Urban Islands In Times Of a Pandemic Or Boredom As Priviledge

By Diana Soeiro

My main research activity is developed within the ROCK project, funded by the European Union, under the Horizon 2020 programme, involving 13 European cities. Briefly, the project focuses on researching how can urban regeneration be promoted through cultural heritage. In Portugal it features two hosts, ICS-UL and Lisbon’s City Hall, promoting a methodology that encourages a close dialogue between the university and public institutions, known as action-research. The goal is that both institutions inform each other so that research translates into action, and action informs research. The selected area where the action-research takes place is in the neighbourhoods of Marvila and Beato (Lisbon). Since the beginning of the project, in 2017, this is the territory where the team has been focused.

Being an industrial site throughout the 20th century, as the investment in the industrial sector decayed so did the territory. In the 1980s and 1990s it became a privileged site for social housing. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, due to its strategic position in the inner city combined with a lot of available building space, it was decreed as Lisbon’s new innovation centre, welcoming the tech industry, start-ups and the creative industries. It is a territory with many historical layers, all intertwined, socially complex and with many contradictions. The ROCK project will end in June 2020 and due to current restrictions related to the pandemic, all closing activities were cancelled and the daily closeness with the territory became impossible. Does the current situation open new and unforeseen questions concerning the territory? At best it deepens all questions we previously had and it can be expected that the pandemic increases previously existing social and spatial inequalities. Soon enough several research articles will address this taking as case studies areas and cities from all over the world that will corroborate this. Me and my colleague Tim Poggemann were working on an article on the lack of mobility and accessibility in the ROCK area that now seems more relevant than before.

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A map showing the ROCK area identifying cultural agents. Workshop conducted at Marvila Library, 7 February 2020. Source: photo by Diana Soeiro.

However, at this point I propose to pose a question that points towards a different direction.

Instead of asking how does the pandemic impact the ROCK territory, I ask what can we learn from the ROCK territory in order to have a better understanding of the current restrictions put in place due to the pandemic? The neighbourhoods of Marvila and Beato already experience several of the problems that now the rest of the city is experiencing. What is a state of exception for the city has been the rule in Marvila and Beato for many decades now.

According to my own research interests I identify five main elements as relevant to draw this parallel that I briefly describe:

1) AN URBAN ISLAND: Throughout the 20th century and up until now, Marvila and Beato were always conceived as an island, removed from the rest of the city. Firstly due to its industrial activity, its inhabitants were mainly factory workers. Later on, it hosted many internal migrants in the form of informal settlements; then, social housing. In decay and socially deprived only recently there is interest in regenerating the area. Its inhabitants experience isolation and a sense of fragmentation on a daily basis.

2) MOBILITY and ACCESS: The area has a low investment is mobility and access. Public transport is limited. The best options are having a car or walking. However, not everyone owns a car and urban design does not favour low mobility (walking and cycling). In some areas, orientation is difficult due to poor public lighting and lack of signboards – which in some areas also reflects negatively in safety.

3) FRAGMENTED GOVERNANCE: The area has a hard time defining a strategy in order to develop. Throughout history it is possible to trace different ideas among different actors and different hierarchical levels where national policies contradict regional or local policies. It becomes hard to understand what is the development strategy for the area.

4) INNOVATION: Up to what extent were Marvila and Beato prepared to become Lisbon’s new innovation centre? The concept of sustainability needs to go beyond the economic and ecological realm. A sustainable solution needs to be a socially sustainable solution.

5) HEALTH: A fragmented and isolated territory has an impact on health — which also encompasses mental health. This reflects in a lower quality of life and well-being. It also affects its inhabitants’ ability to be able to access and keep a job, being able to self-sustain economically (the area has the highest unemployment rate in Lisbon). When you actively spatially distance and isolate people you can expect them to survive but not to thrive.

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Source: Photo by Marek Okon on Unsplash

What to make of all this? American geographer Edward Soja (1940-2015) created the concept of spatial justice (Seeking Spatial Justice, 2010) in order to argue that space has an active role in defining history and the social fabric. To spatially exclude and isolate creates social and economic obstacles. These can be overcome through a different space use where connectivity is the key. However, to live in a state of disconnection and fragmentation is a setup for social and economic failure which judging from the current pandemic situation, takes many years to recover from.

Now that we all feel like living in an island the awareness of the nefarious economic, social and health effects of urban islands should be clearer than ever. Along with it, the importance of regenerating them promoting healthier and wealthier cities.

The current pandemic also shows us that equal restriction measures, equally applied to all, reflect very differently in territories, families and people. More than ever, inequalities are fully exposed since some have more material, social and psychological resources than others. In that sense, along with restriction measures, additional measures should be thought out, and implemented, in order to compensate inherent fragilities. Current measures are equally applied but if they fail to address previous inequalities, lack fairness.

The identification of those fragilities and which additional measures could be put in place it is something that social sciences can contribute to. Our current paradox as human beings is that though surrounded by boredom, being bored is a privilege we cannot afford.


Diana Soeiro (Philosophy, PhD and Economics and Public Policy, Post-grad) is a postdoctoral researcher at the ROCK project “Regeneration and optimization of cultural heritage in the creative and knowledge cities” (2017-2020), hosted at ICS-UL, funded by the European Union, under the Horizon 2020 programme.

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