Urban Agriculture in Portugal: ahead or behind?

Coming from Portugal, I see urban agriculture as a very interesting process.

Porto, where I come from, has a big metropolitan area, with about 1 million of inhabitants. With most of my friends having families from the countryside of Portugal, I was the “unfortunate” one, with my four grandparents living  in the same neighbourhood in Gaia (the city on the other side of the river from Porto, which hosts the cellars where the Porto wine rests). This meant that every summer and holiday season my friends would take off to meet their relatives in villages somewhere in the idyllic Portuguese countryside (idyllic to me, at least), and I had to stay in Gaia.

But living in the city does not mean that I did not have any contact with the rural world. I used to help my grandmother to feed the chickens in her backyard. I remember more often, when she took me to look at the chickens, as a distraction manoeuvre to manage to feed me. (I was not so much into food when I was a child). Even now, she still grows some vegetables: cabbages, tomatoes, beans.

The knowledge that was passed on to her by her mother, and probably by most parents of the early 20th century, has in many cases, not passed on to the newer generations. The great urbanization seen in the last century is definitely partly “to blame”, alongside the lower status that is associated with “working the land”.

However, in Porto and its surroundings  the “rural world” is still very mixed with the urban landscape. Although allotment gardens become more popular and even trendy, most of the agriculture in this region is carried out by people who have always done it like that: using “efficiently” the land they own, as their parents did.

As I wrote here for EUKN, you can still easily find espigueiros popping out of the urban-rural landscape. Espigueiros are an old type of granary built to keep rodents (mice, rats..) away from cereals.

This close contact between the rural and the urban domains is, in my opinion, a characteristic of Portugal, unusual in most of Western Europe.  It is, on one hand, a sign of our “lag” in economic development. On the other hand, it is an asset that could allow us to leapfrog into a future of lively and local-boosted food economies.

I leave you with some pictures of the rural in the city.

Espigueiros, by Paulo Gonçalves. Found in http://viajaredescobrir.blogspot.nl/2011/12/portugal-arcozelo.html
Espigueiros, by Paulo Gonçalves.  Found here.

You can spot couves everywhere. Can you see the small ones?

small cabbages can be seen!
Garden by the street, small cabbages can be seen!

Fruit trees are also commonly found, peeking from the other side of the walls.

Orange tree waving hello!
Orange tree waving hello!

Another improvised vegetable garden, with a gardener in action, watering the field!

Can you spot the gardener?
Can you spot the gardener?

This last picture was taken 5 minutes walking from my home.  The buildings in the distance are part of Vila D’Este, one of the biggest residential developments in Portugal, accommodating 17,000 inhabitants.

Another vegetable garden, looking on Vila D'Este, a big residential development.
Another vegetable garden, looking on Vila D’Este, a big residential development.

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A good interview with the Worst Tours of Porto

Gui Castro Felga
by Gui Castro Felga

“Portugal, 2012. Austerity Killed the economy. Three out of work architects facing sudden economic destruction refuse leaving town and decide to open an unlikelly walking-tours-agency – Porto, big picture, good and bad: Architecture, History, Politics, Urbanism, Slow food, and Hearsay.”

Refusing to leave the boat, these architects started “The Worst Tours” of Porto. They define it as “a low rated tours agency for anyone who really doesn’t want to be a tourist while getting to know Porto, the coolest city in Portugal – tourism buses don’t fit in the best places, anyhow…”

Translated from Portuguese

Why are you “The Worst Tours”?
Some would prefer branding themselves as “the best cake in the world”. As we cannot compete in that type of championship, we decided to be the worst at showing a city that despite being a ruin is a beautiful ruin.

How did you get the idea of starting it?
The worst tours started as a reaction of three Portuenses [Porto citizens] to the lack of alternatives, the lack of work, the “touristification” of Porto, but also as a refusal to emigration.

Did you ever imagine, while studying Architecture, that you would end up using that knowledge in this way?
Maybe we never imagined it, but we have colleagues that have been working for many years as tour guides in Serralves [contemporary art museum and park] and in Casa da Música.  Some of them organize architectural tours for architects and architecture lovers.

