By Manuel Veiga
Lisbon City Council, Municipal Director of Culture
The role of Arts and Culture in urban revitalization
“Urban form is usually the product of historical evolution, but it can also be the outcome of policy” (Cotella, Evers, Rivolin and Solly, 2020).
Lisbon is one of Europe’s oldest cities and, as such, its urban form is an accumulation of different layers resulting from its historical evolution. It incorporates moments of expansion, moments of revitalization and moments of reconstruction, either due to natural disasters, such as earthquakes and fires, or as a result of political or economic circumstances, such as the financial crisis that affected the city and country during the last decade, or even pandemic situations like the COVID-19 that we are facing today. In all these important transformation moments, Arts and Culture were, and still are, a key factor for questioning, for correcting and advising, for preparing, listening and giving confidence to the communities, and in general, for giving a sense of humanity, continuity and belonging. But Arts and Culture can also play a leading role, in a more explicit way, in the urban revitalization.
The binomial city historical centres and peripheries may be a good starting example to illustrate this, as there is still a huge concentration of cultural venues, infrastructure and general offer in many cities’ centres where, however, fewer people live. To reverse this situation, particularly in recent years, the Lisbon City Council has been trying to increase the cultural coverage in other areas of the city, endeavouring to make Culture truly and easily accessible to all citizens.
Although it is a major work-in-progress, one way to tackle this is by defining a strategic approach which, according to our point of view, should pass, namely, by consolidating and building, together with the communities, new centralities for the Arts and Culture through the decentralization of the cultural offer, by the creation or reinvention of venues, proximity cultural centres, cultural and artistic projects, as well as by promoting the fixation of cultural agents in these peripheral territories. In this methodology, Culture plays a driving force in the urban revitalization, giving centres to the peripheries, but also leading to the most peripheral territories new citizens and activities, and consequently new urban uses.
We believe this may be a successful path and to that extent we could highlight two examples that took place in Lisbon in recent years. The first one, spread all over the city and the second one, in a precise area.
Galeria de Arte Urbana/Urban Art Gallery – Created in October 2008, the Urban Art Gallery embodies Lisbon’s municipal strategy towards graffiti and street art. It promotes them with a double goal: on the one hand, to safeguard the cultural heritage of the city and prevent vandalism and, on the other hand, to promote new job opportunities for artists and the public recognition of the positive role that street art and creativity can have in public space.
Since then, it has been providing the enrichment of the urban landscape and of Lisbon’s cultural heritage, with the creation of more than 500 artworks, made by several national and international recognized artists that turned Lisbon in to one of the Street Art capitals of the world. Moreover, in the last years, the Urban Art Gallery has been increasing its work with the social housing municipal neighbourhoods, focusing on the involvement of local communities and in participatory art. Considering street art as a tool for social and cultural inclusion and for the revitalization of territories of the city, MURO, an urban art festival, has been organized every two years in the fringes of the city’ territory. The Urban Art Gallery is now scattered throughout Lisbon and is a recognized national and international good practice in the promotion of this artistic discipline, contributing for new centralities in the city, qualifying the urban space, its fruition, and the life of its inhabitants.
The second example is the Marvila Public Library, which is part of the Library XXI Strategic Programme (Lisbon City Council, 2012). Marvila Public Library is the largest and most modern library in the city (with about 2600m2) and was installed in one of the most depressed areas in the eastern territory of Lisbon, mainly dedicated to social housing projects. This library was designed for and with the community, based on intense focus group work with both partners and inhabitants of this area of the city. This work allowed us to realize not only the real needs of this community, but also their expectations and, consequently, a part of the services and spaces of this library were designed from scratch to fill these needs and expectations.
The library, inaugurated in 2016, is nowadays a true cultural centre of proximity which includes, in addition to the services of access to knowledge, a communal kitchen, an auditorium and several multifunctional rooms, used for library activities, especially in training activities, lifelong learning and the promotion of various literacies, but also assigned temporarily to the community, partners and projects. In fact, this library promotes several activities and projects, many of which are community based. The work developed here is anchored in the sense that culture and creativity can contribute to the empowerment of populations, economic activity, rehabilitation and preservation of intangible material heritage, the dignity of the human condition of the population, social peace and the sense of belonging to the city. Marvila has become a new centrality in the city’s territory and the library has definitely contributed to point the spotlight to this area.
