Lisbon – Vision and ambition are needed

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Ambition and vision are needed to transform cities like Lisbon into population centres that emotionally and psychologically engage with its inhabitants on all levels: culturally, socially, environmentally, in terms of housing needs and, of course, employment say a group of urban planning experts at the 3rd edition of the ‘Essentia – Think Lisbon – What city do we envision’ teleconference.

By Chris Graeme

We all know that Lisbon was visibly marked by the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 which almost completely destroyed the old city.

Lisbon was rebuilt along a simple grid system under the Marquis of Pombal, transforming the capital into one of Europe’s first modern cities, along with London, which had been rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 and from where the statesman drew inspiration as Portugal’s ambassador to Great Britain.
In a more subtle way, the Covid-19 pandemic is marking a new era for cities today. The time is ripe, say the planning experts, to rethink cities, to help their inhabitants, in the words of José Gil Duarte, CEO and founder of Essentia who hosted the event, “Leave the cocoon and emerge differently”. “We believe that Lisbon can blaze a trail again,” he says.
Duarte believes that the Utopian ideal of green cities with no cars and little pollution is unlikely to become an overnight reality, rather “we will experience subtle changes over time”.
However, transformation is happening based on new criteria, priorities and values with Covid-19 acting as a global accelerator for changes already taking place, and provides time for reflection on a metamorphosis that will “change the lifestyles of current and future generations”.

Losing interest in the future

Finnish professor and architect Juhani Pallasmaa says that even before the pandemic “mankind had lost its interest in the future”.
There had been stimulating debate about the future in the 1960s, particularly with man’s first moon landing and the creation of the European community project in the 1950s, but now, he says, that interest seems “lost with negative views dominating the discussion”.
In his country, he says, the planners and politicians have “lost their vision and control”. Helsinki, which used to be a very beautiful city, has been badly distorted by economically ambitious and distorted construction.
“I don’t see urban vision anymore. There used to be visionary projects, not always successful, but there were visions and ambitions but now everything is becoming too pragmatic and short-term,” said Pallasmaa.

Where is the romantic city?

German-American author and entrepreneur Tim Leberecht, co-founder and CEO of the Business Romantic Society, says that the notion of a long-term strategic master plan for the city had been rendered obsolete.
“My vision of the future is that the city is a romantic one, entrenched in the spirit of romanticism as an antidote to the idea of the enlightenment and scientific rationality. I think this pandemic gives us the opportunity to readjust, reset and liberate ourselves from the predominant paradigm of the past 10-15 years which has been Silicon Valley,” he argues.
Even Lisbon, which resembles San Francisco, has been experiencing this “disturbing development” of aspects of Silicon Valley appearing in the city in the form of startups and tech development companies.
Leberecht says that for years society has been driven by the idea of the ‘Smart City’ and that somehow if we only had enough data and tech development, we could enhance the wellbeing of our citizens and municipal governments in a better way.
In a more extreme extension of that idea, and in the wake of the pandemic, is the creation of more surveillance-orientated technocratic governance, exemplified in Chinese cities.
But the Romantic city, he says, should “celebrate friction” and should “not be designed to optimise everything for our convenience,” but rather foster and reflect “an appetite for life and texture, with an underbelly for unpredictability,” in order to ensure that “not every city adopts the same measures and ends up looking and feeling alike,” Leberecht adds.

Are master plans fit for purpose?

Ricardo Veludo, an urban planner and expert in housing policies for Lisbon City Council, says its not about how cities will become, but what kind of cities we want to have in terms of lifestyle and environment in the future.
“We all realise there are major trends changing the world quickly, some in a dramatic way, such as the current pandemic, climate change and artificial intelligence; change which also happened with the advent of computers and which created as many opportunities for jobs and in society as it destroyed them,” he says.
How can Lisbon, he asks, prepare to face these challenges? How should Lisbon look and feel in 10-20 years? The current planning time frames, he says, are not fit for purpose for the rate of change being experienced.
The master development plans created at Lisbon City Council can take years to roll out, but events worldwide can change their relevance even faster. So, how can urban planning cope with such fast-changing challenges and still remain relevant?

