On November 1, 1755, an earthquake nearly destroyed the city of Lisbon and its surroundings. As a consequence, the city had to be rebuilt from scratch: the entire Baixa, the historic heart of the city, ceased to exist, and the new Lisbon became the city of the citizen, not the crown.
This story of Lisbon’s renewal after the earthquake is one that inspires change and empowerment of the common people. Today, efforts to build a a city for its citizens are a global trend, and they remain central to Lisbon’s philosophy.
In 2007, the local elections in Lisbon brought a new administration to power that was interested in more open and democratic ways of urban governance and instituted the first participatory budgeting scheme in Europe. This system allows NGOs to submit urban projects to a popular vote for inclusion in the city’s investment budget. These projects make up 5% of the total budget.
Further, the Lisbon Master Plan of 2012 aims to deliver “a city for the future, a city for its people,” placing emphasis on the public spaces. One proposition was make the waterfront for the people. The Plan also introduced a more decentralized policymaking by transferring many of the city council’s powers to the 23 parishes of Lisbon.
Last but not least, the city has decided to invest in the less affluent neighborhoods with a focus on citizen involvement. In one of Lisbon’s oldest areas, named Mouraria, socio-economic initiatives led to the establishment of community kitchens and an open-air cinema, and the city invested in an innovation center for social entrepreneurs. Finally, as a means to keep the the identity of Mouraria, photographs of the residents were affixed to walls.
Another example of urban heritage returned to the people is the manufacturing complex in Alcântara. This industrial site was erected in 1846. Nowadays the 23.000 square meters space has been renamed LX Factory and has rapidly became on of Lisbon’s hippest spots. In addition to being a work space for young professionals and businesses, it also stages arts, architecture, fashion, and music events.
Lisbon is often seen as an outsider among European capitals, due mostly to geography. But the city’s ambition to build a vibrant and forward-looking city serves as a model for the democratic principles. The participatory budgeting and decentralization in policymaking can be seen as an example for the development of the post-carbon cities of tomorrow on both sides of the Atlantic.