Rua da Prata to become pedestrian. It was last Wednesday when, surprising the city during European Mobility Week, Filipe Anacoreta Correia, Vice-Mayor of the Lisbon City Council (CML) and responsible for mobility, announced the future of a street that has not seen traffic for nine months due to urgent repairs to a rainwater collector.

Before that, it had already been closed in October for the same reason – the Pombaline collector, an 18th-century structure, was crumbling during heavy rainfall. And the tranquility of a street accustomed to traffic has since allowed for a dream: what if this street was for pedestrians?

For now, the announcement made by the Vice-Mayor of CML revealed that the municipality intends to make Rua da Prata for pedestrians, while still allowing tram and bicycle traffic.

However, right next door, on Rua Augusta, the dream turned into a long-standing debate about the right to public space, where only those who consume in the various cafés can sit. And now, Rua da Prata must learn from its mistakes.

What Rua da Prata could be: an idea with a sketch from 2020

On January 11 of this year, the political party Livre made the suggestion shortly after the street was closed for repairs to the collector: when the works were completed, Rua da Prata could be limited to trams and bicycles, thus allowing for the expansion of pedestrian space.

It was an initial proposal “to provoke,” explains Isabel Mendes Lopes, a member of the party in the Lisbon Municipal Assembly (AML). The goal was to stimulate debate. An “opportunity to rethink: how can Rua da Prata be?”

Initially, the party presented a graphic design envisioning what its layout could be: a cycle path and tram tracks, leaving space for wider sidewalks and public benches.

This design was based on another one produced by the Lisbon City Council in 2020, when the Reduced Emission Zone (ZER) was introduced, planned for the areas of Baixa, Chiado, and Avenida de Liberdade. Within the ZER, the end of car traffic on this street was already foreseen, and in that first graphic design that foresaw the end of traffic on the street, tram tracks, wide sidewalks, and benches were visible.

These were the initial sketches of what Rua da Prata could become. Slide the central line to compare the development of the sketches – two ideas for a more pedestrian-friendly street:

On the left, is a graphic design of Rua da Prata produced by Lisbon City Council in 2020. On the right, is a graphic design produced by Livre in January 2023. Source: Lisbon City Council and Livre

The vision for the street took shape, first by the Lisbon City Council and later by Livre, which in May presented a new design: now, in addition to tram tracks, benches, and a cycle path, trees on the sidewalks and even grass on the tram’s circulation area were added.

This last proposal came within the framework of the Veredas de Lisboa program presented by the party to increase green coverage in the city’s streets, and the recommendation was approved in the AML with the favorable vote of all political forces, except CDS-PP and Chega, who abstained.

See how they got to the most recent sketch:

Graphic design produced by Livre, proposing a cycle path, tram circulation channel, and widened sidewalks with benches and trees. Source: Livre

In May of this year, this proposal called for a rethinking of Rua da Prata and sought to address the significant environmental challenge in this area of the city, as Baixa [the downtown area] is one of the areas with the least trees in the city and where the urban heat island effect is most pronounced – that is, the increase in temperature caused by construction density and the lack of vegetation and ventilation.

Árvores em Lisboa
Map of the intensity of the urban heat island in Lisbon during a heatwave at dusk. Parque das Nações records the highest intensity peak of the urban heat island, around 5°C. It is also where the peak occurs earlier, around 5 p.m. Source: Climate Action Plan (PAC) 2030
Árvores em Lisboa
Map of the climatic orientations of the Lisbon municipality. Source: Climate Action Plan (PAC) 2030

However, next to the city’s most iconic pedestrian street, the challenge for Rua da Prata becomes even more ambitious: how to pedestrianize the street without repeating the mistakes of Rua Augusta?

Contain the proliferation of outdoor seating to ensure public space

“Baixa has no meeting and gathering spaces other than for consumption,” says Tiago Mota Saraiva, an architect at the architectural and territorial intervention cooperative ‘Trabalhar com os 99%” [Work with the 99%].

Despite Rua Augusta likely being the most recognized pedestrian street in the city, the architect assumes a behavior that may be common to many Lisbon residents:

Palácio Marquês de Abrantes Prémio Mies van der Rohe 2022 ateliermob Trabalhar com os 99% Tiago Mota Saraiva

Tiago Mota Saraiva, an architect and urbanist, warns of the danger of repeating the same mistake made on Rua Augusta. Photo: Rita Ansone

“When we arrive at Praça da Figueira and Rossio and want to go downhill toward the Tagus River, we have a set of streets we can take. I never choose Rua Augusta.” Lately, he follows Rua da Prata, now that it is closed to traffic.

The street is full of chairs, but none of them are public.

The same goes for shade: in the many areas shaded by dozens of large café umbrellas, only those who pay to consume find refuge from the sun.

“This is the great café street, not the great pedestrian street” of Lisbon, says Tiago Mota Saraiva. This is an error that both the architect and Isabel Mendes Lopes of Livre agree should not be repeated on Rua da Prata.

Despite being full of large café umbrellas, at Rua Augusta there aren’t any public benches. Photo: Inês Leote

Announcing the closure of a street to traffic has a particular effect on commerce, especially in a city that is “at ground level,” explains the architect. “It tremendously values all that private property around it.”

It is precisely in the “eye-level city” – on the ground floor and the first floors – that he considers it necessary to impose “strong constraints” to prevent cafés and restaurants from taking over the street.

