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Gentrification in Porto: will the city turn into a hotel?

Tourism is booming in Portugal, but so is housing speculation. Gentrification has been causing the displacement of the poor, a proliferation of hotels and shrinking public space.

Marta Vidal
9 January 2019

"The bookshop closed, the greengrocer and the florist closed. The city will turn into a tourist's hotel", sings the band Samba sem Fronteiras. They sing in the Worst Tours kiosk in Porto, used by local associations and artists to promote an alternative to the touristic side of the city. Closed down last May, the kiosk warned against the gentrification taking over Portuguese cities. “The tavern closed, the pastry shop and the antiquarian closed. Everything transforming into one big, huge hotel", sing the Porto-based musicians.

Portugal has long been popular for its beaches and historical sites, but in recent years tourism has broken records. Porto, the second biggest city, was included in the world’s Top 100 City Destinations 2018 and elected Best European Destination in 2017. Over the past decade the city saw an unprecedented rise in visitor numbers. To recover from its financial crisis, Portugal tried to attract foreign investment, focusing on tourism and even providing buyers of properties worth half a million euros or more with a “golden visa” to increase the flood of foreign capital. Portugal tried to attract foreign investment... even providing buyers of properties worth half a million euros or more with a “golden visa” to increase the flood of foreign capital.

The tourism boom attracted a lot of foreign investors, helped reduce unemployment and renovated derelict buildings in the city centres. It is undeniable that tourism-triggered gentrification brought improvements to historical neighbourhoods, but many question who is benefiting from these changes. Landlords and business owners certainly gained from the huge influx of foreign money and the rise in property prices. More jobs were created by the growing tourism industry. But employees working in this sector are often poorly paid, in a country where the average salary is only around 850€ a month, one of the lowest in the European Union.

Combined with the influx of tourists and foreign investment, market liberalisation has helped raise rents in Porto’s city centre by 88 percent in the last five years. Since it became more lucrative to rent apartments to tourists on a short-term basis, thousands of residents have been threatened with displacement. Since 2013, over one thousand people have been evicted in Porto. 

“I no longer see my neighbours, I only see tourists” says 70-year-old Lurdes Magalhães, who has lived in Porto’s historical centre her entire life. Magalhães has been witnessing the rapid gentrification of her neighbourhood, where low-income residents are being replaced by short-term visitors. “All the nearby buildings that were restored were transformed into Airbnb apartments or hotels” she adds. Magalhães says her building was renovated with public funds, but sold to a private company that wants residents out. Her rental contract will end next year, and she fears that with her meagre retirement pension she will be unable to find a house for herself and her handicapped son.

Like many residents in Porto’s city centre forced to leave their homes, she feels that she has lost the right to live in the neighbourhood she always considered her own, and that she is being pushed to the city’s margins.  The tourism boom might have generated a lot of profit, but it also caused many social deprivations. Since housing is increasingly seen as an asset from which to profit rather than homes where people have lived their entire lives, locals are being displaced, inequality is growing and city centres are becoming hollowed out and exclusive.

Maria Augusta has lived in the same house close to the Douro river for nearly eight decades. Her building was recently sold to a company planning to invest in short-term rentals, so the 85-year old now lives with anxiety and fear of displacement. “My only wish is to be able to die in the same place where I have lived my entire life,” she says. The company bought three other building in the same street where apartments have a view of the river. Many of the low-income residents, who have been living in the historical neighbourhood their entire lives, are being evicted to make way for capital.

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Maria Augusta outside her home. Photo by Marta Vidal. All rights reserved.

Neoliberal urbanisation and the closing down of spaces of contestation

 “The market is taking over the city” says Luca Argel, Samba sem Fronteiras’ lead singer. He considers Portugal’s mass tourism unsustainable, and bound to destroy the places it feeds off. Porto became popular because of its unique diversity and “unsubmissive spirit”, adds Argel. Profit-based forms of urban development are shutting down the city’s spaces for contestation, creativity and critical thinking.

