Lisbon: a city shaped by its location / part 1

new5This is apart of the Learning From Lisbon Report, to read more click here.

Throughout its history, the location of Lisbon, positioned on the banks of a large harbour at the periphery of Europe, and sheltered from the ocean, has been one of its major defining qualities: shaping its character in providing the opportunity for cultural exchange. It is also its location, combined with its topographic characteristics that led to a series of natural catastrophes – an earthquake, tsunami and widespread fires – tragically forcing the subsequent direction of the city’s development.

1.1 Legacy of history

Long before Dom Afonso Henriques took the city of Lisbon from the Moors in 1147, and subsequently made it the capital of his Kingdom of Portugal, the city was already a well-established urban centre. In succession Arabs, Visigoths, Romans, Phoenicians and Greeks had left their mark both on the physical cityscape and on the city’s character, which is still clearly defined by trade and multicultural influences.

Lisbon was born of a “citadel”, located north of the present castle of Saint Jorge. It was one of several human settlements, developed in the prehistoric period that took advantage of the fertile land located around the large Tagus estuary. Since these times, and up to the middle ages, the local populations were in constant contact with traders from the Mediterranean region and, to a certain extent, those from the western and northern European seaboard.

When the Romans occupied Lisbon (Olisipo) in 195 BC, subduing the local people, they oversaw a period of significant socio-economic development, implementing important urban equipment and developing road connections with other parts of Iberia, namely to Emerita (Mérida) and Bracara (Braga).

Coinciding with the decline of the Roman Empire, Lisbon suffered a period of unrest, with successive invasions of Germanic people (Visigoths, Suebi). This continued up until the Arabs finally settled in 719 AD, bringing with them stability and wealth. At this time Lisbon (Luxbuna) was dominated by a population of wealthy landowners and merchants, who took advantage of the city’s strategic location, in the context of the trade routes between the ports of the Mediterranean and northern Europe.

During this period, and perhaps due to the focus on trade and external contacts, Muslims, Christians and Jews inhabited what was a multicultural and tolerant city, open to external influences. The Muslim presence in Lisbon left traces including, amongst other things, the place names of Arabic origin such as Alfama, Benfica, Alcantara, as well as the characteristic urban fabric of Arab cities, still visible today in the historic districts of Alfama and Mouraria.

In 1147, Dom Afonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, conquered the city and his period of reign saw Lisbon grow in size, expanding beyond its pre-existing city walls. Whilst the conquered population were generally tolerated, a large number were forced to relocate to outside of the city. Notably, by this point Mouraria had been established by the Muslim population, known as the “moorish quarter” (literal meaning of Mouraria).

In 1400, in order to meet the needs of an ever increasing population, King Dom João I expanded the city further, to the west towards the hill of Carmo. Then, in 1500, the court of King Dom Manuel abandoned the castle to a new palace on Terreiro do Paço, where all the commercial life within the city was to be focused for the following 250 years.

Lisbon in the 1500’s:
The period from 1500 to 1549 saw the reign on of King Manuel I and King Dom João III and was a time characterized by the pinnacle of Portuguese overseas expansion and the affirmation of Portugal as an Empire, placing it as one of the richest kingdoms in the world at the time. During this period, a large number of products from Asia, Africa and the New World – including spices, silks, exotic woods, tea, coffee and sugar – made their way into Europe via Lisbon. Importantly, the constant contact with these new cultures through trade meant that Lisbon was not only shaping the cultural outlook of Portugal but also, in part, of Europe.

Jerónimos Monastery, in Belém

With all the wealth accumulated as a result of overseas trade, the Arts were able to flourish and consequently during this period, many magnificent monuments were built, characterized by the exuberant imagination of the Manueline style. One of the most emblematic examples of this was the Monastery of Santa Maria de Belém, commonly known as the Jerónimos Monastery. It epitomised a marked characteristic of Lisbon that remains to date: the widespread acceptance of the “new” and untested.

1755 marked a key milestone in the history of Lisbon and its development. A large earthquake, followed by a tsunami and widespread fires destroyed approximately two-thirds of the city and killed between 15% and 20% of its population of 200,000 at the time.

This catastrophic event enabled the planned reconstruction of the affected area, as overseen by Marquis of Pombal, the Prime Minister to the King Jose I. Over the following few decades a new, modern city was to rise from the rubble. The innovative plan adopted was centred on an orthogonal street pattern, and a form of architecture that was both practical and had due consideration for seismic resistance – a world first.

The reconstruction of Lisbon was also the first of a series of planned expansions that began to shape the city and worked to accommodate for its subsequent growth over the following two centuries. Despite the challenging economic situation of the country, which had never recovered the heights of its heyday between 15th – 17th centuries, the 1800’s and early 1900’s were marked by the ambitious construction of spacious thoroughfares and parks associated with leafy new neighbourhoods.

Lisbon in 1833:
After World War I, Lisbon’s urban development was markedly institutional, with a number of new notable buildings, residential neighbourhoods and area redevelopments, which represented the regime’s ideals and evoked past glories. One of the prime examples was the regeneration of the Belem area, where monuments from the 15th and 16th centuries were joined by 20th century architecture, and significant open spaces were created, which are still a significant attraction to tourists and locals alike.

Mayor Duarte Pacheco, Mayor and later Minister of Public Works, oversaw the construction of new districts, drawn by the new urbanists, and which were characterised by wide streets and a homogeneity of the design, commonly called Soft Portuguese style.

Under the guidance of Duarte Pacheco, the municipality decided to create a green park in Monsanto. Traversed by a motorway linking Lisbon to the National Stadium, this was and remains to be one of the largest urban parks in Europe, an essential green lung to a city that is dense and lacking in real green spaces.

