Candidate: Porto
Location: Portugal
Category: European City of The Year Award (winner)
Year: 2020
Other Finalists in this category: Sheffield, England and Utrecht, Netherlands

Assessment Summary

Porto, located on the Atlantic coast in northern Portugal, is the country’s second city after Lisbon. Porto has a historic core that rises up steep hills on the northern bank of the River Douro and dates back some 2000 years. The city’s identity is synonymous with the unique urban heritage of its historic core with narrow streets and building plots, a consistently varied roof-scape, and a common architectural language characterised by ornate buildings with coloured tiling. Interspersed are prominent large institutional buildings representing state, religion, business and education, including the University of Porto, the oldest University in Portugal renowned for its black-gowned students. The historic core is visually stunning and received UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1996.

Porto’s maritime location surrounded by an extensive highly productive rural hinterland, with strong links to the New World and other European Coastal Cities, has been key to the city’s economic development as a trading and business centre and as an outward-looking city while retaining a strong sense of identity and culture in its people. An example is the ‘port’ trade and warehouses that developed in the 18th century with British support and investment, as a product unique to Porto.

Today the city is still welcoming people from all over the world – not just tourists visiting the historic core, the ‘port’ warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia, the dramatic bridges, and the vineyards along the River Douro, but also people relocating from around Europe, the USA and Latin America. The attraction of Porto is not just its quality of life, location and climate, but it’s international reputation for education, culture and business innovation and because it is welcoming and open-minded. Local people recognise that this influx and exchange is mutually beneficial, as many regularly travel to live and work in other countries themselves. The city has an excellent airport with regular international flights connecting America, Europe and other continents.

The area of Porto Municipality is 42 sq. km. with approx. 250,000 inhabitants. However, this is just the heart of a much larger metropolitan region with 1.8 million inhabitants. Around 250,000 people commute into the city from the surrounding region every day. The Municipality extends about 8km from the coast eastwards and 5km northwards from the Douro. Vila Nova de Gaia, on the southern bank of the Douro directly opposite Porto’s historic core, is in a different municipality.

The city expanded rapidly in the 19th and early 20th century fanning out northwards from the historic core with streets lined by townhouses and the land behind occupied by gardens, numerous manufacturing factories and informal housing known as ‘ilhas’ for the workers migrating from the rural hinterland. By the1920’s the wealthier were building large houses and villas in ‘garden suburbs’ close to the coast to the west, while Campanhã to the east grew as a more working-class area close to industry, railways, etc.

During the late 20th century the city continued to expanded outwards beyond the boundaries of the Porto Municipality. Property investors were attracted to neighbouring municipalities where they could easily develop modern shopping centres, business parks and car-based residential schemes, while the complex historic core and city centre fell into decline as an attractive place to live, work or visit.

Porto has successfully managed to arrest this, in part triggered by its UNESCO World Heritage Status in1996 and designation as European City of Culture in 2001, which provided the impetus for key investment decisions. These included a programme and incentives to restore the city’s historic core, the development of a high-quality airport to support business and tourism growth, and the construction of two metro lines connecting the surrounding suburbs and airport with the city centre and university district. The consequent growth of tourism is attracting further investment in the city centre with new hotels, smart restaurants, high-quality retail and business. Today the city centre is a very busy, vibrant and attractive commercial district serving the whole city-region.

Good management and smart investment decisions by the Municipality of Porto has been instrumental in the city’s re-emergence. This includes the highly successful branding of Porto with exceptionally well-designed contemporary graphics that simply convey the unique qualities and varied character of Porto. These are used, not just in all marketing material, but also across the city on all site hoardings and create a very visible, consistent, playful identity for the city.

Likewise, the metro is a smart, well-designed and efficient system. Stations are spacious, spotless, and easy to use. Money well spent that enhances the city for everyone’s benefit.

Porto has also invested in culture. Signature projects include the ‘Casa da Musica’ designed by Rem Koolhaas of OMA. This is an innovative sculptural building containing exceptional performance and studio spaces that attracts major world-renowned classical musicians and orchestras to perform in the city. The music programme includes bespoke events involving city residents and children. The design is playful and provocative; skateboarders are attracted to the external spaces interact with concertgoers, spaces within the building look out across and reflect the character of the city.

The Serralves Museum designed by Alvaro Siza provides cool, well-mannered bespoke exhibition space set in beautiful gardens that attracts major international contemporary artists such as Olafur Eliasson. These signature projects reflect Porto’s international cultural status for the creative arts, are accessible to local people and form part of Porto’s attractiveness for professional designers to locate in the city.

The city has other wonderful parks – the popular Parque da Cidade has been voted as one of the top five parks in the international Green Flag awards in 2019. A linear park along the River Douro connects the historic centre with the Atlantic coast with its waves, surfers, beaches, promenades, restaurants and cafes.

Walking is already the main form of active movement around the city centre. Surfaces are generally very high quality with cobbled paving, which is both attractive and reduces traffic speed. Cycling is limited in the historic core because of the steep topography and numbers of people but there are ‘leisure routes’ along the river to the beaches and more routes are planned.

