Freedom News

Theme park and living laboratory: Lisbon and Porto’s territorial nightmares

Avalanche examines changes wrought on Portugal’s twin capitals by elites’ accelerated and brutal reconstruction of their geographies — and how communities can survive and resist amid the rubble.

For some years now the issue of gentrification has been at the core of different actions and struggles with the involvement of anarchists around Europe. These changes in neighbourhoods driven by capitalist profit-seeking or statist management are very visible since they are taking place in central areas of cities. Regularly, these are areas where anarchists and their projects or the ones from an alternative or radical movement had carved out a space outside and/or against the dominant logic. This is easily understandable because these areas were deemed not interesting enough or too difficult for the usual power brokers (although not sheltered from capitalist or authoritarian logic) and thus through the cracks some weeds popped up. But these areas are resuscitating a renewed interest.

From a capitalist eye these territories can generate a profit if a new, wealthier, public can be attracted. Physically this can happen through destruction and rebuilding, or renovation and cultural rebranding. State institutions might be interested in getting more grip on places where survival also entails illegal (or in the grey zone of) methods and where people are more indifferent, critical or cynical towards democratic ideology and its tales of inclusion and welfare for all. So a new and wealthier population is welcomed, perceived as more cooperative in establishing a pacified living environment (and they also generate more money), and a part of the existing inhabitants can be dispersed. The state will invest in more repression, but also cultural events or places (to sugar coat the locals and promote the image of a friendly place to a new public) and at times housing buildings (to transfer poor inhabitants to or to attract a young, imminent middle class that needs a – financial – push).

Depending on city and region, the mix of ingredients that drives the gentrification process can be quite different. In some places big capitalist investors might do most of the work, others involve more effort of state actors to repress and subsidise. Sometimes only the geographical location of a neighbourhood matters, on other occasions a cultural appropriation adds value. The goal of the gentrification of a place doesn’t necessarily entail a new group of inhabitants, but can also be about transforming a neighbourhood from a residential one with its local needs to a consumption or production node in the grid of a metropolis. Also the desired new public is different, from a regional middle class that before preferred the quietness of the suburbs (with its shopping malls and business parks), to tourists who bring in cash from more distant places, and a sector of specialised professionals that flock to the new international hubs.

Much more has already been said, a lot of it in an academic framework which doesn’t necessarily makes it more understandable[1]; to a point that one can argue to leave the word “gentrification” and the discourses surrounding it to self-referential academics and instead being more sensitive to local dynamics and connecting critiques of this to anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist ideas (without the “intermediate step” of gentrification). The focus here will be on the recent territorial developments in two cities, Lisbon and Porto. Hopefully this text can be part of discussions in its local context, as well as beyond.

Collect as they pass

Both cities have changed rapidly over the last years; for Lisbon this transformation started earlier than Porto.

This has to a certain extent given the first an advantage in the (regional and global) competition to attract money flows. It is of course also the Portuguese capital and thus already concentrates a lot of the economy and state institutions of the country. But Porto has had the possibility to learn from Lisbon and can take also advantage of the position of the capital (to market itself as complementary or as alternative – more authentic, undiscovered, cheaper). In general the two cities are going through a similar process. So lets take a look at the different players on the Monopoly board (warning: some stereotyping and generalising will be unavoidable).

Anti-precarity protest in Porto, 2011

Cause and consequence might be difficult to separate (to avoid delving into economic analysis), but it is clear from the mass exodus after the financial crisis of 2007- ’08 that the local middle class will not be the main fuel of the transformation of neighbourhoods. The educated young and an impressive part of the working class preferred to move abroad to get a job or earn a higher wage (the city with the most Portuguese inhabitants after Lisbon is Paris…). This is partly explained by the previous emigrations (during the fascist dictatorship, but also in the decades after) and the links they have made with other European cities. And it seems that most of the money flowing back is invested outside of the urban centres. That being said, those that are “left behind” have to find their own ways of getting money while also maybe wanting to participate in the urban lifestyle – that tends to be very similar all around Europe. So some might start their own business focusing on the local and artisan or rent out their apartments through internet platforms. And some (if they have money to spend) are the regulars of the specifically created zones of consumption (the area with bars and clubs, and the shopping streets). While the “established”, older middle classes (those that were able to more or less hang on to their socio-economic status during austerity) are holding out in the districts constructed in the ’80s and ’90s, dispersed around the cities.

