1 - Under-occupied area?
2 - What makes this block a choice for 22,990 people?
3 - (Almost) everything has changed since seven years ago
4 - Where is the rest of Lisbon?

To explain the rules, Nahid Opu only needs the crumbs of puff pastry that have fallen from a pastel de nata onto the saucer. “This is the field,” he delimits the edges of the plate with the cake. He moves a crumb to one side and we realize that he is positioning a player. He talks about “a flat bat,” “a wooden ball,” and the points we can earn if we know how to throw it in the air.

Today, he plays on a coffee plate, because the rain threatens to fall outside; but it is on the lawns of Alameda that he usually plays cricket, since he arrived in Portugal, from Bangladesh, in that cold December 2019. A sport followed in that country since you were a child (with the same enthusiasm that people here talk about the ball that runs at Cristiano Ronaldo’s feet) and that is less and less strange to Lisbon.

In Alameda, this 26 year old Bengali does sports. And on any street in his neighborhood he finds food and people from the country he left behind.

That’s why he chose to live and work here – he owns a mini-market, Rahman, with his uncle – he and many others, of multiple nationalities, in what is the block with the highest concentration of residents in Lisbon. An area shared between the boroughs of Arroios and Penha de França, and that crosses busy streets such as Almirante Reis, Morais Soares and Paiva Couceiro.

We gathered data from the last Census to confirm the hegemony of this block in the statistics.

We followed the INE’s measure of 1000 by 1000 meters to define a block, which will be exactly 100 hectares. Here we could fit about 136 soccer fields. And there are currently 22,990 people living here, according to the 2021 Census. It is as if we had a little more than the total capacity of the Restelo stadium stands watching 136 different soccer games. And then spread out across the pitches to live there, in 14 425 homes.

Note on the map: The zones painted in light blue and without data show areas without any residence or residents – such as the airport area, Monsanto and at the entrance of the Vasco da Gama Bridge. Due to the anatomy of the city, not all blocks are the same size, with those at the edges of the city having less weight.

Still, nothing that resembles the many blocks in Bangladesh, recalls Nahid. Places “where it is hard to breathe” with so much population concentrated in one space.

There are many more like him, fugitives from a life that they hoped would improve as soon as they landed in Lisbon, which help explain this data. It is enough to see that in the parish of Arroios, of the 33,302 residents, 23% are foreigners – the majority arriving from Nepal and Bangladesh. In Penha de França, they represent about 15% of the total. They find in this space a kind of coziness that they say other areas of the city didn’t give them: in affective terms – so many others with the same origin live here; but also financially – it was here that Nahid found a house that fit his pocket.

Even in the toponymy their history is inscribed, in this block where other countries and cities became street names, such as Guinea, Zaire, Mozambique, São Tomé, and Cardiff.

That’s why when resident Irina Pampim, 41 years old, also a scholar of the urban transformations in the city, heard about the statistics, “it was just a gathering of conclusions”: there was a reason for the amount of people, Portuguese and immigrants, that in the early morning and late afternoon, especially, filled the sidewalks, “much more than in other parts of the city”.

And for the many people who, on the day we met, “didn’t stop passing by, even during office hours” – almost all of them carrying bags with international slogans and a smell of spices that Portugal doesn’t usually taste in its food.

Irina has lived on this block for seven years. Photo: Rita Ansone

This is not only the most populous block in Lisbon, it is also the most populous in the country.

In the Iberian Peninsula, it is soon surpassed by a block in A Coruña. But, in 2018, The Guardian newspaper already pointed it out as the 13th in a list of the 15 most populated blocks in Europe.

Under-Occupied area?

That ‘s 22,990. But could we have even more fans in the stands in these more than a hundred games? An entire Jamor, Alvalade Stadium or Luz Stadium? Even though the high number of residents makes this block worthy of registration, the context of the area may indicate that it is under-occupied.

INE data shows that housing concentration is low: there are the equivalent of 1.5 people per dwelling. “With 14,425 dwellings, it is already considered an urbanistically dense area, but the residential density, although high, could be even higher, because so could the concentration. This area could be under-occupied. If we consider two or three people per house, we’d be talking about 40 thousand people, double that”, Jorge Malheiros, geographer and researcher at the Center for Geographical Studies (CEG) at the University of Lisbon raises the question.