The Municipality of Porto is successfully striving to balance economic development with social inclusivity despite the various constraints that the Municipality works within. Governance is like most British and Irish Cities, rather than the typical European City model. Central Government controls general taxation and funds utilities and infrastructure such as transport. Local Government raises local property taxation and is responsible for economic development, urban planning, housing and social care. However, the City has an elected Mayor and elected Heads of Department who are professionals in their fields.

The Municipality of Porto has been very effective in challenging these constraints to benefit the city. For example, having presented a strong financial business case to the Transport Ministry, Porto has been given direct control of the extensive public transport bus network in the city. A recent significant two-thirds reduction in public transport fares is resulting in a significant modal shift from private cars and improving public transport efficiency. All buses in the city are fuelled by low-emission natural gas or electricity.

The Municipality is currently finalising its new 10-year City Development Plan. This includes a transport and movement strategy, that focuses on modal shift away from ‘car-centric behaviour’ to a more ‘shared space’ approach, and a policy of ‘urban consolidation’ of existing urban neighbourhoods- protecting and improving these areas as places to live and work. Projects to be implemented as soon as the Plan is approved by the Municipality Council, include expanding the Metro to increase capacity, improving bus lanes using existing road space, improving the quality of the public realm, new pedestrian wayfinding and signage throughout the city. The municipality is finalising the design of several ‘exemplar’ public realm projects in different neighbourhoods, spaces and streets around the city.

A major area of focus is the urban regeneration of the eastern part of the city, centred on the Campanhã district. The district effectively consists of three zones that have their own spatial qualities, but which include vacant factories and lands, an abandoned power plant and industrial buildings, as well as railways and motorways.

The southern part is a natural extension to the city centre, with a dense residential tissue including urban streets, clusters of ‘ilhas’, winding back lanes and patches of vacant land and buildings as reminders of the manufacturing heydays within a densely populated area. The northern part is closer to the University R&D and Innovation District, with the FC Porto’s ‘Dragon Stadium’ next to the railway and motorway intersection.

The area has been much studied as a ‘test’ bed for ideas by architecture, landscape and planning students at the University of Porto and internationally, that have identified many possibilities including reusing old factory buildings, new innovative housing and parks.

The Municipality has this year agreed a ‘strategic masterplan’ – a key project just starting on site is the new Campanhã intermodal transport terminal as a new arrival point into the city. The property and land ownership system in Porto also appears very similar to British and Irish systems, with high private ownership levels. For example, 87% of housing is private (owner occupied/rented) with just 13% owned by the Municipality. People appear very respectful of property ownership, with no visible evidence of temporary occupancy of vacant land or buildings.

Social cohesion is strong with numerous community associations at neighbourhood level. This includes ‘working men’s’ clubs run on a cooperative basis that are welcoming to everyone. This cohesion extends to the passion that people have for ‘FC Porto’, which has an impressive youth training centre bringing together children in the city and forming long-term friendships and bonds with the city.

The Municipality of Porto takes an active role working with neighbourhoods and communities, including providing social support for the more vulnerable and through housing improvement programmes. The Municipality is currently developing several social housing pilot projects to test various procurement processes, including public-private partnership, direct investment and in-house design as the first steps in a longer-term programme to create high quality urban housing in the city. The Municipality also runs cultural programmes for different groups. This includes an arts programme for older people to counteract isolation and loneliness, in which they develop local theatre groups that write and perform plays in the main city theatre.

Noticeable in Porto are the high number of small local independent businesses – greengrocers, bakeries, launderettes, newsagents, cafes, etc. in local neighbourhoods. There are also plenty of independent art galleries, furniture designers and boutiques reflecting the creative element of the city. Such small independent businesses are actively encouraged and supported with measures including local property tax exemptions. This reflects the strong sense in the Municipality of their social responsibility to support the community as being integral to the economic development and urban life of the city, and to maintain its unique qualities and individual character.

The University of Porto which is the largest University in Portugal, is providing a dynamic role in the City’s economic development as an international centre of excellence. Formal programmes and links have been established with top Universities internationally. Research and development at the University is extremely creative and innovative. The ‘Porto Innovation District’ has attracted and supports many ‘start-ups’ and ‘scale-ups’ – ranging from new high-quality manufacturing to shared e-mobility systems. Porto is the top city in Portugal for patent filing at the European Patent Office. ‘CEiiA’ is an excellent example of innovative business based in the Matosinhos area. Created in 1999 the company is working with international partners on developing technological solutions in mobility, aeronautics, marine and the automotive sectors – pushing boundaries and ideas in these industries through their ‘Living Lab’ which applies and evaluates the impact of new technology in urban settings.

Porto is continuing its long tradition of being innovative, internationally outward looking, friendly and welcoming. The City values its unique character, identity and rich heritage as a cultural asset. With it’s progressive, pro-active Municipality, it is successfully creating a balanced, sustainable, connected city for the future and an attractive place for people to live, work and enjoy.

Lead assessor:

Philip Jackson AoU

Deputy lead assessors:

David Lumb AoU 

Victoria Whenray AoU

The Academy of Urbanism (Number 2) Limited is a not-for-profit organisation limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales 0595604, 11c Milton Road, Cambridge CB4 IXE, United Kingdom.
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