Portugal: Lisbon, the empty capital

6 August 2010
El País Madrid

Rundown buildings and the high price of a square metre are driving away young people and transforming the Portuguese capital into a ghost town to the point where it would be completely devoid of life were it not for the annual influx of students brought to the city by the Erasmus programme.

Lisbon is a city with a worn out heart. The famous neighbourhoods of its historic centre, which include Chiado, Baixa, Alfama, Graça and Alcántara, are full of empty houses. Even the most expensive areas are not fully occupied, and streets that are home to luxury shops, hotels, banks and multinationals also have their share of decrepit buildings. The city council has listed 15 such structures on the Avenida da Liberdade, which is the city’s main thoroughfare. Lisbon and Porto top the European Union’s list of cities where the population is in decline since 1999, and they also have the highest proportion (24%) of residents aged 65 or over.

For years, architect Helena Roseta has been trying to improve Lisbon’s housing policy, and last October she was elected to the post of city councillor, standing as an independent on the Socialist party list. Roseta wants to draw attention to three problems in the urban landscape of cities like Lisbon, Porto and Braga: the large number of empty apartments, demographic decline, and the aging population. According to a census conducted in 2008, Lisbon now has 4,000 disused buildings in an overall total of 55,000.

“Some of them are already benefiting from renovation programmes approved by the local government, but there are others that cannot be upgraded and will have to be demolished,” explains another architect, Manuel Salgado, who is the member of the mayor’s cabinet responsible for urban planning.

The problem of commuters

Over the last three decades, Lisbon has lost approximately 100,000 residents every ten years, which has brought its population down from 800,000 to its current level of around 500,000. Salgado insists that he has “fully identified” the causes of this exodus: The poor quality of local infrastructure which does not offer adequate educational facilities or day- and health-care centres, a desire for houses rather than flats, and most importantly the price per square metre in Lisbon which is up to three-times higher than it is in the city’s suburbs.” According to local government figures, a quarter of Lisbon’s population is living below the bread line. At one end of the spectrum, you have pensioners, the unemployed and people on minimum benefits. At the other, you have the well-heeled who have no trouble paying the prices demanded in the capital, but who are often attracted to the affluent resort towns of Estoril and Cascais.

The city provides 650,000 jobs for only 500,000 residents, and only a quarter of these are of working age, explains the local councillor. “What this means is that every day, more than half a million people commute to and from Lisbon. And that makes it almost unique in Europe. It is only really comparable with Oslo, which is similar to major cities in the United States,” points out geographer João Seixas.

The consequences of this daily influx are dramatic for the city, which fills up and empties like a lung: imbalances, traffic congestion, pollution and noise. “We have 162,000 vehicles registered in Lisbon, but another 400,000 enter the city every day: a major nuisance that contributes nothing to the city’s finances because all of the commuters pay their taxes in neighbouring regions,” explains Salgado.

The Erasmus solution

In the evenings and on weekends, Lisbon empties and an eerie calm descends on the streets of many of its neighbourhoods. Some of the more central ones, where there are a lot of abandoned buildings, suffer from a chronic lack of services. Limited demand has closed down shops and bars, and taxis are hard to find: two issues which have contributed to an exodus of young people who prefer to live in more outlying but livelier neighbourhoods.

Landlords, tenants and municipal authorities all blame each other for the dilapidation of the city’s buildings. The landlords are particularly peeved by urban rental regulations introduced under the Salazar dictatorship in the 1950s, which have resulted in absurdly cheap rents that make renovation a financial impossibility.

In spite of its declining glory, the beauty of Lisbon with its seven hills and omnipresent river Tagus continues to enthral foreign visitors. With this in mind, the municipal government, which is seeking ways to restore the vitality of the capital, is aiming to maximise the impact of the Erasmus programme for student mobility in the European Union. “Our goal is to transform Lisbon into an Erasmus city,” remarks an enthusiastic Manuel Salgado. According to official figures, the annual influx of 3,000 foreign students who come to study in Lisbon’s universities has already done much to boost the local rental market.

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