What kind of Lisbon are we building?
Lisbon is currently the European Union’s Green Capital for 2020 and in terms of green open spaces, sustainable development and new energy and water efficient buildings it is in the vanguard in Europe. But many cities worldwide such as Singapore and Curitiba, Brazil are light years ahead. The conference ‘What kind of Lisbon are we building?’ explored the challenges, successes and failures of both public planning and private development initiatives to ask ‘just how green is Lisbon?’
The setting could not have been more suitable. The late 19th century premises of the Lisbon Geographical Society, a testament to the ingenuity of the late Industrial Revolution seen through its system of interlocking ornate wrought iron balustrades and staircases — a reflection of one of the best examples of industrial progress of the time.
The conference, organised by online property sector news outlet Diário Imobiliário on 5 March, had a panel of distinguished speakers: José Cardoso Botelho, CEO of Vanguard Properties, Manuel Duarte Pinheiro, a technical professor who heads Leader A, Miguel Saraiva of S+A Arquitectos, Paulo Palha, President of the National Association of Green Rooves, Artur Mexia, Technical Director of Hydro Building Systems Portugal, João Gavião, Homegrid and Chairman of the Passivhause Portal Association.
The half-day conference sought to show how the Portuguese real estate market is contributing towards making Portuguese cities more ecological, efficient and sustainable.
Fernanda Pedro, Director of Diário Imobiliário, who helped moderate the event with Hugo Santos Ferreira, Vice-President of the Portuguese Association of Real Estate Developers and Investors, said the impact of climate change on the planet, on cities, particularly coastal ones, and on humanity is now no longer “just something that scientists worry about” since the consequences are increasingly “visible in people’s lives” so it is vital to understand “how the real estate market is contributing to make Portuguese cities more ecological, sustainable and efficient.”
Many new buildings in Lisbon, from hotels to offices and public amenities have today the latest ecological innovations and energy efficient systems according to the BREEAM green certification system.
The question is if and how companies and entities can intervene in older buildings that make up great swathes of Lisbon that were built, sometimes badly, in the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s and if these can be adapted and improved given the latest know-how, building models and sensibilities?
What is certain, is that under both EU regulations and Portuguese standards, real estate developers, architects, landscapers and specialists have an obligation to build a more sustainable Lisbon for later generations and leave behind a legacy of excellence.
Ana Pinho, Secretary of State for Housing, said the decision by property sector companies to focus on urban rehabilitation and building refurbishment had been “highly sustainable” both from the point of view of making buildings more suitable to current usage needs, and in terms of sustainable materials and energy use, while retaining the best of the existing fabric of the buildings involved.
“How can we prepare to meet the demands of the new society which is employing new forms of living in the city? We have to respond to a multiple of solutions in housing, such as guaranteeing access to housing for all, promoting property refurbishment as the rule rather than the exception, and strong investment in developing accessible and affordable public housing, as well as creating the conditions and providing the incentives whereby the private sector can also invest in affordable housing”, she said in the keynote address, adding that Portugal needed to think of how, through the Government’s ‘New Generation of Housing Policies’ it could build cities that were rounded, integrated and all-encompassing.
Currently, the Government is, according to the minister, creating new instruments for Lisbon, Porto and the country as a whole to meet today’s realties such as a lack of affordable, first-time-buy, middle class and social housing in Portugal.
But to complement projects to address this, Ana Pinho admits the Government needs to provide a raft of incentives for the private sector so that investors can voluntarily begin to build properties for lower rents to meet the needs of the vast majority of the Portuguese.
José Cardoso Botelho, CEO of Vanguard Properties said that one of the problems that people would face in Lisbon was that the city would become denser, with people living much closer to each other, and that this is an issue that had to be reflected on. He also said that multi-use buildings would take on an increasing importance, while through lack of space the trend for housing would be for buildings that were increasingly high-rise.
Another issue Botelho touched on, was the increasing necessity to take cars out of Lisbon and improve the public transport network. José Botelho also said he was working with a university on a project to see how to root people to a development or area by having a diverse set of amenities and develop a certification for quality of living for buildings in terms off their use and what amenities, facilities and services they provide.
