Lisbon – ‘Too small to be big internationally alone’
Fernando Medina has been Lisbon’s mayor for six years and is about to stand for a second term. In that six years he has achieved ambitious plans, greening the city, attracting international startups and companies and most of all creating a modern and integrated subsidised public transport system. The mayor tells American Club of Lisbon members more.
Text: Chris Graeme
Over the past five years, Lisbon has changed from a capital city from which most foreigners struggled to visualise a landmark, to an internationally known capital that is trendy, modern, vibrant, youthful and blazing a trail in startups and technology.
The fact that it is now giving regional rivals Barcelona and Madrid a run for their money by becoming a much more connected city globally, owes as much to its current mayor, Fernando Medina, and his predecessor António Costa – now the country’s prime minister — as it does to major international events from Expo 98 over 22 years ago to the Eurovision Song Contest and Web Summits more recently.
And of course, as journalists poured into the capital in 2011 to grasp why angry Portuguese were sending parcels of rubbish to ratings agencies in the US as Portugal applied for a €79Bn bailout from the IMF, they discovered an undiscovered pearl across the Atlantic, started waxing lyrical about fado and seafood, and couldn’t quite fathom how they had missed Europe’s best kept secret.
Fernando Medina is at pains to point out that this new-found fame and heightened international profile – 27 million tourists poured into the capital in 2019 – does not mean that Lisbon will compete with much larger cities like London, Berlin, Paris or New York.
The question, he says, is that in a global world we have to be “in and not out” and, as a modern capital city, linked to the most important networks being established between the world’s institutions and cities and an increasingly globalised world.
Certainly, the success of Erasmus student exchanges, the Golden Visa and NHR has meant “we have a lot more Americans, French and international exchange students, more interconnection of services and production and links between higher education institutions,” he says.
An arts and literary city
Of course, any capital city that has pretensions of being, well … ‘sexy’ must make its mark on the international arts circuit by hosting major events and having world-class museums. Lisbon has the museums — the Berardo Museum and Gulbenkian for starters — but on making Lisbon an international arts centre for events, the mayor points out that the contemporary art fair Arco Madrid took its first steps towards internationalising the brand in Lisbon with Arco Lisboa which will be held for the fifth time in May this year.
“At the last edition in 2019, a lot of people flew to Lisbon to buy art during the event and that just didn’t happen five years ago,” he recalls.
In terms of literature too, Lisbon city hall facilitated the move of the library belonging to Argentinian writer Alberto Manguel, while the Gulbenkian contemporary art museum will be renovated and reopened in 2022.
“We are offering more and raising the range of cultural supply of contemporary Portuguese and international art. I don’t believe in big ticket solutions. There is already a Guggenheim in Bilbao, so I don’t intend to try and open one here, but the library will change our position as a capital for literature, developing that area and sending out a clear signal,” says Medina.
The mayor points out that Lisbon has only ever been an important city when it was open to the rest of the world. “
If you look at 15th and 16th centuries, we were the largest and most important trading post in the world, with traders from Arabia, Africa and Europe. We are too small to be big alone. We have to be open”.
From Expo 98 to Web Summit to Eurovision, Lisbon has hosted some big international events over the past 22 years.
Medina says that one of the reasons that Web Summit chose to make Lisbon its permanent home in 2016 was because its founder, Paddy Cosgrave and organisers recognised the city was changing.
“Web Summit helped to open up the city and make it better known, with a lot of delegates and visitors seeing the city as tourists and some deciding to relocate to Lisbon,” the mayor recalls.
The mayor points out how striking it was that during a delegation trip involving the Portuguese prime minister to California and Silicon Valley, companies there knew Lisbon and had visited it during the Web Summit.
In fact, the city and government have worked hard to market Lisbon as California Dreaming at half the cost and all of the security, offering a plethora of tax and relocation incentives such as startup and Golden Visas without insisting that these companies are tied up to stay for years by complicated and inflexible contract clauses.
“One thing I learnt while working at AICEP (the Portuguese overseas trade and investment bureau) was that you can’t insist on legal constraints in contracts on the amount of time companies have to stay. That will never work. We equally shouldn’t compete for jobs that are difficult for us to attract,” said Medina in a nod to generally lower salaries practised in Portugal.
“We are not going to promote ourselves as an industrial metropolitan area, that’s just never going to happen, but we are very competitive as an international service space.”
