Introduction: Conflicting Imaginaries in East Lisbon

Marvila com vazio e guindastes. Photo by João Felipe P. Brito
In their roundtable introduction, Lavínia Pereira and João Felipe P. Brito survey the ongoing transformation of East Lisbon and discuss “conflicting imaginaries” as a framework for understanding the intersection of the local and the global in the "Mouraria–Marvila axis."
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable on “Conflicting Imaginaries in East Lisbon.” Click here to view other posts in the series.]

Despite its semi-peripheral context as a Southern European capital, Lisbon has been a stage for intensive processes of change in the last decades. Within the current juncture of global urban competition for investment, and in the aftermath of the sovereign debt crisis (and subsequent austerity policies), Lisbon has been the arena for an economic rebound mainly driven by real estate investment and touristification.1João Seixas, Lisboa em Metamorfose (Lisboa: FFMS, 2021). These processes, articulated with new spatialities and infrastructures of the creative and digital economy,2Franco Tomassoni and Giorgio Pirina, “Portugal: um laboratório para a Uber. A Produção do Mundo: problemas logísticos e sítios críticos, edited by Andrea Pavoni and Franco Tomassoni (Lisboa: Le Monde Diplomatique/Outro Modo, 2022). have promoted abrupt and segregating transformations in formerly neglected urban districts.

This round table aims to trigger a discussion about the peculiarities of urban transition processes at the local level. It brings together an interdisciplinary group of contributors with different and complementary views that will enrich the debate on the ongoing changes in Lisbon, specifically in its eastern districts. We will be looking at the political dimension of those processes through the common framework of “conflicting imaginaries”. We invoke the notion of “imaginaries” as used within social theory3See, for example, Cornelius Castoriadis. The Imaginary Institution of Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997[1975]). as well as a Marxist theoretical tradition that considers urban imaginaries as instruments of power.4Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Wiley-Blackwell, 1991 [1974]). With “conflicting imaginaries” we aim to expose the often hidden contradictions and conflicting dynamics of symbolic power that emerge alongside intensive processes of urban change, especially through notions of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic imaginaries.5Andrea Gibbons, “Emergent Imaginaries: Place, struggle, and Survival,” in The Routledge Companion to Urban Imaginaries, ed. Christoph Lindner and Miriam Meissner (London and New York: Routledge, 2018), 387–406.

This dossier explores these dynamics in the eastern districts of Lisbon —what we would call the ‘Mouraria–Marvila axis’6It is a symbolic, rather than a geographic, axis formed by ‘peripheral’ areas that, although located between the central and eastern parts of the city, draw a semicircle that joins the Mouraria neighbourhood to the eastern area of Lisbon, Beato-Marvila, crossing the parish of Arroios, through Avenida Almirante Reis. This reading is informed by Simone Tulumello, “The ‘Souths’ of the ‘Wests’: Southern Critique and Comparative Housing Studies in Southern Europe and USA,” Housing Studies 37, no. 6 (2022): 975-96. — which offer representative cases of a profoundly changing context. They reveal globally observed gentrification processes in once-popular historic, and post-industrial neighbourhoods, while articulating, in a local manner, material and symbolic investments that mobilise collectively produced political initiatives.7Roberto Falanga and Mafalda Nunes, “Tackling urban disparities through participatory culture-led urban regeneration. Insights from Lisbon”, Land Use Policy, 108, 105478, (2021).

Placed on one side of the axis, on the fringes of Lisbon’s historical centre, Mouraria and Arroios are two districts long identified by their ethnic and cultural diversity. At the beginning of the 2010s, “low” real estate prices appealed to young households and foreign students, while simultaneously retaining old residents and migrant populations, which created an atmosphere of a cosmopolitan life.8See Simone Tulumello, “Reconsidering Neoliberal Urban Planning in Times of Crisis: Urban Regeneration Policy in a “Dense” Space in Lisbon.” Urban Geography 37, no. 1 (2016): 117-40. More recently, propelled by a rhetoric that feeds on an imaginary of the “cultural effervescence” and “authenticity” of a Southern European city, these neighbourhoods were affected by a branding operation that triggered a process of urban land revalorisation, resulting in a contentious political atmosphere. At the same time, social movements became especially active in what has been called the ‘comuna de Arroios’.9Marco Allegra and Claudio Carbone, “Urban transformation, housing activism and social space during the Covid19 pandemic. Research notes on the bairro of Arroios.” PArtecipazione e COnflitto (under review).