Both cities are indeed part of a bigger metropolitan area with the towns surrounding having their own population amalgam. Closer to the ocean is mostly where the rich reside and they are rather disinterested in the centres (this is changing for a part with a younger generation, but stays limited and reactive), although they are not insensitive to the rise in value of family property in more central districts. On the other hand – if we are to dwell on the activities of the rich – there is some serious investment into newly constructed hotels and newly opened restaurants and bars in neighbourhoods that where previously spared this fate. Although it hardly matters if these investors are Portuguese, Spanish or French.

Which brings us to the main gateway of the cash flow: tourism. The tourism industry is not a new phenomenon, but used to be centred around sun and beaches or yachts and greens (of the golf courses). Lisbon was gradually capable of diverting some of the tourist influx through its centre. From its display of colonial spoils (monumental buildings, squares, museums), attention shifted towards the historical, popular neighbourhoods around and in between the main touristic sites. While Porto was able to put itself on the map of tourism with its own modern airport welcoming every European low-cost airline.

Actually it seems both cities have been caught in a perfect storm, the circumstances for a tourist boom being readily available. The politics of austerity have kept the costs of labour very low while a European middle class is always on the search for the next cheap destination.

The respective historical centres have been relatively left untouched by urban development over the last decades, while the craze for city-tripping and authentic experiences have only been on the rise. Low-cost airlines have made short trips all year round possible and thus the possibility of a local economy totally dependant on tourists (while before businesses had to close outside of tourist season or had to rely on a mixed clientele of locals and tourists). Subsidies from the European Union have upgraded local infrastructure and street criminality is at a historic low point (this seems to be a phenomenon happening all over Europe, and thus cannot be explained by local politics and/or economics). The rich, who have been successfully reaping the benefits from austerity, are returning to their old love; real estate. Finally, who can be against the influx of people who want to spend money in a period of “economic crisis”? We are invited to perceive this as an opportunity and be flexible and innovative, rather than a process of exclusion which will leave you – and not only – in a more dependant position (abiding by the demands of the economy and state institutions to be able to survive).

The transformations taking place inside the most affected neighbourhoods are very brutal. From the moment an area is declared safe for passer-bys, public space is rapidly becoming dominated by tourists and their needs.

Activists put up posters criticising tourism in Lisbon

Living spaces become holiday rentals. In Porto a lot of buildings occupied now by tourism were abandoned years before, since the flight of the middle class to suburbia – with its modern comfort and the displacement of poor inhabitants to social housing projects – has not been offset by an immigration movement (the number of inhabitants in the city centre has been declining over the last three decades and still is). Inhabitants of “ilhas”[2] on the slope next to the river have been removed, mainly on the pretence of safety and followed by the destruction of all the buildings. But some still standing are now being sold as “luxury estate” (oh the irony) and in other places empty ilhas are being turned into tourist flats. While in Lisbon, with its position as the capital, the pressure on the housing market has been constant, thus a new law making contract terminations easier has been deemed necessary (with some pressure from the troika – old rent contracts from before 1990 were making it very difficult for landlords to drive out renters). Landlords have been gradually getting rid of old contracts and their “old” renters and replacing them for Airbnb profits.

Some grumbling is rising up from within the neighbourhoods. But the discontent has stayed rather polite if the drastic changes are to be taken into account. Without a doubt the idea that Portugal should be happy with any money coming into the economy, from wherever, has a huge calming effect. Leftist groups are focusing on a more even distribution of the profits of tourism, arguing for cohabitation of tourists and locals and more control on the touristic sector. These positions are far from radical and local politics are receptive to them. City councils have communicated “concern” about some averse effects of tourism. Some measures have been taken to appease locals, from limiting the access of Tuk Tuk’s to neighbourhoods to donating renovation material to ilhas. In Porto, the social housing department has been renovating houses in the historical centre and moving families back in from the social housing projects on the outskirts. This might be a limited, symbolic gesture or a way to kick-start the renovation of some streets that are for the moment not on the radar of private investors (by restoring some of its facades). It might also be an attempt to keep some “authenticity” to the city, since every place overcrowded by tourism tends to lose its uniqueness and increasingly becomes less interesting for tourists.