What makes your tours so special? Is it passing through areas less explored by tourists and even Portuenses ?
No, not at all. The tours are not special. We refuse that idea. It is the city which is beautiful!.. The tours are very poor. Very possibly, the worst tours in the world.

Which tour is most popular?
The tours are all quite different. In the beginning, we tried to understand what the interests of the “worst tourists” are and we adapted to it. Perhaps the most surprising tour is the one of the ilhas [islands]- in Porto’s vocabulary this refers to a type of housing [see box below]. Porto has ilhas throughout its territory, and about 8% of the population lives in these places. The ilhas appeared with the Industrial Revolution as a way of accommodating the cheap labour arriving to the city. It was also a way of hiding the poor inside the blocks, away from sight.
In many cases, these spaces created, throughout the times, interesting communitarian spaces. It is not a black and white reality, and it prompts interesting discussions between the visitors and us. We have even found some Portuenses who did not know what ilhas were.

An ilha in the eve of the São João holiday, the festival of the city.
Ilhas in Porto
“An ilha is a type of collective housing typical of Porto. It is a private space composed by many tiny houses located inside the neighbourhoods quarters, in the backyards of the bourgeois houses of the 19th century.
The ilhas have commonly 10-12 houses in each side of a narrow (1,20m) and long corridor that leads to the street. Each house with only one storey has in average 16m2. The ilha is served by separate collective bathrooms. The ilhas emerged as an immediate response to the lack of housing for accommodating the large numbers of rural population arriving to Porto in the mid 19th century, to work in the new factories of the recent industrialization.
It is a speculative response from the land owners who profit from multiple rents from a single backyard. Moreover, it is a highly discriminatory response because it makes invisible thousands of people, who live as hidden in crowded tiny spaces, leaving the urban street free for the upper middle-class.”
An “island” seen from the street.
An ilha seen from the street.

Do you experience the city in a different way when guiding tours?
We are a kind of internationalist-local patriots. We have a bit of a dumb pride when showing Porto. We always went for long walks, showing the city to friends. It is, indeed, a new way of seeing the city, because it makes us try to relate fields that we were taught as being different disciplines: History, Architecture, Politics, Urbanism… We discuss sometimes the urban rehabilitation that we want to see, as opposed to the type of interventions that have been made in the city.
Our way of showing Porto goes through the spaces and episodes that conditioned the appearance of avenues (Almada,  who created long streets in Porto; the times of Estado Novo), the ways of dealing with the successive accommodation problems that emerged since the Industrial Revolution (the “islands”, the neighbourhoods built with participatory principles after the April 25th Revolution (SAAL), the interventions in the 90’s), the struggles for the maintenance of popular markets (Bolhão, Bom Sucesso), the crime of Cardosas (a polemic renovation in an UNESCO world heritage site ). We present our points of view – always partial, or they would not be points of view at all.

by Gui Castro Felga
by Gui Castro Felga

In your website, you use the expression: a tour “within our possibilities”. This is an often-heard expression in the last years, as Portuguese politicians keep telling the Portuguese people to live within their possibilities. Do you tell your tourist groups about the crisis in Portugal? How do you use the city to tell stories about the crisis? In a way, the fact that you created this project is a crisis story in itself…would you agree? 
De-constructing the dominant speech requires a certain dose of surrealism. Sometimes taking a slogan out of its context is enough to empty it. On the other hand, you do not have to pay taxes or fines for walking through the streets (oh, we should not give any ideas..).  The crisis is easy to see: the city is eroded due to austerity, it is abandoned, empty, it has poverty… and it has very interesting buildings and places too. It has contrasts; it is not a postcard, not even an illustrated one. We think that tourism is a damaged and commodified word. To travel is to let yourself involve in the places you visit. To go beyond the contradictions-free, clean and shiny touristy circuits.

Contact them at:  http://theworsttours.weebly.com/