The eye of the storm

British cities advisor and author Charles Landry, best-known for coming up with the Creative City concept, says it has to be about “focusing on the human element” and people, rather than on technological mechanisms and infrastructure first.
Talking about people priorities and mission-orientated thinking, Landry says that the hubris of the world in which we used to operate, has been “humbled by a socially divisive and environmentally hostile economic order” with a paradigm that is all wrong.
Making a shift of paradigm and turning that problem around in a different way, he admits, is “immensely difficult” in terms of convincing those who hold the (economic) interests to understand that it is “in their interest to shift perspectives”.
Landry says that we are in the eye of a storm, which gives a combination of utter clarity and confusion at the same time. Clarity in terms of what really matters and the vision of reducing carbon emissions, so you can see what the future is or should be, but confusion from dilemmas. “The problem is that for many the old normal is an exotic destination and there is a whole series of dilemmas that Lisbon will face,” he argues.
One of these dilemmas in the time of Covid is that people feel safer in cars, but cars are polluting, and public transport, which is not so polluting, is not now inspiring confidence as people don’t feel safe.
“There must be a cooperation between the politicians, the public administrators and policy makers and business who all need to get together and think things through to help solve some of these problems,” he says.
The question for Landry is how do you bend the market and its energy to bigger picture purposes?
“If I were to frame just one thing in terms of the speed of developments and misalignments in planning, it would be thinking about things that are strategically principled and really matter, and being tactically flexible within that,” says Landry.
Planning should be less in the “predict and provide” mode which takes such a long time, and more about thinking through the core four or five non-negotiable things that we all agree on, and plan according to these along basic ethical codes,” he explains.

A visionary discussion

So how can the city be made an attractive place to work, live and play? Ricardo Veludo believes we need a utopian and visionary discussion which is difficult in a Western democratic and multi-actor society.
Charles Landry believes that there is a “collective agreement in broad terms” on what makes a great city. It has to do with urban design, distinctive streets, open spaces but the big question is why this is not happening? The question is, therefore, how do you generate an urgency to act?
The key thing, says Landry, is to look at the psychological and emotional needs of a city’s citizens find out from them what makes a good city, and see the city as a collective endeavour involving all stakeholders.
“What we’ve realised through the pandemic is that social bonding is key and that in a time of crisis culture matters,” he says.
In Lisbon, by way of just one illustration, there are many cultural institutions and museums which not necessarily connecting and engaging with the population, and need to be places of collective experiences that bond people together.
But Landry suggests it is not enough to have a vision. Stakeholders also have to have the necessary ambition and drive to implement urban changes, with the current pandemic offering the perfect window of opportunity to begin taking serious steps towards this endeavour.
This had been difficult in the UK after the public sector was emaciated and eviscerated over several decades, during which time public institutions were seen as “boring and dull”.
One practical suggestion, which would have to involve both the private and public sectors, is to set up foresight teams involving humble mavericks to “think ahead” and have a voice within public institutions.
In terms of accommodation, housing platform cooperatives point the way, instead of purely commercial and traditional landlord-tenant models. These provide a housing opportunity for a new generation with different values and is something that Tim Leberecht admires, and which Lisbon City Council is doing in its recent move to convert Air BnB accommodation to affordable housing for rent. “That is a really bold, innovative and courageous policy,” he says.
And perhaps, at the end of the day, this vision and ambition for cities like Lisbon can be seen within a European social democratic context, shaved of its colonial and imperial past, but leaving something of the best of what it is to be distinctly European and different from the models and outlooks used in the US or Far East – A European way.
Ethics too, especially in a world of increasing surveillance, data use and AI, is an important feature of the European mindset and a card “we should be humbly confident to play” in a world of right-wing demagogues, and not let ourselves be pushed around, especially when one considers what is happening in Hong Kong and China and other authoritarian states conclude Charles Landry and Ricardo Veludo.

*’Essentia – Think Lisbon’ is a forum set up in 2019 by the Portuguese development and rehabilitation company Essentia to debate the key issues affecting Lisbon. This includes ideas on preserving the city’s lifestyles and making it enjoyable for both locals and overseas visitors.The forum aims to reflect on and discuss fresh ways in which the city can develop in the future.