INE, National Statistical Office, considers “housing” to be all “distinct and independent places that, due to the way they have been built, reconstructed, enlarged, transformed or are being used, are intended for habitation with the condition that they are not being used entirely for other purposes at the moment of reference”. This means that tourist accommodation will be excluded from the outset.

And it wasn’t necessary to dig that deep to realize how some dwellings are overcrowded (and not under-occupied), which may not be represented in the Census: Nahid lives with three other people in a one-bedroom apartment; his neighbor lives with seven other people in a one-bedroom apartment, too. And, when Irina arrived here, the building where she went to live had immigrants, and she saw “eight to ten people in the same house,” she says. They often live in unhealthy situations, with a lack of privacy, and almost like ghosts in the city – afraid to report their situation to the same authorities that can denounce the lack of regularization with which they live.

So what can justify the fact that the Census shows such a low concentration of people per dwelling? The geographer puts forward some possible explanations:

  • “Arroios, Penha de França and Santa Maria Maior are still transitional areas, undergoing regeneration projects – the works we see happening on the buildings are evidence of this. But the census doesn’t always reflect this aspect.” And we find a sign of these times in the 2o21 Census: in this block in question, the number of classic buildings (according to INE, “buildings whose structure and materials used have a non-precarious character and an expected duration of at least 10 years”) is 1976. Therefore, of the more than 14,000 buildings, only 13% are not considered precarious.
  • “Interesting to know how many empty or partially empty houses there are.” Even though a municipal report released in 2022 advanced that the city will have 48,000 unoccupied houses, the municipality itself has warned about the lack of certainty about this number. But it already gives us some clues: the report indicates precisely the parishes of Arroios and Penha de França as those that, in absolute numbers, have the most vacant houses – 3890 in the first, 2867 in the second.
  • Immigrants in irregular situations may not be counted, or those who do not want to report that they live in an overcrowded house and decrease the number of residents announced.”
  • “And the INE doesn’t always capture new phenomena: we now have digital nomads and the INE still adopts a very classical concept of ‘resident’,” meaning that more may be missed in the statistics.
  • The inquirer may not have distinguished all Local Accommodation from housing”, which would help explain why there are so many “lodgers”: if it were smaller, the difference between lodging and residents would be greater and we would not have 1.5 people per house. “And I doubt that INE is going to check the licenses. Be aware that the Census is very reliable, but it doesn’t always capture the moment of transition of a building or dwelling – in this era of great transformation in the city,” says the geographer again.

The current concept of “residents” covers “persons who have lived at their place of usual residence for a continuous period of at least 12 months preceding the census moment; arrived at their place of usual residence in the 12 months preceding the census moment, with the intention of remaining there for at least one year; who have been temporarily absent from their place of usual residence for a short period of time in the last 12 months for work, vacation or other reasons.”

Maybe not all immigrants are registered here. But what about the students we see walking day and night through these streets, in and out of the many rented rooms? Are they included? “They may be accounted for, yes, others not,” says Jorge Malheiros.

When Irina arrived here, the block already sounded in other languages, but not like today. Photo: Rita Ansone

“I have friends and friends of friends who rent rooms in their houses to students,” says Irina. She herself has already decided to rent one of the rooms in her house, at a time in her life when it would help her make ends meet. And the conversation arrives at Hernâni’s pastry shop, the Pastelaria Granada, overlooking the beginning of this block and where Irina was sitting: “In September, you can see everyone asking if there is a room here, if there is a room there”, shares the shopkeeper.

Hernâni had no idea about these statistics, although they didn’t even surprise him. “It’s normal. From the reports I saw about Arroios, each house has “I don’t know how many residence certificates,” the document that immigrants need for regularization.

And he has another fact for the exchange: “I know that it is the coolest area in the country, it has many nationalities. I even saw that in a news report. From the country or from Europe?” he throws at Irina. “I don’t have a clue. I know it’s the coolest in my heart,” ripostes the resident.

What makes this block a choice for 22,990 people?

While the conversation was still neither about inflation nor when we would see the real estate bubble burst, Irina Pampim bought a house on this block. It was November 2016, she was 34 years old and it was the second time she had bought a house. She wanted to leave Amadora, to be closer to work, near Martim Moniz.