However, this approach on which Culture plays as driving force in urban revitalization in peripheral territories is not challenge-free… And to that extent, as urban regeneration advanced in Marvila, it also accelerated the process of gentrification and the real estate pressure. Once again, Culture may play a vital role, mitigating negative impacts of the urban revitalization. With this purpose, in order to preserve and reinforce the local cultural heritage at risk, the Marvila and Beato Interpretive Centre, integrated in the ROCK project (Rock project, 2017) has been created in Marvila.
This centre is a structure of valorisation and dissemination on the local tangible and intangible cultural heritage, which promotes the active participation of people who inhabit and work in the area. It is in line with the current of Social Museology (or Sociomuseology) that the centre defends how the heritage of a given territory and community must be worked through the participation of its actors, using participatory methods to catalogue, conserve and disseminate the local tangible and intangible cultural heritage.
The Marvila and Beato Interpretive Centre is located in the Marvila public library and is one of its public services. By continuously developing this service (which is in its nature unfinished) and by working on specific and original information about the territory available to the public, it is an ultimate goal for this centre to bring citizens together, to encourage conversations about the territory, as well as to inspire reflections on memory, identity and on-going urban transformations.
The two different examples mentioned demonstrate the importance of Arts and Culture in urban regeneration in the city of Lisbon, in the qualification of the public space, in the creation of new centralities in the territory of the city and also in leading citizens who previously only consumed Culture in more central spaces of the city to the most peripheral areas. It should also be pointed out that the plain success of these examples –and specifically of the Cultural policy behind them– cannot be reached without reinforcing the links, relationships and the mutual work with all the other related areas of municipal governance, especially the social, the environmental sustainability and the mobility ones.
These must therefore be examples of a cross-cutting articulation with other areas of governance and sustainable development, as well of an action of proximity, attentively and actively listening to communities and territories, an action that aims to mitigate cultural, educational, social and economic asymmetries, empowering citizens and cultural agents for the cultural creation and participation in a free, democratic and barrier-free way.
Questions for further discussion
- If a city has multiple small centres where citizens find everything they need, including cultural offer/fruition, what will happen to the cultural life in historical city centres? And could these new centres, instead of creating diversity, promote further sheltered atolls?
- How deep can Culture really, simultaneously promote and mitigate the gentrification of territories?
- Does the urban revitalization anchored in Arts and Culture encourage a greater civic engagement?
- How to balance what the community desires (and how to know exactly what the community desires) with what the public authorities want for the territory?
- Being the ultimate role of Culture to listen, connect, emphasize, mediate, mitigate, and humanize, can Culture by itself, reverse the social, economic and demographic imbalance within the cities?
COTELLA, G., et al (2020) ESPON SUPER – Sustainable Urbanisation and land-use Practices in European Regions. A GUIDE TO SUSTAINABLE URBANISATION AND LAND-USE. ESPON EGTC.
LISBON CITY COUNCIL (2012) Programa Estratégico Biblioteca XXI. Lisbon: Lisbon City Council. Available at: https://www.lisboa.pt/cidade/cultura/estrategia
ROCK PROJECT (2017) Rock Project – Regeneration and Optimisation of Cultural Heritage in Creative and Knowledge Cities. Available at: https://rockproject.eu/
Manuel Veiga graduated in Law from the Faculty of Law of the University of Lisbon and has a post-graduate in Cultural Management in Cities from INDEG / IUL (ISCTE). His professional practice is in the fields of cultural production and management, having worked in institutions and organisations such as the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (Gulbenkian Creativity and Artistic Creation Programme), Quaternaire Portugal – Consultancy for Development, INATEL Foundation (Division of Cultural Activities), CENTA – Centre of Studies of New Artistic Tendencies and Belgais – Centre for the Study of the Arts. Since November 2013, he has been the Municipal Director of Culture of the Municipality of Lisbon, where he had previously been advisor to the Councillor for Culture, between 2009 and 2013.
Cover photo: Artistic intervention by Vanessa Teodoro ©CML|DMC|DPC|BRUNO CUNHA 2019