The 25th April 1974 revolution saw upheaval of the country’s dictatorship government and the consequential democratisation of Portugal, for the first time in its history. Following on from this Lisbon grew significantly, with population influxes from the countryside and from the previous African colonies that had recently gained independence. Large swathes of slums and illegal neighbourhoods blighted the outskirts of the city, which have existed until quite recently, when concerted efforts from the various Greater Lisbon municipalities finally achieved in eradicating or regularising the majority of these.

Increased affluence and improved transport connections since the 1970s, influenced the growth of the peripheral suburbs, where better, more modern accommodation can now be found. This trend meant that the population within the municipality of Lisbon was decreasing, despite the fact that the Lisbon Metropolitan area was growing quite rapidly.

The infrastructural challenges brought about by the growth of the periphery of the city created considerable constraints, especially regarding traffic congestion, car parking and waste collection.

Despite challenges, Lisbon has remained a city that welcomes development and innovation and even yearns for it, as demonstrated by the hosting of the World Exhibition in 1998. This was a 6-month long event which had a profound impact on the city, by drastically regenerating the easterly side of the city that, until then, had been occupied by industrial infrastructure, neglected and almost forgotten to the rest of the city. Most of all, what Expo 98 achieved was to remind Lisbon’s people of their long-standing role in delivering modernity, pushing boundaries and contributing to advances in all areas of knowledge.

1.2       Lisbon Today

Lisbon is the centre of a metropolitan area of over 2,800,000 inhabitants. The city of Lisbon itself, corresponding to only one of the 18 municipalities that form the Lisbon Metropolitan Area, has approximately 550,000 inhabitants. However, despite the growth of the areas surrounding it, the city still attracts the majority of commuting trips in the wider area, which puts significant pressure on the transport infrastructure.


Municipality Area (km2) Population
North Bank (Grande Lisboa)
Amadora 23.8 175,558
Cascais 97.2 205,117
Lisbon 84.6 545,245
Loures 169 205,577
Mafra 291.5 76,749
Odivelas 26.6 143,755
Oeiras 45.8 172,063
Sintra 319.4 377,249
Vila Franca de Xira 323.5 136,510
South Bank (Peninsula de Setubal)
Alcochete 132.8 17,565
Almada 70.2 173,298
Barreiro 32 79,042
Moita 54.6 66,311
Montijo 348 51,308
Palmela 465.9 62,549
Seixal 95.7 157,981
Sesimbra 195.7 49,183
Setubal 193.6 120,791
Lisbon Metropolitan Area TOTAL 2,957.4 2,815,851

The Lisbon Metropolitan Area corresponds to 3.3% of the national territory, but is home for almost 3 million people, approximately a quarter of Portugal’s population. There almost 150,000 third-level students in the Greater Lisbon Area, the vast majority of which are studying in the city itself.

At an economic level, it concentrates about 25% of the working population, 30% of domestic enterprises, 33% of employment and contributes over 36% of national GDP. The city of Lisbon is still the largest economic driver within the Metropolitan Area, with about 100,000 companies out of 340,000 in the region.

Lisbon airport is the largest in the country and the ports of Lisbon and Setúbal are playing a growing role due to the region’s pivotal position between northern Europe, the Mediterranean and Africa.

Lisbon sees itself as a prime location for regional headquarters or European multinational companies, being a very competitive space to attract research centres, and competence centres of multinationals.

One of the strengths of Lisbon is arguably its status as a tourist destination, and this has been reflected in the ever-increasing numbers of visitors, but also on the lengths of visits and quality of tourism attracted. Undoubtedly this is a reflection of Lisbon’s location, the topography, and the city’s unique character – tangible and intangible – forged from the many cultural influences over its history.

1.3       Lisbon: a City of Bairros

“Lisbon is a City of Bairros”. This is an often heard statement, but it is not as clear what makes it so, and what indeed is a bairro. The most approximate translation to English would point to “neighbourhood”, but it can be argued, that in the context of Lisbon, this word has a deeper meaning, encompassing a mix of administrative, historic, architectural and social characteristics tempered by a strong influence of local perception.


The subjective aspect is brought into play by the manner in which people (both local and not local) have perceived a given area of the city over its history. Areas such as Alfama, Bairro Alto, Mouraria, Bica, Graça and Madragoa are clear bairros for the people of Lisbon, despite not having clear, defined boundaries. For example, the definition between Graça and Mouraria is blurred at the best of times. It is generally considered that Graça occupies the crest of the hill with the same name, whereas Mouraria would be the same hill’s western slope, including the western slope of the Castle hill. There are, of course areas of each that are never disputed, but the fringes of each area are often claimed by different bairros. This has been clearly demonstrated by academic research, which studied the perception issues associated with six different neighbourhoods of Lisbon, chosen to provide a wide spectrum of socio-economic type, origin (legal vs. illegal) and antiquity. It is clear that the local population tends to include large sections of what would be areas generally identified with other neighbouring bairros.

In Lisbon, bairros can be found in old, historic areas, but also in new developments, which says a lot for the human dimension attached to the terminology. The Bairros de Lisboa 2012 project has demonstrated that, for example, inhabitants of the area of Telheiras, largely developed over the 80’s and 90’s, are happy to call their neighbourhood a bairro.

The social interaction aspect is potentially what makes localism and community-led projects so successful in Lisbon. There is obvious pride in communities, and that is reflected in the participation of local population attained at planning and political processes.

Bairros tend to have an underlying network of well-established community groups/clubs that look after activities like sports, culture, childcare, and care for the elderly. In Lisbon, the Municipality has for the past few years been working closely with these groups to deliver small initiatives, especially with regards to social equipment, requalification and cultural events.

Words by Tiago Oliveira 

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