She re-built a basement with a backyard located on Rua Carlos Mardel, in a section of this block that she came to discover to be the most populated in Lisbon, in the country, and one of the most populated in Europe.

It is the house she currently lives in, but which she did not buy at such a current price: 132 thousand Euros. The search was not easy: “It was already difficult to get this amount for a two-bedroom at the time” – but not impossible. “And this distance, which is not so relative, says a lot about what happened in Lisbon”, when it comes to housing.

And the area? Was it a criterion of choice? “I depend a lot on neighborhood life”, she was born in Lisbon, but without this neighborhood life that she has come to crave, with stints in Amadora and Castro Verde. That’s why, in conversation with Hernâni, who tells how he would like to build a terrace there, on top of the Arroios market, Irina says that: “if there are people, it’s good, I like to see people”. “In the matrix, I’m very unurban. I needed a square, a community, to be closer to work, to make life there, not just be the dormitory.”

Found it here.

The block is divided between tall, new construction, older, and restored buildings. Photos: Rita Ansone

But what explains that it is such a populated area?

Experts in sociology, demography and geography confirm this: it will always be difficult to come up with a single answer to a question that depends on so much historical, geographical, anthropological and sociological context. But people like Irina suggest some possibilities: besides being the meeting point of several nationalities, who find in the street commerce and in the common places (like Martim Moniz) a bit of a home, Irina reminds us that there are still houses here whose prices don’t seem to have reached those of other areas of the city. And houses where there is flexibility for several people to sleep in one room. This is reflected in a block characterized by “precariousness”.

But this seems to be changing.

Here is an example of what is available in the parish of Arroios, in terms of renting and buying rooms and houses. In a search on the Idealista platform, without applying any financial ceiling on the search engine, these are the results of rooms for rent – 184 available.

But if we limit the search to 400 euros per month, the results drop dramatically to only ten.

As for houses available for rent, the offer is limited to 100, with no maximum price.

And a single apartment if the ceiling is 900 euros.

(Almost) everything has changed since seven years ago

As a resident, the big difference of living here is in the menu or the music you hear, voluntarily or involuntarily. Like, “on a summer weekend, having dinner in the backyard and suddenly hearing Italians singing Bella Ciao.

“It’s a very large community of different knowledges and flavors. And completely settled too” – like the seamstress where Irina goes since 2017: Helena, who came from the East about 20 years ago, with a store in this block and “already with the specificities of the Portuguese accent.”

Nahid Opu proves what Irina was telling us minutes before and greets some neighbors with a very Portuguese “hello” on the street.

Irina and Nahid met each other as neighbors. It started with a relationship between merchant and customer, to now Nahid calls her “friend”. Photos: Rita Ansone

The same street that Irina has met in other ways.

“At the time I arrived, it had a lot less people, passing through and living. If you walk down Rua Morais Soares at seven in the afternoon, there isn’t enough sidewalk for everyone. Each person goes to buy something here and there at the end of the day – even because the method of shopping has changed over the years, we no longer dedicate a single day to shopping, we go shopping”, she says..

A change that gained a sound, which came to replace that of the cars. “After a certain time – and I’m in a basement, close to the street, I became more aware of it – I no longer hear so many cars at the end of the day, and the characteristic sound becomes the noise of the trolleys”. At 11 at night, 1 in the morning, 2 in the morning, there it is: the trolley. “You don’t hear the bus, the cars. It’s the shopping trolleys, because the establishments are also open later, but also the one with the suitcases – which shows that you have a constant coming and going of people.”

A certain traditional trade still resists here, like “that typical store that sells undershirts,” for example. And others that compete with big national brands. At the door of the pastry shop, two men ask Hernâni where to fix his cell phone, who has the answer on the tip of his tongue: “Go there to senhor Paulo, and he’ll fix it for you.” “senhor Paulo” is just a few steps ahead, on the other side of the road, and by the old sign it will have been there for decades.

But it is from a time when Irina believes the neighborhood had “much less life, less tourism.” Already with “a lot of diversified commerce, just with a lot less users, and that’s the most glaring thing.”

Traditional street commerce will persist among the younger and foreigner. Photos: Rita Ansone

She’s not nostalgic – for her, this mix is Lisbon’s identity. “We’ve won too. The store next to my house is a Brazilian products store, and there is no one back home, in a population from 7 to 40 years old, who doesn’t want their ‘paçoquinha’. Or that the day to go to the restaurant is not at the King of Cachupa, in the Chile Square. It is a broadening and tearing down of boundaries that promotes cultural growth. And there is today an affective relationship with these spaces as there used to be with traditional grocery stores.”

