Historic Center of Porto: a landscape of transformation, Portugal

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Name Historic Center of Porto: a landscape of transformation
Place Porto
Country Portugal
Author(s) Andreia V. Quintas
Project start 2008
Completion not completed
World Heritage 1996
Client Porto Municipality
Project costs enter the costs (if known)

Historic Center Porto 01.JPG

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Rationale: Why is the case study interesting?

  • Please summarise:- e.g. Design Innovation? Planning Exemplar? Theoretical Insights? Lessons from its failure?

The historic center of Porto constitutes a landscape that is the result of the process of transformation and evolution that the city has passed over the years. The biophysical and constructed elements, shaped by the action of the man, and in conjugation with its livability, had created an unique landscape characterized by its unity.

Always in close relation with the river and growing through the slopes, the city has managed to transform itself, responding to changes and new needs, distinguished not only by its constructed heritage but on a culture of its people.

Author's perspective

  • What theoretical or professional perspective do you bring to the case study? Please make a short note on your personal background

The case study is particularly interesting because it is the result of an evolution of the city, from its birth and that continues today, in constant transformation.

This cultural landscape reflects the interaction between man and nature and how he was creating the city, according to their needs and desires. It is an area with its own dynamics, constantly in change.

In my personal background, I find very interesting to analyze the process of evolution and how the landscape has been transformed, while assuring a strong character and identity.

Cultural landscape context

  • Biogeography, cultural features, overall landscape character, history and dynamics

Illustration: Map; sketches; short descriptive analyses

The landscape Historic Center of Porto is the result of the influence of different time periods that that city lived, and the transformations that it suffered, with the creation of a unique and harmonious urban landscape, with strong character, unity and identity. The part of the city that belongs to the World Heritage List consist in an area surrounded by the Fernandine Walls, ramparts that derive from the 14th Century, and also some areas that still have a medieval character.

HCPorto limits.jpg Figure 1 - Limits of the Historical Center of Porto World Heritage (source: Porto Vivo SRU 2008)

With an important geographic location, near the end of the Douro River and the Atlantic Ocean, this city is inhabited since the 8th century B.C., when it constituted a Phoenician trading settlement. This landscape is also characterized by other historical marks that remain, particularly in the civil architecture of the Roman, Medieval and 19th century periods. Also are visible traces of the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-classic and Modern in the constructions that are present in this area.

The river and the relief have a strong presence in the city, influencing its evolution, since the beginning of its occupation. Its name, which derives from the Roman word “Portus”, means port, confirming the importance of this place in terms of social occupation. The commercial and administrative importance of this city has grown during the 5th Century, with the barbarian passage, and also during the Visigoths invasion period, when it constituted an Episcopal center. During these times, the city was often target of invasions and attacks, from the swabians, Visigoths, Normans and moors, and later was the scenery of some battles such as the “Liberal Revolution (in 1829), the end of the monarchy (in 1910) and the democracy revolution (in 1974).

His geographical location is an important factor which contributed to its economical importance. Since early times, Porto was in the confluence of various commercial trades, attracting other economical activities, such as the naval construction (during the 14th – 15th Centuries), the fishing and the storage activity, and the commerce (particularly of the Porto wine), but was also with the setup of several banks, insurance companies and the Exchange Market.

The built heritage includes military architecture, such as the earlier ramparts, that date from the 12th century, including 2 of the 4 original gates, and the Fernandine Walls (completed in 1376), but also some ecclesiastic buildings, such as the Romanesque Core of the Cathedral (dating from the12th century, with alterations until the 18th Century), the Church of S. Francisco (Gothic style, 14th century), Church of São Lourenço dos Grillos (Mannerist style, 16th – 17th century), Church of Misericórdia (Gothic Manueline style with later classical Renaissance elements), Church of Nossa Senhora da Vitória (early Baroque style) and Church of Clérigos (Baroque style, from Niccolo Nazzoni).

This area also has significant public buildings, such as: Theatre of S. João, Batalha Palace, Sereias Palace, the prison of Relação, Hospital Santo António (Neo-Palladian style), Alfândega (Custom House from the 19th Century), Palace of the Bolsa (Stock Exchange, with Neo-Classical style), Market Ferreira Borges (1885), São Bento railway station (1900) and the Paços do Concelho (City Hall, constructed in 1920 – 1957). It also includes some early private houses, such as a building from the 14th century, in Beco dos Redemoinhos.