This points to one of the pitfalls of an opposition to touristification. The struggle to keep a local life to a neighbourhood risks contributing to the attractiveness of that neighbourhood for tourism. The opposition to the selling of the cultural centre Coliseu (in 1995) and the privatising of Teatro Rivoli (in 2006 – the privatisation was only undone later by the next mayor) gets a different meaning in hindsight, now that these cultural spaces became an important factor in revitalising the centre of Porto as a consumption hub (expressing the reconfiguration of the relation between culture and capital).

It also risks to venture on the slippery slopes of the authentic, defending social relations and living conditions inside neighbourhoods that are suffocating and oppressive, because they are more “real”. This can turn into a senseless war of words with those who want to market the authentic and an implicit suspicion towards every change and an uncritical preference for the old.

But reality paints a more ambiguous picture. Who in the Rua do Capelão — Largo Severa — Rua da Guia represents authentic Mouraria (Lisbon)? The 5m² ginjinha bar with its sympathetic owner sharing smiles, the fado cultural centre celebrating the origins of the music genre, the clandestine Chinese restaurant hidden while known by everyone, the mitras[3] at the end of the street counting on some trickle-down economics? Probably the combination of all, but all have no qualms with the cash the tourists bring and the renovation of the streets and square the municipality invested in.

Go back three spaces

As was said in the beginning of this text, these changes are very visible and taking place in neighbourhoods where a lot of us are living. Thus we are bound to react in one way or another. But we should be aware of the hurdles this topic contains if we are to engage with it from an autonomous and anti-authoritarian position.

Local state institutions and leftist activists seem very eager to mediate any sign of protest or even discomfort.

If a more consistent resistance develops, it will be directly measured to determine its representative legitimacy and accordingly assigned its place on the board of political Stratego. To refuse these attempts at recuperation, while at the same time not being isolated in the neighbourhood (where lots of people tend to have ambiguous or contradictory opinions), will be very difficult.

The process of touristification is seldom propelled by anonymous outsiders such as big investors building 5star hotels. What about a local bar that attracts lots of non-locals? And locals who pay their rent by hosting tourists? These things can spark very interesting debates but tend to end in defeatist and cynical conclusions (the most optimistic: have fun/take advantage as long as it lasts). One can imagine to combat this lethargy by developing autonomous structures. The example of Es.Col.A (2011-’12) in the neighbourhood of Fontinha (Porto) comes to mind. To create a different type of relations not depending on capitalist or statist logic, can take the idea of what is possible away from questions of immediacy and survival (the answer of the municipality, which was to repress and put money into their own social centre and renovation of some streets, shows they perceived the self-organised space as a threat to their legitimacy). But times have changed and these kind of projects inside neighbourhoods already undergoing gentrification risk to lose their balance and contribute to, rather than fight, gentrification.

Are we capable of defending the autonomy of resistance against attempts at recuperation? Will we be able to create an anti-authoritarian discourse that also goes against existing oppressive relations? If we want to be visibly present, with whom do we want to organise? And against what? What does it mean to make a neighbourhood unsafe for investors? Where do we draw lines and how do we sabotage developers “setting up shop”?

Chance card

Tourism isn’t all that is going on. Around the corner a different dynamic is taking shape, although also intricately linked with questions of urban restructuring.

City hall has understood that tourism is not eternal and, while it is still perceived as the-place-to-be, is also betting on an other sector, the digital economy.