Hernâni, on the other hand, has complaints about the changes in the last few years. He talks about how the clientele has changed, “it has become more of a passing clientele”, “every day there are new faces”. And if before “we treated the customer by name”, now we don’t, it is difficult to keep so many people loyal.

“But routines have also changed a lot,” warns the resident. She talks about the digital nomads and those who no longer have a fixed schedule with telecommuting.

The big change happened, for the shopkeeper, especially after Arroios reopened the subway station. “It reduced the flow here, because there were always people who got off at Alameda or Anjos, and went down or up the streets,” flocking to the nearby cafes. With Arroios open, the Pastelaria Granada no longer makes sense in the itinerary of many, who “now even leave at the door of their work.

Around here, the issue joins many other concerns, such as the loss of parking, the increase in the esplanade area, and how there is a lack of benches in the streets, to settle the daily walk.

Around here, the lack of street seating spaces is one of the issues discussed among residents. Photo: Rita Ansone

 Where is the rest of Lisbon?

This piece of map competes with the second most populous block in Lisbon, right on the edge of the city, at the gates of Damaia. Which gives us clues about the city’s migration dynamics, the exodus to the periphery. The truth is that if many people continue to work in the city, the truth is that they can no longer live here.

A crisis that has intensified in recent years and that has even raised the desire for a referendum.

This is a conclusion that is accentuated by the map that counts the number of people per block in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area (AML) and in the country: although the Arroios area mentioned above is still at the top of the ranking, there is a block in Agualva-Cacém right behind, both filling the first places of the country’s top 100.

Just behind, and by a little difference, is a block in Queluz – in fact, the overcrowded trains and buses from there to Lisbon, from where so many arrive for work, give us daily clues about this data.

The difference in population between the first and second most populous block is 6,165 people. The difference for the second in the AML, in Agualva-Cacém, is much smaller: 1121 individuals.

At the national level, AML takes a large part of the top of the list of the most populated blocks in the country – from which we can also highlight the South Bank, especially the area of Amora.

The blocks with the most people per accommodation

By contrast, this is the least populated block in Lisbon – largely because the area is mostly populated by the Lisbon airport:

Unlike the most populous block in the city, there are others where the concentration of people per dwelling exceeds 1.5.

In 1st place and with 4.3 persons per dwelling is a block at the entrance of the Monsanto Forest Park. There will be 167 people for only 38 dwellings, in an area of passage and with few housing infrastructures.

In 2nd place and with 2,7 persons per lodging, a piece of map that intersects the Pina Manique traffic circle with the Outeiro Norte Road, the Monsanto Road and the Barcal Road. There will thus be 4,835 people for 1,755 dwellings, just outside Lisbon.

In 3rd place and with 2.6 people per housing, between Charneca and Bairro da Cruz Vermelha, where there are 1,352 residents for 512 houses.

Where the youngest people are

The most densely populated quarter of Lisbon and of the country is more aged than young, with a greater number of individuals between 25 and 64 years old (the widest age bracket as well). And, as is the case in general in Portugal, with birth rates so low in recent years, children are in much smaller numbers: up to the age of 14, they represent just over 10% of the total population registered in the parish of Arroios in the latest Census, for example.

See how the rest of the city fares, by age groups:

Nahid doesn’t yet know how he will contribute to the statistics: whether he stays here to build a family, rejuvenate this space on the map with children and grow old here, or whether he leaves here to decrease the number of residents.

At 26, with so much life behind him and ahead of him, the young Bengali has not yet decided his side of the statistics.

Catarina Reis

Nascida no Porto, Valongo, em 1995, foi adotada por Lisboa para estagiar no jornal Público. Um ano depois, entrou na redação do Diário de Notícias, onde escreveu sobretudo na área da Educação, na qual encheu o papel e o site de notícias todos os dias. No DN, investigou sobre o antigo Casal Ventoso e valeu-lhe o Prémio Direitos Humanos & Integração da UNESCO, em 2020. Ajudou a fundar a Mensagem de Lisboa, onde é repórter e editora.

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