Martim Moniz e Mouraria. Photo by Lavínia Pereira

On the other side of the axis, Marvila and Beato are strongly heterogeneous districts, characterised by agricultural remnants, railway lines, and the effects of industrialisation from the nineteenth century onwards. Nowadays, on the riverfront, we find warehouses either empty or in rehabilitation alongside old industrial structures and houses of impoverished workers (“vilas”, “pátios” and old buildings). On the inner side of the neighbourhood, behind the two railway lines, we find social housing projects with few public facilities (e.g., schools, parks, a library), but also vacant and abandoned spaces.10Margarida Silva, “History and Stories of Marvila and Beato”, Research Note, ROCK Project, ICS – ULisboa, 29pp, (2020). Though these neighbourhoods were stigmatized throughout a long period of deindustrialization, they have gradually been targeted by urban regeneration projects. From small culture-led, locally embedded, and participatory processes in the inner side of the neighbourhoods, to more recently created tech-hub infrastructures and high-cost real estate investments on the riverfront, the changing and contradictory redevelopment processes in these boroughs were triggered by a global creative-innovative city imaginary that aimed to boost Lisbon’s entrepreneurial and technological ecosystem.11Joel Scalzotto, “Smart-Up Urbanism: Critical Reflections on a Hub, Urban Regeneration & Smart Cultural Imaginaries in Lisbon”, Position Paper, ROCK Project. ICS – ULisboa. 20 p, (2019). Above all, the 2016 arrival of an annual technology conference, the Web Summit, was the touchstone that eventually established the link between the city and the so-called digital economy’s new agents: digital nomads, creative classes, techies or “city users”.12João Seixas, op. cit.

Hub criativo do beato. Photo by João Felipe P. Brito

This exposure of local dynamics to global economic competitiveness has both exponentially accelerated the pace of urban transformation and increased the intensity of urban conflict. On the one hand, there is a regeneration and real-estate market boom catalysed by mass touristification and ephemeral ways of urban life (associated, for instance, with the digital economy); on the other hand, we notice the intensification of struggles over the right to the city, as well as new grassroots efforts to collectively produce and resignify public space.

Presented as a desirable destination, Lisbon is nowadays trying to break free from its charming yet decadent portrayal in Alain Tanner’s movie In the White City (1983).13Suggested reading on the subject: Andrea Pavoni, “Lisbon in a Phantom Limb,” Desired Landscapes. A magazine reading into cities 4 (2021): 102-13; and Mariana Liz, “Lisbon on Film, 1980–2020: Locating Europe,” in The Routledge Companion to European Cinema, ed. Gábor Gergely and Susan Hayward (Routledge, 2021), 385-393. Socio-technical imaginaries14See Sheila Jasanoff, “Imagined and Invented Worlds.” Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, edited by Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015). are now mobilised to support and legitimise investment attraction strategies, such as tax and visa advantages for foreign investors and entrepreneurs — ‘state exception’15Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004). measures to allow the swift advancement of projects  that have remained on the drawing board for many years.

Researchers and activists emphasize controversial state strategies —of both action and omission— concerning regeneration processes taking place in these districts, and their impact on material and immaterial heritage. This round table takes a critical and concrete approach to hegemonic narratives,16Inspired by Ernst Bloch’s “concrete utopia”: “Concrete utopia can be understood both as latency and as tendency… It refers forward to the emergent future… [It is] a praxis-oriented category”. See Ruth Levitas, “Educated Hope: Ernst Bloch on Abstract and Concrete Utopia.” Utopian Studies 1, no. 2 (1990): 18. and seeks to uncover alternative narratives, especially virtual, radical, and emergent imaginaries activated by existing collectives and social movements.

To spark the discussion we propose the following questions:

  • How have global urban imaginaries — such as green, creative, innovative, or smart cities — shaped local policies of urban development?
  • Considering these global imaginaries of urban change, what are the specificities of the Lisbon case as a Southern European capital, and more specifically in its eastern districts, especially the Mouraria–Marvila axis?
  • How do ‘conflicting imaginaries’ clarify existing contradictions and dynamics of struggle in  each of these neighbourhoods that are undergoing complex processes of change?
  • How do longtime desired and postponed futures for the East side of the city still haunt present policies and investments?
  • What is the role of social movements and grassroots initiatives in providing resistance networks and counter-hegemonic imaginaries at the local level?
  • Do participatory processes and informal, self-organised initiatives help to mitigate the gentrification, forced displacement, and social exclusion generated by top-down urban regeneration policies?

In the first round, the contributors reflect on the above questions through a range of perspectives. Arguing for the specificity of urban change processes in this area of the city, if compared to the areas situated North and West of the historical centre, Simone Tulumello explores the conflicting dynamics that encompass Mouraria’s marginal, multicultural and cosmopolitan imaginaries with initiatives bent on branding Lisbon as a “global city” with its extractive forms of urban capitalism.

Marco Allegra emphasises the atmosphere of contentious politics going on in the last decade in Arroios. He explores the political potential of urban imaginaries associated with conflicting definitions that overlap, complement and compete with each other.

Roberto Falanga and Mafalda Corrêa Nunes focus on conflicting imaginaries of the inner side of Marvila, where vacant areas have been the stage for a fundamental dispute over the production of public space between local communities (living in social or cooperative-owned housing), and public authorities’ projects of urban regeneration.

Andrea Pavoni reflects on the unfolding of the socio-technical imaginary of urbanisation and the particular forms it takes on Lisbon’s eastern riverfront. The author examines how contradictions and conflicts have arisen from hegemonic discursive strategies and dominant imaginaries.

**

This round table stems from discussions in the Urban Transitions Hub of ICS-ULisboa and project “UrbanoScenes. Post-colonial imaginaries of urbanisation: A future-oriented investigation from Portugal and Angola” (funding: Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnólogia; PTDC/GES-URB/1053/2021).

Notes[+]

Pereira, Lavínia and João Felipe P. Brito. "Introduction: Conflicting Imaginaries in East Lisbon." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 4 (November 2022)
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