Botelho explained that his company Vanguard was “aware of the problems of a lack of affordable housing in Lisbon” and was working hard with investors and municipal authorities to find a solution but had, so far, “not been able to” because of the cost of land, cost of materials, cost and lack of labour and government taxes and rates and low financial capacity of the Portuguese in terms of wages.
Curitiba – a lesson in town planning
Miguel Saraiva of Saraiva Architects said that Lisbon had points that were really good and others that were very bad.
“What I think we’ve experienced over the past 14 years, compared to how we lived forty or fifty years ago in the city, is that Lisbon is much better in terms of quality of life. Obviously it’s not down to private entities to get involved in city management, but Lisbon had been facing particularly difficult problems in terms of urban management” he said.
Over the next 20 years, the risk might be that policies will be short-term and linked to electoral cycles and pledges rather than long-term strategies and plans, regardless of who is in power. Nevertheless, he said that today Lisbon is one of the “best cities in Europe to work, live and study” and has, in the architect’s opinion, a “promising future”.
Miguel Saraiva also highlighted the Brazilian city of Curitiba as a benchmark for city planning and management thinking about the future form of cities and from which many lessons could be drawn, particularly in terms of mobility which had proved an important and dynamic factor in the success and expansion of that city, but was the result of policies spanning years, and not just short-term polices covering an electoral mandate.
Another city held up as a shining example of city planning is Singapore where the current policy of urban planners, who come under the Urban Redevelopment Authority, was to create partially self-sufficient towns and districts which are then further served by four regional centres, each of which serves one of the four different regions of Singapore, besides the Central Area. These regional centres reduce traffic strain on Singapore’s central business district, the Central Area by replacing some of the commercial functions the Central Area serves while buildings have the obligation to support green areas and even vegetable plots.
“With Lisbon we are building a city on three interesting pillars with a good PDM (Municipal Master Plan) from 2012, which means we have a lot less doubts on where we are going and what we should be doing than we had 15-20 years ago, with a policy of a notable reduction in parking and increase in pedestrianisation and walkways”, Saraiva said, giving the example of Avenida da República which today has a different environment and atmosphere to the one it had 15 years ago. “Giving back the city and its green spaces to residents is essential, unlike the 1990s where we replaced our green park leisure areas with shopping centres,” Saraiva added.
Hugo Santos Ferreira, Vice-President of APPII, said the topic was exactly the right one to debate at this time given that Lisbon was experiencing a very important transitional moment in its history and that since 2014 the city has gone through a period of great change with an important impact on urban regeneration and rehabilitation.
The intervention of the Troika had led the Government to introduce a series of financial mechanisms (changes to the HNR regime, the introduction of the Golden Visa scheme and changes to the rental laws), a certain stabilisation of the tax regime affecting urban rehabilitation all of which acted as triggers for the period of great urban expansion that followed the intervention of the Troika from 2011.
“We have gone from a city with a downtown central area with abandoned buildings with no tenants, to being one of the greatest cities in the world with a clutch of awards, including World Travel Awards ‘Best City in the World to Live, Work and Visit’ he said.
“Today we face a new reality where we are in competition with some of the main European capitals, but this development had also brought with it some challenges: high property prices, the lack of affordable housing for the middle classes, new concepts of space, the new generations and how we, as real estate professionals, are dealing with and meeting these new realities”, he said, giving examples of working with international property investors on projects with accessible rents, student housing, co-living as well as working on problems such a parking.
Another issue on the table was the whole planning permission process which is “far from being simple, with differences in the planning permission processes from one town council to the other, and anyone who has had to work with five councils at the same time knows full well that they face five different planning permission processes.” There needs, he said, to be “a uniformity across the board which is now starting to happen”.
Paulo Palha, President of the Green Rooves Association, said that Lisbon needed to have an important environmental and urban strategy whereby the use of vegetation should have to be mandatory in new projects and as a construction material.
João Gavião, Homegrid and Passivhaus said the aim was for architects to produce buildings, and particularly offices, which were 100% sustainable, and which needed almost zero energy while at the same time being efficient, healthy, comfortable, economically accessible and sustainable. “With good air quality we will feel better and there won’t be so many health problems from poor air quality” he said holding up a blackened filter which he said his company changed monthly.
Special Report by Chris Graeme