They attract public through music performances and activities such as a monthly pub quiz and tours through the area. The money they make allows them to offer free homework and literacy classes for the less affluent residents of Mouraria.

A bit further uphill lies Cozinha Popular da Mouraria, a communal kitchen initiated by Adriana Freire. She originally is a photographer for food blogs, who four years ago decided to restore an old building into a living room for the neighbourhood, where she brings people together around good food. They often host large group dinners and every weekday she serves a gastronomic lunch. Those who can afford it pay five euro’s, so that less wealthy neighbours can join in without paying. She employs a professional chef that runs the kitchen with volunteers from the neighbourhood. Although the return isn’t enough yet to pay a salary to the impoverished residents, Adriana helps out through covering their rent and electricity bills. Her future dreams for the project are big: she hopes to build a public kitchen for residents to use for producing non-perishable goods and start their small food businesses. She is also examining the opportunity to change the vacant plots throughout Mouraria into vegetable gardens to provide the kitchen with. In general, food seems to be a common theme throughout the movement of bottom-up initiatives in Lisbon.

The local pick-up point of Fruta Feia, an initiative that distributes neglected fruits and vegetables from local farmers throughout the whole city, is Largo Residencias. This former ceramics factory on Intendente square is redeveloped into a hotel, restaurant and bike shop, that provides a platform of artistic expression for the neighbourhood. They have a small stage, an artist-in-residence programme and rehearsal spaces. The arts may vary from plays by young theatre groups to music performances from one of the ethnic communities in Mouraria.

Municipal rehabilitation

It is perhaps no coincidence that today’s Mouraria is thriving with these creative and social initiatives. The neighbourhood is one of the areas that the municipality appointed within their rehabilitation programme Bairros e Zonas de Intervencão Prioritária de Lisboa, short BIP/ZIP, which translates into Neighbourhoods and Areas under Priority Intervention and started in 2010. The municipality identified a number of neighbourhoods throughout the city in need for special attention and introduced quite an innovative strategy of intervention. The BIP/ZIP programme allows everyone to start their own project to increase the liveability in these areas and apply for municipal support. The support given varies from offering public real estate for a certain period, to a small budget for activities or the redevelopment of private property. Each project is challenged to build coalitions between active citizens, universities, boroughs, NGO’s and the like – with a minimum of two stakeholders to be able to apply. On the longer run, the sustainability of all these projects will likely proof dependent on the social entrepreneurship and business models behind them. Only that will allow them to be independent of the whims of an ever erratic political reality.

Even though the BIP/ZIP programme seems a captivating attempt of the municipality to spur change with the limited public funds they have available as a result of austerity, the challenges are enormous. Similar to other Southern and Central European countries, Portugal faces high unemployment, especially under youth that tends to leave the country in search for opportunities elsewhere. Add that to an expanding socio-economic gap, a precarious state of the social housing stock and a high estimate vacancy of derelict buildings and the scope becomes apparent. Welfare levels and social security are below average and therefore form a threat for basic human rights. Just to give an example: the emergency room of a public hospital in the outskirts of Lisbon may have a waiting line up to 48 hours.

According to Pedro, one of the difficulties is that most governmental positions remain taken by people that were already effective during the fascist dictatorship. These generations were not educated with the principles of democracy, let alone social welfare and human rights.

‘It will take at least two or three more generations to actually change something in this country,’ he says.

At the same time there appears to be a post-revolution generation ready to take matters into their own hands. They are taking up initiatives, creating value through social entrepreneurship, mobilizing their peers. Preceded by early pioneer examples such as Teresa Ricou, founder of circus school Chapitô, the initiators of all the bottom-up initiatives seem to break with the inherited mentality of Sebastianism. They won’t wait for salvation to come from a higher power such as their own government, nor from a foreign structure like the European Union. Together they are capable of redirecting the future of the country. But it does ask for a solid middle ground to mediate between the existing power structures and what is already happening on the ground. A middle ground that was consciously degraded during fascism, and needs to be restored in order to sow the seeds of this still relatively young democracy.

Academia Cidadã

25 April 1974 is marked in the history books of Portugal as the day of the Carnation Revolution, the military coup that determined the end of the fascist regime. Perhaps the second most notable date in recent history is the 12th of March 2011. On this day João Labrincha and Pedro Santos brought half a million people to take the streets for the Protesto Geração a Rasca (The Precarious Generation Protest), to raise awareness for youth unemployment as a result of austerity measures and political corruption. After the success of the protest they created Academia Cidadã (translated: Citizenship Academy) to promote active citizenship. On the one hand the academy focuses on activism against human rights issue and on another one on non-formal education for active citizens and cross-fertilization between different sustainable initiatives throughout the country. During the Metropolitan Field Trip organized in March this year, they opened the City Embassy of Lisbon.


City Maker Tété

33 years ago clown Teresa Ricou, affectionately known as Tété, transformed a former women’s prison block in Costa de Castelo into what is today an official circus school, a place for artists-in-residence and empowerment for former delinquent, orphaned or otherwise disadvantaged youth. With the Chapitô project, Tété aims to offer the youngsters a new future and family. The house smells after the fresh flowers that are placed around everyday and all facilities such as the dormitories, the theatre, the costume collection and communal spaces are basic but well-maintained. Tété beliefs that nourishing the youngsters with a positive environment is essential to raise qualitative professionals. Revenue is generated through the more commercial activities of the project, such as a high-end restaurant, circus and theatre performances and a shop where the students sell their art and products.



At the foot of Lisbon’s most distinct landmark, the bridge over the Tagus river that was named after the revolution of 25th of April 1974, lies a former textile factory complex. It has been transformed into a creative hub, almost a village, with coworking spaces, cafes, art galleries, and a magnificent book shop. It is the place where hipsters sip their galões, the Lisbon equivalent of a latte macchiato, that also offers space for social organizations to take up workspace for a lower rent.


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