Urban Imaginaries of Negotiation in Marvila

Photo: Vitor Barros, ROCK Project.
Roberto Falanga and Mafalda Corrêa Nunes examine how local community groups in Lisbon’s Marvila have asserted their right to shape the regeneration process of the area within the wider goals of city rebranding.
[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 our first post, we sought to make sense of the entrenched articulation of imaginaries produced in Marvila, a post-industrial district in East Lisbon. In particular, we focused on the contention emerging among macro, meso and micro imaginaries in the “4 Crescente”, an area composed of four neighbourhoods holding similar claims for the enhancement of public space and quality of life. The contention among imaginaries is based on emerging matches and mismatches among multiple actors aiming to intervene in this part of the city, pursuing different, and occasionally opposing, goals. We further pointed out that such dynamics are dramatically at odds with the wave of private-led regeneration on the riverside of this same district. The rampant diffusion of new cultural, art, and tech-based companies on the riverfront starkly contrasts with the – still – underdeveloped urban environment of the inner side, which is essentially characterised by social housing estates with low service and goods provision.

Ongoing urban regeneration in Mavila shows, therefore, two opposite trends: on the one hand, the establishment of a creative and smart oriented agenda led by private actors on the riverside; on the other,  the regeneration of the inner side based on an idea of communities participating for common goods. Our action research with homeowners and the community at large living in the 4 Crescente was developed within the framework of the EU-funded ROCK project (2017–2020). Once this project came to an end, we had the opportunity to continue our involvement through new local projects. The most important is the project Sé Bairrista, which is led by the local NGO Rés do Chão, a former partner of the ROCK project. As members of the monitoring and evaluation board of this project, we have had the chance to analyse an emerging ambivalence in the way the enhancement of public spaces and quality of life is imagined, narrated, and practiced by the local community and stakeholders. The ambivalence that we want to discuss in this post entails risks related to “dominant” imaginaries in the regeneration of the 4 Crescente within the broader framework of transformations in Marvila.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the city’s (re)development has targeted the East coast as one of the strategic poles for the international creative and smart industries. In contrast, urban regeneration on the inner side has made social inclusion and cohesion the key terms of small local interventions with communities. The tension in scope and scale is framed within wider goals of city rebranding that aim to overcome a prevailing negative reputation associated with poverty and crime in social housing neighbourhoods. Such a rebranding strategy did not entail Marvila only. As discussed by Marco Allegra in his first post, this was the case in Arroios too and, more broadly, for East Lisbon as a whole. In Marvila, the Chelas neighbourhood, which is close to or even part of 4 Crescente according to what boundaries we consider, has long suffered from a social imaginary based on prejudices against marginalised communities. Feelings of unsafety have built on ideas of gang conflicts and drug dealing operating uninterruptedly in the neighbourhood, which made it difficult for Chelas to redeem itself for decades. In 2012, a local reform redefined district boundaries in Lisbon, which made Chelas officially part of Marvila. Street signs and identification plates changed accordingly, coupled by a shifting public discourse presenting Marvila as the new name of Chelas, hopefully setting new conditions for urban regeneration in this part of the city.

The intention of new brands is to provide a positive image. In the case of Lisbon, this intention was pursued by playing down structural inequalities within Marvila and presenting the district as homogenous. As such, Marvila has become a brand that actively constructs the image of a new and vibrant community. Trade-offs, however, increasingly emerge. Many residents resist or simply decide not to identify themselves with Marvila. In their view, it is not just the label Chelas that was thrown away from official documents, but their daily life that was messed up with a new beautified imaginary of their place, which is likely to bring both good and bad news in the days ahead. A new group was created by residents to reclaim the public discussion about local identity and stress their pride in being  from Chelas. Famous hip hop and graffiti artists have joined the group and claimed to keep Chelas on the map of Lisbon.

Photo: Vitor Barros, ROCK Project

Different desires and fears related to the regeneration of this area have become more and more evident in our action research. The imaginaries of local communities increasingly look for new terms of negotiation with other actors. Like in Chelas, the 4 Crescente community group has struggled to make its identities visible and assert its voice in decision-making. As discussed in our previous post, such struggles have broken the ceiling of top-down decisions, as in the case of the green area that will be created close to the municipal library. In a similar vein, the request for new services in the area convinced the city council to launch a new programme called “Lojas para Todos” (“Stores for Everyone”), which aims to facilitate the occupation of empty shops located on the ground floors of public housing estates. Nonetheless, as the city council announced its preference for culture-based NGOs and companies, the local community raised concerns. In their view, there are long-standing deficiencies that should be prioritised, such as grocery stores. In contrast, the city council defends the programme as it is expected to bring new dynamics in synergy with the activities developed by the public library, which will eventually contribute to the economic development of the area.

In his first post, Andrea Pavoni discusses Marvila’s past and futures operating in its present. In this post, we have sought to exemplify these tensions within emerging spaces of negotiation in the 4 Crescente and, more broadly, in Marvila. The risk that local communities will be further marginalised from decision-making and torn away by the ongoing city rebranding is high. Against these trends, local communities struggle to make their voices heard and try to resist dominant imaginaries.

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