While Porto got its prize in 2017 when selected as European Best Destination, Lisbon was already some steps ahead when it received the European Capital of Entrepreneurship medallion in 2015, topped with holding the annual Web Summit from 2016 on. Politicians flaunting the amount of start-up’s might seem nothing more than a good news show when keeping in mind that a lot of the Portuguese economy already consists of small businesses hardly generating an income for more than 2 to 10 persons and that a lot of people reverted to survival economics during austerity by trying to sell whatever (food, drinks, handmade things – mostly to tourists) and setting up their own business to do so. It could be argued this is regression in economical terms, instead of progress. But there’s a new component, the digital sector, that is also treated with more privileges. After the Golden Visa (for non-Europeans investing significant sums), there is the Startup Visa (aimed at Indian Engineering and IT professionals), there’s the 0% tax rate, the Empresa na hora (all the bureaucracy for a new company done in 48 hours). The central government might find it hard to compete with the funds that other countries allocate to “innovation” but is as flexible and lenient as imaginable. In Lisbon, besides the events and inevitable city promoting (Lisboa Startup City), the co-working spaces, incubators and accelerators are popping up, specific zones are developed to mimic a Silicon Valley vibe (mainly next to the river, west of Cais do Sodré but not limited to Lisbon itself, see Lisbon South Bay). In the meantime Porto is trying to catch up and is hatching plans to transform the neighbourhood around the Campanhã station into its own tech hub. And some years ago it installed about 800 sensors around the city and in public transport (from anemometers – measuring the speed of wind – to microphones – noise sensors) and asked people to connect their own mobile device (collecting data about location, motion, etc.), gathering all information into databases and transforming the city into a living laboratory (under the banner of Future Cities[4]). This big data must be a big bait for tech companies.

Lisbon at night

Both city councils would like to see the tech industry concentrated in a dilapidated or “marginal” part of town, to clean up and develop (meaning generating profits from) these specific neighbourhoods. But typically startups avoid investments in work environment, searching rather for closeness to like-minded people and investors who are at the moment in other neighbourhoods where already “something is going on”. The big tech firms are only showing moderate interest (globally so many cities want to be the next capitalist hype city) and, as said before, the state hasn’t got the budget. Thus the question remains if enough private investors will show appetite to build infrastructure from almost scratch. The tourism industry seems quite entrenched, the tech industry is still testing the waters.

The central popular neighbourhoods are increasingly transformed into places for consumption, into theme parks for visitors (not only tourists – meaning foreigners – but also inhabitants from the metropolitan area).

This is a real loss, because relationships not quantified into profits and averse to rules and regulations imposed by city hall are being broken up. But this loss has been a fact for years (even for as long as they know for the younger generations) for the great majority of city dwellers because they live the reality of the suburbs.

They rediscover the centre now precisely because it is repurposed as integral part of the metropolis. They navigate through the city by way of centrally managed fluxes (metro lines, traffic routes to the nearest parking lot) and by way of digital applications (where to find friends, parties, events, the new place to be). Thus a conflict in a city that is centred around the opposition to the gentrification of a neighbourhood might find itself marginalised as a defensive stand from a very specific segment of its inhabitants. A conflict that also develops a critique against the digital economy (against quantifying life and making it transparent, submitting it to capitalist logic and normative behaviour), might be able to touch more people. And forces us to think again about communication (as an effort against isolation) and to experiment different forms.

The deployment of internet infrastructure around the world was hailed as the groundwork for the emancipation of marginalised groups, the enrichment of individual experience, the expression of difference without limits.

The reality for the vast majority of internet users seems to be the total opposite. The misery of social life mediated through internet companies should be articulated clearly; the constant pressure (or incentives) to pretend (and the emotional tension because of its discrepancy with reality), the round-the-clock availability and social undesirability to disconnect, the encounters that lack any substance or dissonance, the popular jury of the comments section, etc. All this exploited by companies who gather every personal detail that we leave behind to sell advertisement space to target us. Companies that aim to know everything, to achieve a monopoly on the articulations of our lives. The transparency that is demanded of us (and rewarded by more apps), is leading us down a path of a society of total conformity (but don’t worry, there are enough “personal” lifestyles to choose from) with direct repercussions for those who refuse and tightening controls on who resists. The increasing reliance on digital applications (designed as consumer products) is diminishing capabilities to craft our own tools and methods through experiences and reflection.

