From Conflicting to Overlapping Imaginaries: A Cartography of Urban Imaginaries in East Lisbon

Marvila Velha do Alto. Photo by João Felipe P. Brito
In their introduction to the second part of the roundtable, Lavínia Pereira and João Felipe P. Brito discuss the overlapping nature of urban imaginaries and pose questions for the contributors about strategies of “reverse imagineering” in East Lisbon.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable on “Conflicting Imaginaries in East Lisbon.” Click here to view other posts in the series.]

In the first round of this roundtable on Lisbon, we looked at ongoing changes in its eastern districts through the common framework of “conflicting imaginaries”. This proved to be a productive way to survey the multiplicity of narratives and agents implicated in the material and symbolic struggles over urban space in districts undergoing profound transformation processes. The first round posts explored and clarified multiple, overlapping layers of urban imaginaries.

Shaped by predefined power relations, these imaginaries are differently operationalized, institutionalised and, potentially, reimagined by the diversity of agents in those territories. Cities do not belong only to their governments, and neighbourhoods are not only defined by investors and newcomers. Divergent imaginaries emerge through struggles over the uses and meanings of urban places. Lived space, its memories, landscapes and patrimonies are disputed politically, in the gaps of the state, and in the market,1The idea here is to understand the State as a structure with well-defined institutions and practices, but also with “cracks”  through which it is possible to access it and influence its actions beyond elections, parliamentary and government representation. In short, it is possible to dispute the State and its actions without routinely being inside it. About the market, communities also tend to dispute their signs and meanings in market actions. but also – and perhaps mainly – in local, collective and community mobilizations. These local actions seek to protect rights and advance an agenda of popular participation in the definition of what neighbourhoods and the city are or could be – both in everyday life and in spaces and times of collective celebration.

In this second round, we would like to challenge the authors to engage in a more in-depth analysis of the different assemblages and agencies involved in the “reverse imagineering”2See Brian Holmes, Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Essays in Reverse Imagineering (New York: Autonomedia, 2008). of East Lisbon, their meanings, and their counter-conducts.3Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 256–283.

Simone Tulumello’s essay referred to the processes through which, in Mouraria, the same imaginary of cultural diversity is operationalized both in convergent and divergent ways depending on the circumstances and agents in the context. It is in the experience of everyday life that an imaginary becomes effective, producing the city, the urban, and the world. Mouraria’s ethnic diversity is at the roots of overlapping imaginaries, ranging from a racialized and peripheral one, to a cosmopolitan one, and finally a global one, aesthetically invested in by the municipality to trigger new representations and uses of the area.

Something quite similar can be said about Arroios, a profoundly heterogeneous district4The heterogeneity of Arroios is also due to the administrative reform, made in 2012, which condensed in one single district – Arroios – three former separated districts, Pena, Anjos, and São Jorge de Arroios. We owe this important observation to Simone Tulumello. Former map before the administrative reform: located on the northern side of Mouraria. As described by Marco Allegra, Arroios has been systematically targeted by a process of ‘coolwashing’ that, in the end, managed to erase all the complexity of on-going struggles and conflicts, as well as other non-visible narratives and temporalities, with one single branding operation. Allegra emphasizes the importance of the symbolic power of naming in the creation of expectations, meaning and social actions (performativity). Therefore, the ability to “make believe” that something is or is not what it says5Pierre Bourdieu, “Symbolic Power”, Critique of Anthropology, 4 (13–14), (1979), 77–85. casts on urban policies, institutional or not, a narrative and media component that has proven to be increasingly sophisticated and indispensable in interurban disputes. Branding, however, is essentially a selective and institutionalizing endeavour.

But if imaginaries are not only ideological – as Tulumello states – then how can institutionalising and homogenising efforts be contended with? What agents and strategies of counter-conducts or reverse imagineering  can we meet in these districts?

Calçada do Lavra, Arroios. Photo By Alexandre Schlosser, CC BY 2.0

Roberto Falanga and Mafalda Nunes contributed with a taxonomy of contentious imaginaries on the inner side of Marvila. They describe the multilevel dimension of these imaginaries: macro (conveyed by global debates and mainstream agendas), meso (its appropriation by local institutions and the municipality) and micro-imaginaries (crafted by residents and local communities), operating and overlapping in the same context. Falanga and Nunes’s essay outlines the different layers of claims, and trade-offs, about the meanings and uses of an urban place. Their hierarchical scheme also outlines the paths that some ideas and plans take to be materialized in local contexts.

Andrea Pavoni’s post unpacked the overlapping of imaginaries in a slightly different way. He carries out an archaeology — or what we can call a phantasmagorical cartography6Alberto Vanolo and Andrea Pavoni, “Editorial to Ghosts [Crowds]”, Lo Squaderno, (62), (2022), 6-8. — of Marvila’s imaginary, exploring how past futures still operate in present ruins. His essay explores the simultaneity (or synchronicity) between past, present and future. In this case, temporality is central to the argument about conflicting or converging imaginaries. As Pavoni shows, interwoven ideas of “technological fetishism” and “already obsolete futures” about contemporary Lisbon and Marvila allow both (a) the realization of the belief in technology and innovation as accelerators and catalysts of the historical process, and (b) an understanding of the future as a cultural fact7Arjun Appadurai, The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition (London: Verso, 2013). under construction and in dispute, capable of being (re)imagined and (re)built before becoming reality.

All the essays from the first round emphasised the overlapping and co-presence of multiple imaginaries, more than just their conflicting nature. Imaginaries are differently operationalized by the diversity of agents present in those territories, already shaped by imbalanced power relations. Here we build on Cornelius Castoriadis’s views in The Imaginary Institution of Society: whilst “actual imaginaries” provide social institutions with stability and internal coherence, they are crystallised forms of the eminently creative power of the “radical imaginary”, the “irreducible capacity of evoking images”.8Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (Polity Press, 1987[1975]), 197. Imaginaries are never definitively determined: they provide us with an openness, an “excess of meaning”, a virtuality that can be activated differently, in different contexts or by different agents. The dynamics between actual and radical imaginaries is particularly useful to clarify processes of re-signification and re-imagineering that underpin relations of dominant and emergent social imaginaries and their overlapping.

The first round of reflections has led us to the following set of questions:

  • How do alternative imaginaries resist and challenge hegemonic ones? What on-going strategies and tactics can we observe in these neighbourhoods?
  • Are there any counter-conducts or unexpected effects by urban planners concerning these disputes over space and its representation?
  • Are there other silenced or neglected examples of local resistance and the effectiveness of micro-scale imaginaries?
  • What kind of “ethnographic scenes” can express the conflicting or converging imaginaries already presented?


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).


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