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The Critical Urban Areas Programme in Cova da Moura



In April 2008, a European Economic Area grant set off a €3.8 million component of a close-to-€100 million complex project to combat social exclusion and initiate social change in deprived urban areas in Portugal. The grant agreement for the €3.2 million project in the neighbourhood of Cova da Moura was signed on 2 April 2008 in Lisbon. The project is part of the Critical Urban Areas (CUA) programme, a close-to-€100 million urban rehabilitation investment in Portugal, also covering the areas of Vale da Amoreira and Lagarteiro in the Oporto metropolitan area. The National Housing Institute in Portugal manages the CUA programme and the financial mechanism supporting the project parts.

Improving living conditions in the run-down urban area of Cova da Moura, home to an estimated 7000 people on 16 hectares, involves inter-ministerial cooperation, civic participation, and the participation of local authorities. The pilot participatory project holds strong local backing, and the Cova da Moura community is ready to turn around the area's bad public image.

The neighbourhood dates back to the beginning of the 1970s, when lack of housing in Lisbon led large parts of the immigrant population to develop a community of illegal housing in the city's outskirts. Spatially and socially segregated, the area and its inhabitants have struggled with disputes over the occupied land, precarious housing situations, insecurity due to drug sales and criminality, and social exclusion.

The manifold project aims to legalize the area's land ownership, laying the ground for social and economic sustainability, and to rehabilitate the community's basic infrastructure such as electricity, gas, roads, and telephone lines. Local residents will be able to participate in a multitude of social and educational activities, and the project has a strong focus on supporting activities that could strengthen local entrepreneurship and employment. In order to further improve the neighbourhood’s image, the number of local cultural festivities and events will increase and an old windmill will be restored.

The Critical Neighborhoods Initiative can be considered the first major effort developed by the Portuguese government/administration in order to promote a public policy towards integrated territorial intervention. This helps explain the visibility of this experience, since it has sought to depart from the dominant sector approach used by Public Administration in Portugal, which dealt with people and territories in a ‘disintegrated’ form, resulting in frequently incoherent and contradictory policies.

The implementation of this policy gains visibility due to the following factors:

  • It focus on territories considered critical from the point of view of spatial segregation and concentration of the phenomena of urban poverty, exclusion, and criminality, as well as inconsistence in terms of urban planning, among other elements that potentially stigmatize these neighborhoods;
  • It is an initiative prompted by central administration/government that follows a participatory approach at the local level, involving Regional Administration services, local municipalities, and civil society associations.

Such an initiative could not avoid running into difficulties and obstacles, resulting in several unforeseen problems and conflicts. For the specific case of Cova da Moura, the difficulties are greater due to the fact that this neighborhood is, at its origin, an illegal settlement, a fact that has hindered the completion of several of the initially established goals, mainly the ones associated with territorial planning, urban intervention, and the construction of infrastructure.

Nonetheless, it should be underlined that, over the three years of intervention, the neighbourhood has become a space of mutual learning, a space to build partnerships and confidences, and a space to test methodologies of community intervention. Through this case, the Municipality of Amadora came to understand the potential of this kind of intervention. Nowadays, similar approaches are being developed in other community neighborhoods that are considered ‘critical’.