A smartphone doesn’t enhance our autonomy, rather it turns out to do the contrary. As we move through life with digital devices always within reach, our actions are also shaped by the world views and moralistic notions of its designers. We end up quantifying every move we make, calculating our profit (not only for our bank – or Bitcoin or PayPal – accounts, but also for our health, social, etc. status). Are we living life or managing it? A critique of digital economy and technology should develop a discourse starting from the real, lived experiences in the digital world (besides a critique on the territorial restructuring it entails). Such a critique stays a very difficult project since technological and digital applications are more and more normalised not only as a means to “facilitate” or “enjoy” life, but also to “live” life. A radical critique of the digital can easily be perceived as an attack on the lives of its users. At the same time a critical understanding of technology is shunned because too sour or pessimist, or turned into a parody (gravitating towards a horizontal digital utopia or a dystopia imagined by conspiracy theories). But the urgency of a critique on the digital encroaching on human life is growing and needs to find its expression in practical experiences (and not only intellectual endeavours).

Win to lose, lose to win

The purpose of this text is not to make absolute claims, not to assign more intrinsic value to one or the other.

The choice to focus the social conflict in a city on the tourism or digital economy, to focus on visibility in a particular neighbourhood or to broaden the scope, to focus on deepening relations of solidarity or on advancing critiques of authority, all create their own potential and have their own limits. This text wants to add an other dimension into the myriad of intentions, motivations, thoughts, acts. In the best of situations, we would have all of them (and then there would be anarchy!). To completely ignore (consciously or not) these different aspects and push ahead only one would be the worst of situations.

To forgo a defensive stance and to take on the offensive, is probably the biggest and most crucial step to make in a conflict. While there is no guarantee of winning (and winning might entail losing a lot – even too much – or what might at first feel like a loss, turns out not to be).

But the direct outcome of a social conflict is seldom the most important part. Besides, when we’re aiming for the subversion of society and its exploitative and coercive relations, we will only be satisfied in moments. How to trigger these moments, expand and echo them remains an open question because they are part of an erratic life and not a programmed one. Through multiplying experiences, deepening understanding, we might be able to orientate ourselves, setting out parameters, drawing lines, pointing towards a direction. At least, for the moment.

This article first appeared in the November issue of Avalanche


[1] The academic gentrification discourse has several problems. Firstly, without a critique of power relations everyone is just as complicit as the next one in the gentrification process. Also there is no space in its analysis for ethics of individuals. So we’re reduced to cogs in the machine. It reflects a deterministic view on society, only allowing reformist (tweaking the process a bit) and fatalistic perspectives. Finally, it produces a generic tale of gentrification, allowing professionals of the critique of gentrification to travel the world with lectures and workshops and to impose their moralistic and leftist conceptions of resistance on local dynamics.

[2] These small alleyways with one-storey houses pressed against each other are remains of the industrialisation of the city. Typically a big house on the street inhabited by the factory owner or an educated employee (engineer) would give access to the ilha behind; enhancing the ownership and control of the boss over the workers.

[3] Mitra are the youth (or young at heart) from the popular and social neighbourhoods, recognidable by the hip-hop inspired clothing style. Guna is the equivalent in Porto.

[4] An other buzz word here is Smart City, which is such a broad concept it becomes practically difficult to use. Simply put it refers to anything in the management and planning of a city that can be digitalised and connected. Mainly Smart City projects are about governance (meaning mostly digitalising bureaucracy to make it more efficient) and traffic and energy enhancements (there seems to be a preference for issues that are already thought of in terms of fluxes and nodes). The security domain (integrating different forms and platforms of surveillance, as well as introducing new technologies like facial recognition and computerised analysis of behaviour and situations) stays a bit behind for now, probably not wanting to associate Smart Cities with dystopian Big Brother images (although The Netherlands and UK are testing the possibilities without too much reservations). Of course when everything in a city (including its citizens) will be constantly translated into data and connected, everything and everyone will be traceable and visible (to companies and institutions).

Pics: JotaCartasMFMarceloLeft Hand Rotation and ilirjan rrumbullaku


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