Urban Imaginaries of Contention in Marvila

View of 4 crescente area in Marvila (source: ROCK project)
Roberto Falanga and Mafalda Corrêa Nunes report on Lisbon’s participation in a major European Commission project and analyse the multi-layered and often conflicting urban imaginaries that characterize the redevelopment of the Marvila district.
[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 2017, the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon (ICS-ULisboa) became an official partner of the European Commission (EC) funded project “ROCK – Regeneration and Optimisation of Cultural heritage in creative and Knowledge cities”. The project built on an agreement between thirty-two international partners from different European countries, among universities, public authorities, and private companies. In response to the priorities of its specific EC call, ROCK’s main goal was to support the transformation of historic city centers afflicted by physical decay, social conflicts and poor life quality to turn them into “creative and sustainable districts.” To this end, local cultural heritage was seen as the engine for urban regeneration. The project supported small-scale regeneration actions inspired by “best practices” shared by ten role-model cities (Athens, Cluj-Napoca, Eindhoven, Liverpool, Lyon, Turin and Vilnius) to be replicated in three cities with the active local participation: Bologna, Lisbon and Skopje.

Within this framework, the ICS-ULisboa team was responsible for developing action research based on the regeneration actions promoted by the Lisbon city council, which was one of the ROCK partners and the project’s local coordinator in this city. The local intervention area was individuated within the districts of Marvila and Beato, two contiguous districts located on the east side of Lisbon. Marvila and Beato were selected as relevant to this project because they combined significant urban challenges and an almost unexplored potential for cultural heritage-led regeneration. In this endeavour, cultural heritage was understood as both tangible (e.g., historical buildings and industrial architecture) and intangible (e.g., traditions, stories, local memories).

ROCK intervention area in Lisbon (source: Lisbon city council)

Inside the intervention area, the Lisbon city council focussed on the “4 Crescente”, which is a smaller area composed of four small neighbourhoods that share similar urban and social issues regarding low levels of education and social cohesion as well as poor quality public spaces and urban transportation. This area mostly consists of social housing estates, and one of its few existing public infrastructures is the municipal library of Marvila, which was inaugurated in 2016 and has played a key role since in catalysing community activities.

The selection of this area aimed to build on the Marvila library’s ongoing work in the area to push forward the project’s actions by targeting the high number of urban voids and abandoned areas of built environment. In fact, despite sharing the same recent historical trajectory of the riverside area, cultural heritage in this area greatly owns its peculiarities. In contrast, Marvila and Beato’s riverside is home to empty factories and warehouses that have increasingly sparked the attention of “creative industries” and real estate investors. The riverside clearly shows the cycle from industrialisation to deindustrialisation, which attracted newcomers since the mid-nineteenth century from all over the country. However, as workers lived in very precarious conditions, the central government eventually set out a comprehensive set of policies in the 1990s to eradicate the several existing shanty towns in Marvila and Beato. Workers were relocated in new social housing in the inner side, and their families still make this area a highly diverse environment.

Acknowledging the peculiarities of the 4 Crescente, action research analysed the extent to which regeneration actions promoted through the ROCK project were developed in inclusive, sustainable and effective ways, with a focus on the participation of the local communities and stakeholders. Did these actions make any difference for the enhancement of collective life in public spaces? To unravel this question, we considered the multiple scales and levels of interaction interwoven in the governance model of this project and tried to make sense of the many visible and less visible — or even invisible — imaginaries produced at the crossroads of different expectations and agendas.

At the outset, it soon became evident that the ROCK international consortium played an important role in the production of specific imaginaries of cultural heritage-led urban regeneration, based on international models of the “creative city” and “knowledge city”. Macro-imaginaries have influenced the agenda of local actions in participating cities. Between the international sphere and the local networks, project gatekeeping gave rise to what can be called meso-imaginaries of urban regeneration, which were nurtured by specific actors holding power within and at the borders of the project, such as project’ coordinators, consultants, and urban practitioners. Finally, specific urban imaginaries were also contended by local actors in an attempt to voice their visions and expectations for the area.