In the 20th Century, the historic center has suffered a period of decline, with the degradation of the buildings and public space and the transference of the commercial and economic center to other places. In 2004, it was created the “Porto Vivo / Sociedade de Reabilitação Urbana”, a public-private partnership, which aims the rehabilitation of the city center, the qualification of the public space and the recuperation of the economic activities such as commerce, cultural activities, tourism and recreation and the creative industries.

The rehabilitation of this area and its international recognition as World Heritage acted as triggers for a change, with the appreciation of this area, both by its population and visitants, increasing its attractiveness and encouraging new investments in tourism, arts and new technologies. Although these innovations and the degradation period that the historic center have passed, this area always conserved a strong identity, in the biophysical elements, but also in the culture and identity of the “portuenses”, with the preservation of their symbols and traditions.

Socio-political context

  • Brief explanation of political economy, legal framework

Illustration: Bullet points, image, background notes

Porto locates in the northwest of Portugal, at the confluence of the Douro River with the Atlantic Ocean. It constitutes the second most important city in Portugal and it is the center of the Porto Metropolitan Area. The historic center of Porto is the oldest part of the town, and it is composed by 4 parishes: Sé, S. Nicolau, Vitória and Miragaia. It integrates the old core that was inside the ancient Fernandine Wall and some medieval zones in the surroundings, comprising an area of around 49 hectares.

Although it constituted an important civic and commercial center in the past, the process of urban expansion brought a displacement of the commerce and business activities and services, creating new centers in the city. It caused deterioration in both the built fabric and in its social composition, creating serious problems of migration, insecurity and aging. There was a decline in population, mostly younger, due to high housing costs, a shortage of houses in good conditions and the increased supply in the more peripheral areas.

However, the physical and social renewal of the historical center, that is going on through right now, with the establishment of institutions related to arts, youth, crafts, culture and leisure, are turning the historic center a more attractive place, both for the visit and tourism, but also for living. Also its designation as World Heritage contributes to its attractiveness and for a sense of pride of the population.

This conversion of the functions fulfilled by the historic center, calling for greater creativity, dynamism and globalization did not cause the loose of the tradition and culture that existed. Rather, they are based on this identity, promoting it and taking it as a differentiating factor. The resident population still shows its rural influence, conserving a sense of solidarity and inter-communication between people, which has always characterized the "portuenses.

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Spatial analysis of area/project

  • What are the main structural features?
  • How has it been shaped? Were there any critical decisions?

Illustration: Map/diagram/sketches photos and background notes

The Historic Center of Porto corresponds to the area limited by 4 parishes: Miragaia, Cathedral, St. Nicholas and Victoria, which forms the core of the old city.

This area extends for a slope from the Douro River, developing as the city grew. The River has a key role in the evolution process of the city, both functionally and aesthetically. The zone closest to the river has a greater density and concentration and the houses are connected by narrow winding streets with stone, many of them only allowing the pedestrian walkway. Further north, and farther from the river, the city extends, allowing the existence of more public spaces and the tear of biggest avenues.

The architecture found is of high importance, since it marks the various stages of development of the city, but because it constitutes classified heritage (housing, civil and religious,…). In this area, there are about 1976 buildings, of which only 25% are in good conditions, and around 30% in state of decay. The built heritage, as well as the scenic landscape marked by the river, has great potential for tourism, being elements of great attractiveness. This tourism potential is also incremented by the high offer of activities, bought by several commercial establishments, such as bars, restaurants and shops of local products.

HCPorto conservation state.jpg Figure 2 - Conservation state in the Historical Center of Porto World Heritage (source: Porto Vivo SRU 2008)

This urban area of high architectural value came to deteriorate with aging and loss of population, turning itself into a zone with strong urban and social problems. However, with the revitalization project, there was a renovation of built structures and an increase in the attractiveness to visit, live and invest. The intervention process underwent with multiple actors and entities. Today, we can see that this is an area much visited, not only during the day, but also because of the nightlife.

HCPorto Commercial occupation.jpg Figure 3 - Commercial occupation in the Historical Center of Porto World Heritage (source: Porto Vivo SRU 2008)

Analysis of idea/program/function ("Planning Objective")

  • What are the main functional characteristics?
  • How have they been expressed or incorporated?

