Case study: the neighbourhood of Telheiras in Lisbon, Portugal
35 years ago when the first residents started moving into a newly developed neighbourhood in Lisbon, little did they know that many years later it would be considered one of the best places to live in Lisbon. If in those days it felt very much as work in progress, today it’s a vibrant, green neighbourhood, with a historic centre, a library, schools, small independent retail, a very active residents association, an outdoor gym area, cafés and restaurants, parks, allotments, play areas and a tube station.
Fig. 1 – Telheiras (black hatch) in the context of Lisbon – extract from the 1967’s Local Plan
Before the development started the area consisted of agricultural land with small agricultural buildings and other structures such as wells and was part in public, part in private ownership. Despite the fact that the soil of was good quality, given the systemic and worsening lack of housing in Lisbon, the 1967 “Local Plan” designated this area located on the edge of town for residential uses.
Lisbon Council then appointed a French team – OTAM / Interlande – coordinated by the Architect Gilles O’Callaghan to masterplan the area. However with the end of the dictatorship in 1974 came radical political and social change and in 1975 a new team of Portuguese Architects (Pedro Vieira de Almeida e Augusto Pita) was brought on board to lead the new masterplan process. The project was no longer being led by the Council but was now being developed under the umbrella of the newly created Public Enterprise for the Urbanisation of Lisbon or EPUL who proceeded with CPOs on the private parcels of land (to some extent) in order to consolidate ownership.
The project team developed a design code which controlled spatial characteristics such as street widths and hierarchy, the volume and form of the proposed buildings, the location and function of spaces between buildings, as well as the land uses and urban functions distribution and location. EPUL subsequently appointed individual architects to design each building, which resulted in a diverse and expressive overall scheme.
Fig 2 – Perimeter blocks
The masterplan’s brought together modernist and traditional city design concepts. For instance, the design code’s principles promoted a minimalistic and functional building design, and while some buildings were placed in an isolated (modernist) manner, L-shaped buildings were also inserted in such a way to frame and define the street scene. A functional layout designed around perimeter blocks also provided each block with an individual character whilst complementing each other and working together as a whole. Medium-high buildings (6/7 storeys) were designed alongside lower terraced houses and 1/2 storey buildings creating interest and a varied height profile.
Whilst it took nearly 30 years for the full vision to be realised, the neighbourhood’s baseline structure (i.e. its streets) was nearly all in place from the start. This was possible due to public sector investment and although it meant that for many years there were several vacant plots, it ultimately translated into a well-planed and connected place.
Fig 3 – variation in building heights
Emphasis was also placed on the design of the street corridors, from both a pedestrian and driver’s perspective. Initially, possibly influenced by the Athens Charter there was a large degree of separation between vehicles and pedestrians. This was abandoned later on as the first underground crossings suffered from some degree of vandalism and crime.
The street corridors were heavily landscaped and designed in such a way to be punctuated by several points of interest and frame views. They also were dotted with street furniture and services/shops were positioned along key corridors and locations to create attractive and active streets and spaces. A thriving nigh-time economy with several cafes and restaurants staying open until 11pm also helps to create a lively urban environment.
Fig 4 – One of the retail streets
The existing historic buildings, despite not being listed, and pattern of streets were retained and sensitively integrated with contemporary new-builds and helped to afford a sense of place and connection to past history and local heritage. Most of the buildings have been throughout the years, renovated and converted to residential, community (library and theatre) and a restaurant.
Fig 5 – New builds on the left hand side, renovated historic buildings on the right hand side
Transport provision started with bus services and in the last 10 years extended to a subway station which connects directly to the city centre. The entrance to the subway station was used as a focal point to a newly designed greenspace.
In addition, large amounts of greenspace, designed and built over 30 years, were created around the neighbourhood with carefully located equipment and functions in order to avoid dead spaces. This includes a large park, smaller pocket spaces, an allotment, a play area and even an outdoor gym.
Fig. 6 – One of Telheiras many cafés
The social and economic profile of Telheiras’s residents was possibly one of the determinant factors in the neighbourhood’s success. For a while it was the neighbourhood in Europe with the highest density of residents who held a University degree. Its residents shared similar professional backgrounds, were mostly young and having children which certainly helped bringing people together. Although located in a large city, even today there are always children playing on the streets and it feels safe.
A very active residents association was created in 1988 as a group of people who had in common the wish to create not just a place where people lived but a thriving neighbourhood where everyone knew each other and fought together for common causes. Through the years this involved liaising with the Council for better conditions and services, such as an increased school provision, the management and maintenance of existing green spaces, as well as improving on traffic and safety issues. The association has also set up a very busy schedule of leisure activities such as guitar lessons, yoga, theatre and singing classes, etc.
Fig 7 – Telheiras festival held in the large park
Having grown up in Telheiras myself, one of the most important lessons the neighbourhood thought me is that buildings and places don’t have to look and feel expensive to be successful. A wealth of money might be poured into expensive cladding, paving and furniture but sometimes its people and time who determine the success of a place. That and good planning coupled with upfront, long-term return investment plans which many times are only possible through public-led development. Telheiras is a prime example of well-planned public sector led place making whilst also a living proof that successful urban places take time to be created, to mature and find an identity.