A tolerant, open and inclusive society
The Lisbon mayor says that he finds the younger generation in their 20s and 30s much more “global and international”. “They think differently and travel more, and the fact that everyone speaks English here is an asset that we have.”
Medina says that being an open, tolerant and friendly society is also a boon because companies that come to work in Lisbon want a welcoming and safe place in which to operate their businesses and promote a happy and healthy workforce.
Lisbon – European Green Capital 2020
While the pandemic rather limited Lisbon’s stint as European Green Capital last year, the city council has embarked on a number of green and sustainable initiatives.
In recent years, it has spruced up the city’s parks, put in kilometres of cycle ways (No, Lisbon doesn’t just have hills), introduced electrically assisted ‘Lime’ bikes and scooters, got tough on on-street parking, and now plans to plough a huge Central Park-style green open area through the city from its Praça de Espanha as far as the main Santa Maria hospital.
Cutting traffic congestion and reducing pollution is part of the plan too with Lisbon having invested in electric car charging points all over the city, although it has stopped short of introducing a London-style congestion charge.
The mayor points out that 6,000 people die in Portugal from respiratory diseases as a result of pollution annually. “If you look at the places that suffered the worst effects of the pandemic, it is no accident that these were places with high levels of pollution. The argument about health and less pollution and traffic is more powerful now than before the pandemic.”
Medina adds that when talking about health, it’s not just about fighting disease, but quality of life and tackling the environmental causes of those diseases.
“It’s about social habits, the way people behave and cities are organised, how they move, eat, run their lives, and we now have a responsibility and a much stronger case to consider living conditions. “We cannot just go back to living as we were before the pandemic. We have to learn from that.”
An integrated transport system
The metropolitan area of Greater Lisbon today has around 3 million inhabitants, and includes other surrounding boroughs such as Cascais, Amadora-Sintra, Almada and Seixal to name a few.
A cohesive transport strategy is one important element, as is sustainability, which all require cooperation and good relations between municipalities for an integrated approach.
The mayor points out that the metropolitan region in terms of economic activity in fact stretches from Leiria to the immediate north and Évora in the Alentejo south, and all the municipalities in between.
“It is impossible to solve any of the big problems that we are facing if we think within the boundaries of our own city. I can’t solve the mobility problem if I only think about Lisbon. Neither housing, economic development, foreign investment attraction, health or climate change if we don’t have a much broader approach than the metropolitan area,” he says, pointing out that before the pandemic 400,000 vehicles entered Lisbon each day!
“Either we get a good-quality, heavyweight metropolitan transport system, or we will not solve the problem of parking 400,000 cars. The question has to be solved at a metropolitan level,” adds Medina.
Another problem, says the mayor, is housing. Lisbon has lost 300,000 inhabitants over 30 years in a desertification of the traditional inner city historic neighbourhoods, replaced by Air BnB guest houses and apartments, which while shi-shing up Lisbon’s once faded and run-down shabby chic, and bringing in droves of tourists and foreign residents, has also pushed the locals out from the overpriced centre. And while this process actually began before the tourists came, from the 1980s onwards, “When people live far from their jobs, they have to travel to work, and if there is not a strong investment in public transport, then people will travel by car,” he says.
“As mayor of Lisbon I always think in a metropolitan and regional approach, because the biggest problems I have as mayor of Lisbon is construction of housing for rent and transport,” he explains on the eve of a massive €1.5Bn government new deal on housing for the middle classes and rental sector aimed to kick-start the economy and get young families and professionals back into the heart of the city.
“I think over the past few years we have seen a big improvement in our relations with the other municipalities in the Greater Lisbon Metropolitan Area, and I agreed to help them tackle these problems on one condition — they supported an integrated public transport system, because we are lagging behind decades on a fit-for-purpose system,” explains the mayor trumpeting that Lisbon Municipal Council has managed to produced a single tariff system for the whole area -something London has had for decades with the Oyster card.
The city council has also completed the biggest public transport tender in the history of Portugal, for a single operation on the bus, tram and trolleybus systems (worth €1.1Bn) for a 7-year contract and one brand ‘Carris Metropolitana’ which will operate a single integrated network in all the municipalities on the same pass and at the same tariff.
And while certain sectors of political life in Portugal strive to appeal to nationalism based on fears for job security, isolation has never worked well for Lisbon’s people for long. The city and its leaders know that looking outwards, and welcoming inwards, can be the only key to its future success and prosperity.