Open for twelve years in Porto’s city centre, the bookshop and cultural centre Gato Vadio (which means ‘Stray Cat’) announced it will have to shut its doors by the end of March. The landlady refused to renew the bookshop’s rental agreement and announced she wanted the space emptied. The only option offered to save one of Porto’s liveliest non-profit cultural centres would mean paying more than double the rent.

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Gato Vadio’s bookshop. Photo by Marta Vidal.A space for artists, activists, musicians, poets and all kinds of wanderers, Gato Vadio is run by a local association. A handful of volunteers keep the space open from Thursday to Sunday. “It was already difficult to keep it open before, but with a 500€ increase of rent it became impossible,” says Isabel Camarinha, one of the volunteers who spent their weekends running Gato Vadio’s diverse programming. Some of the association’s members haven’t been on holidays in years to make sure the bookshop is open to host weekly film-screenings, debates, book presentations, art exhibitions and music performances.

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Gato Vadio’s bookshop. Photo by Marta Vidal.

Gato Vadio was envisioned as an inclusive cultural centre “for people from all places”, fostering participation and critical thinking.

Gato Vadio was envisioned as an inclusive cultural centre “for people from all places”, fostering participation and critical thinking. Guests included poets, composers, anarchist and feminist collectives, anti-racism activists.  Anyone could propose events, stop by on a Sunday afternoon for a cup of tea and handmade cookies, or browse the many books and zines.

“It was a small miracle that Gato Vadio survived for so many years,” says Argel, who performed and presented his books there. “Most of these spaces are closing down to give way to profit-led initiatives.”

Gato Vadio is only one of many cultural centres, local shops and associations closing down in the last years to open hotels and chain stores. “Half of Porto is being evicted,” says César Figueiredo, a member of Gato Vadio’s association. For him and other members, Porto is turning into a theme park for tourists, and local governors are to blame for the lack of regulation and for not protecting the residents’ rights to the city.

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Gato Vadio’s cafe. Photo by Marta Vidal.

Offering alternatives

“The lack of urban planning and regulation is the main problem,” says the architect Pedro Figueiredo. In 2012, he grouped with two other architects to create the Worst Tours, an association aimed at showing visitors a side of Porto that is not promoted by the official tourism board. The walking tours became a reaction to the gentrification of Porto and a way of offering alternatives to the dominant, sanitized version of Porto sold to tourists.

The architects renovated an old kiosk that had been abandoned for a decade. They used it to promote their tours, zines and illustrations, but the small structure was also open to a diverse array of projects. The kiosk was once a stage for the band Samba sem Fronteiras, hosted workshops, puppets and art performances. Posters announcing music shows, art exhibitions and protests were often glued to the walls. 

Closed down last May because the mayor announced the City Hall had a different project for the space, it remains empty until now. “It was closed for political reasons,” says Figueiredo, who thinks the mayor wasn’t happy with its vocal criticism of gentrification, and its use of tourism as a form of political critique. But the tours of Porto’s alleys and lesser known areas continue.  

While taking visitors to parts of the city they normally wouldn’t go to, the Worst Tours guides engage in conversation about urban development, housing, social justice and politics. “Gentrification is a global problem,” says Figueiredo, who enjoys debating the issue with visitors from different cities. “They’ve been facing this problem for many years in cities like Barcelona, Venice and Paris.” What interests him is to talk about different points of view and ways to tackle the issue.

“You shouldn’t blame tourists but those who are profiting from this tourism boom. Developers are using single family houses to build many very small apartments. Prices of rent are insanely high so most of us, who earn shitty salaries, can no longer afford to live here.”

For Figueiredo, the best solutions would include rent-control, higher salaries and an expanded provision of social housing.  A planned and regulated system of tourism is also often presented as one of the most important steps to tackle gentrification, especially when platforms like Airbnb are misused by tourism businesses as a way to pay fewer taxes, and public funds channelled to renovate hotels.

 “Money is not the only value, especially when talking about public spaces,” says Figueiredo. The city’s loss of diversity and the shrinking space for associations and community centres will have a big impact on civil society. Gentrification is not only displacing residents, it is also threatening critical thinking and participation in the city. 

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Gato vadio was a cultural centre “for people from all places”. Photo by Marta Vidal.

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