Different imaginaries at different scales gave us the unique opportunity to explore the negotiation of urban imaginaries in the context of urban regeneration. Three key layers were identified accordingly in our analysis of the inner side of Marvila.


The first layer is related to knowledge transfer ignited by the ROCK international consortium, which is framed within the global debate on urban regeneration and cultural heritage. In fact, the consortium built up an approach to urban issues that emphasised the role of cultural heritage as a key driver of transformation. The project was designed to gather several partners that shared their knowledge and “best practices” to give pursue a common goal of regeneration aligned with EU’s principles in this field. Imaginaries of cultural heritage-led regeneration were based on mainstream discourses on “creative” and “knowledge” cities promoted by international agencies and organisations.1Willem van Winden, “Knowledge and the European city”, Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie, 101: 100-106. (2010)  https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9663.2009.00591.x


The second layer regards the circulation of knowledge among the ten cities of the project. According to the ROCK management model, seven cities were selected as “role models”, thus showing the positive impacts of culture-led regeneration in their environment, whereas three cities were targeted as “replicators” dedicated to improving their capacity in this field. As one of the three replicator cities, Lisbon was expected to tighten relations with both role models and the other two replicators. While this was sequenced through several online and in-person meetings, partners operated in relative autonomy and their decisions aimed at capitalising the project within local agendas. In doing so, the meso-imaginary emerging from the actions led by the city council was essentially related to environmental and cultural entrepreneurship. The former was expected to be developed in partnership with one local NGO promoting urban farming, while the latter was based on the promotion of cultural initiatives led by the Marvila municipal library and one pop-up store organised by another local NGO. In fact, the reuse of empty stores to host cultural projects was targeted as a main goal of public investment in the field of culture for the area.


The third layer concerns the complex and often uneven clash of the above-mentioned imaginaries with those voiced by local communities and stakeholders. During the implementation of ROCK actions, local communities in 4 Crescente campaigned against the strong underinvestment in public structures and infrastructure in this area. The reach and magnitude of private investment on the riverside of Marvila further accentuated their claims, as the inner side continued to lag behind public investment in this neighborhood. Some local stakeholders of the project joined the residents and helped exert pressure on the city council — at the borders of ROCK — to improve local public spaces. The “community group 4crescente”, a platform that gathers dwellers and local organisations to discuss local issues, made a great difference in bringing light to the local imaginary of urban regeneration, which was expressed through the creation of a new garden in one of the many empty spaces of the neighbourhood. Such a claim initially clashed with existing plans for new municipal housing. However, the city council eventually agreed with the local community to combine both projects. Despite formally outside the scope of the project, this controversy was part of the ICS-ULisboa action research and referred to in some international publications regarding this area.2See: Roberto Falanga, “Understanding place attachment through the lens of urban regeneration. Insights from Lisbon”. Cities 122 (2022), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2022.103590; Roberto Falanga and Mafalda Corrêa Nunes, “Tackling Urban Disparities through Participatory Culture-Led Urban Regeneration. Insights from Lisbon,” Land Use Policy 108 (2021), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2021.105478;  Jessica Verheij and Mafalda Corrêa Nunes, “Justice and Power Relations in Urban Greening: Can Lisbon’s Urban Greening Strategies Lead to More Environmental Justice?” Local Environment 26, no. 3 (2020): 329–46. https://doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2020.1801616.

Some final thoughts

Despite some recent “victories” for the enhancement of public spaces, the 4 Crescente area is still characterised by inadequate service provision and delivery when compared to the rest of the city and the rampant private investment that is transforming the riverside of Marvila. Alongside decaying built heritage and vacant spaces, this area provides an interesting example of how urban regeneration goes far beyond being a mere engine. The recent experience of the ROCK project provides an interesting analytical lens on multi-level imaginaries that can contribute to the debate on the role played by international funding — and intermediating agencies — in conditioning the imagined future of deprived urban areas.


Falanga, Roberto and Mafalda Corrêa Nunes. "Urban Imaginaries of Contention in Marvila." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 4 (November 2022)
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