For this “upstream” conditioning, there are various urban planning instruments that Lisbon can use, he says: from revising the Municipal Master Plan, to the creation of Urbanization Plans or Urban Rehabilitation Areas that determine the uses of ground floors and restrict the proliferation of certain types of businesses, on the one hand, and promote the installation of others, on the other.

Without the imposition of urban planning rules that restrict the appearance of certain commercial establishments, “there will immediately be an inflation of the desire to have restaurants and cafés on the ground floors.” It will be the business that will dominate the public space of the street, he warns.

Due to the rupture of a Pombaline sewage collector, there has been no vehicular traffic on Rua da Prata for nine months. In the future, only the tram line circulation is guaranteed on this street. Photo: Frederico Raposo

For the architect, it is necessary to “understand what is needed and what is lacking in Baixa – what has disappeared or is about to disappear.” In early September, A Mensagem reported on the reality of Rua da Conceição, which used to have more than 15 haberdasheries, and now only four remain.

“It is said that cars privatize public space, but cafés also do that,” says Tiago Mota Saraiva. If, like the reality of Rua Augusta, the pedestrianization of Rua da Prata results in its occupation by cafés, “that is another form of privatization.”

Trees, benches, and shade: the street as a place to be

To create shade and contain the expansion of outdoor seating, “it would be good to have trees” on Rua da Prata, says the architect, noting the lack of places for children to play. “Baixa does not have a single place for children to be.”

Isabel Mendes Lopes, municipal deputy for Livre. Photo: Livre website

Isabel Mendes Lopes also proposes the creation of “spaces to be, play, and socialize.” In a future street redevelopment project, “it must be assumed and planned for spaces that cafés or kiosks cannot occupy. There must be a project that frames and gives the right priority to each of these uses that are so important,” she says.

The municipal deputy argues for the need to initiate a public participation process for the design of the future Rua da Prata, but with the understanding that it is essential to provide more space for people on the street. Because, she states, “it is easy to look at Rua Augusta and think that we want to replicate it on Rua da Prata, but Rua da Prata can be something entirely distinct from what we are used to in Baixa” – that’s what Isabel proposes.

The deputy now calls for “an open discussion with the community,” with the participation of residents, businesses, and the school community in the surrounding areas.

With the awareness that Baixa is one of the areas in the city with the least tree coverage, Isabel Mendes Lopes suggests thinking of Rua da Prata as a pathway, a space for circulation with trees and shade, “but also [with] areas where people can be.”

In Rua da Prata, there are currently no benches or trees. Photo: Frederico Raposo

Based on the idea that it is necessary to secure the planting of trees and the creation of public spaces that invite people to stay on the street, she raises several questions: “Play areas on Rua da Prata – it’s something we should ask people. What kind of play areas? A playground or playing in the street? [If] we want to have outdoor seating areas, then what kind of businesses are there on Rua da Prata that would need outdoor seating? What shops do we want to preserve? What type of plants do we want, and how do they fit into the space? All of this needs to be considered.”

Merchants were already calling for the pedestrianization of the street. It’s about “valuing the tram”

Tired, the merchants’ priority is to finish the construction. Although in favor of the idea of pedestrianizing the street, the manager of the Teevolution store on Rua da Prata shared that he was more concerned about the completion of the project that has been ongoing for months. “We just want to know when this will end,” Fernando Silva said. And the Vice-Mayor of CML anticipates that it will conclude next November.

As for pedestrianization, several merchants had already suggested this as a solution, even before the announcement. A position that did not gather consensus, as the Vice-President of the Association for the Revitalization of Baixa Pombalina, Vasco de Mello, stated. Although he acknowledges that there are “diverse opinions” about Rua da Prata, the leader is in favor of pedestrianizing the “heart of Baixa,” as long as road traffic around it is guaranteed.

Sandra Gouveia, from the brunch and artisanal ice cream restaurant Mil Sabores, has not had an easy time. Since the business opened four years ago, it has barely experienced normalcy.

“It has been a struggle to open, a struggle during the pandemic, a struggle to recover,” and now, the struggle for the repair of the collector. In recent months, the noise of construction and, at times, the smell, have been challenging obstacles for an activity that relies on the senses of its customers.

Since December of last year, Mil Sabores has spent its days facing the construction site of the Rua da Prata collector. Photo: Frederico Raposo

For the restaurant manager, the pedestrianization of the street, with the guarantee of tram passage, is a desire that she says is shared by other merchants on the street and is also inspired by what she sees happening in other European cities. With more space for people but without the noise and pollution of automobile traffic, the manager sees the decision to make the street pedestrian as the ideal scenario.

“Closing this [to traffic] is not canceling us, it is valuing the tram, allowing families to take walks in Baixa, and bringing walking life.”

Frederico Raposo

Nasceu em Lisboa, há 30 anos, mas sempre fez a sua vida à porta da cidade. Raramente lá entrava. Foi quando iniciou a faculdade que começou a viver Lisboa. É uma cidade ainda por concretizar. Mais ou menos como as outras. Sustentável, progressista, com espaço e oportunidade para todas as pessoas – são ideias que moldam o seu passo pelas ruas. A forma como se desloca – quase sempre de bicicleta –, o uso que dá aos espaços, o jornalismo que produz.

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