Illustration: Map/diagram/sketches photos and background notes

This is the oldest part of town and in the past, the state degrading and the few infrastructure and low conditions originate the resident loss. The character of the trade and fishing city was lost and it was necessary, taking advantage of its elements and nature of existing conditions, to create opportunities to convert this old space into a more attractive place. Today, this is an imperative zone of the city with functions related with residential, commercial and tourism and innovation, and is often visited by tourists and used by young people.

The Management Plan for the Historical Center lists 5 needs and 5 potentialities of this zone.

The problems are:

“a) Impoverishment of the historic and artistic heritage due to lack of maintenance and appreciation; b) Acute loss and ageing of population, high unemployment rate and low levels of training and qualification of the resident population;

c) Area considered “dirty” and unsafe, showing lack of organisation and qualification of the existing tourism provision;

c) Creative businesses still very isolated, hidden away and lacking strong expression, lack of confidence and entrepreneurism;

d) Degradation of buildings and little appreciation of the connection to the river Douro”(1).

The opportunities are:

“a) Historic and artistic heritage of universal value, with its preservation and protection on main political, economic and socio-cultural agendas of the city/ region;

b) Strong cultural identity;

c) Growing phenomenon of tourism, as a result of the strong increase of the number of tourists and visitors, with the Historic Centre of Oporto mentioned in the National Strategic Plan for Tourism (“PENT”) as a differentiating resource, foundation of the regional tourism offer;

d) Creative businesses, creative organisations and processes being set up in the Historic Centre of Oporto, with the physical regeneration of the cultural heritage geared towards cultural and creative functions;

e) Unique relationship of the entire area classified as World Heritage with the River Douro”(1).

Given these, the Management Plan has defined as strategic objectives:







Analysis of design/planning process ("Process Biography")

  • How was the area/project formulated and implemented?
  • Who initiated the project and why?
  • Which stakeholders have been involved?
  • Who made the major decisions and when?
  • Were there any important consultations/collaborations?

Illustration: Map/diagram/sketches photos and background notes

In November 2004, the City Council created Porto Vivo, SRU - Society for Rehabilitation of the Porto Urban Downtown , a company with public capital, belonging to the state (IHRU) and the Porto City Council, whose mission is to conduct the urban regeneration of city center. Was this team established in legislation by Decree-Law 104/2004 and was “responsible for drawing up and implementing the plan, as well as its monitoring, should ensure their work coincides with the strategy already defined by Porto Vivo for the rehabilitation of Oporto City Centre and the process currently underway that aims for the objective of Urban Area Management to coincide with that of the World Heritage Area”(1).

The Porto Vivo has 5 main objectives:

“_ Rehabilitation of Oporto City Centre;

_ Developing and promoting business in Oporto City Centre;

_ Revitalizing commerce;

_ Encouraging tourism, culture and leisure;

_ Improving the public domain”(1)

In 2008, Porto Vivo drafted, in collaboration with different directions of municipal CM Porto and business consultants, the Management Plan of the Historic Centre of Porto. This management plan was also considered In other plans such as: the PDM (Municipal Master Plan) of Porto, the Porto Vivo SRU's Master Plan for Porto City Centre and the Oporto SIM (System Multi-criteria).

The elaboration of the management Plan occurred at the same time as the process of evaluation of the classified area and the inventory. The study area, with a surface area of 50 hectares (4 parishes) was organized into 83 quarters and 10 operations (Taipas, São Francisco, Vitória, Clérigos, Mouzinho/ Flores, Ribeira/ Barredo, Sé, Avenida da Ponte, São Bento and Santa Clara). This area underwent a further analysis, at distinct levels, such as: state of conservation, occupation, activities, ownership and dynamics found.

HCPorto limits of operations.jpg Figure 4 - Limits of operations in the Historical Center of Porto (source: Porto Vivo SRU 2008)

The main stakeholders are:

- Residents, visitors, workers and investors in the Historic Centre of Oporto;

- Oporto City Council;

- Vila Nova de gaia City Council;

- Society of Urban Rehabilitation, Porto Vivo;

- The Portuguese State;

- UNESCO, final recipient of the Management Plan.

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Analysis of use/users

  • How is the area/project used and by whom?
  • Is the use changing? Are there any issues?

Illustration: Map/diagram/sketches photos and background notes

The project area was once a commercial and fishery zone that helped to create the urban settlement. Nowadays, its main uses are related with:

- Habitation, being a revitalized area in fashion to live, with increasing demand from the younger population, which finds here a more central location, with great opportunities. Here, there is a harmony of dwellings with the streets, the docks and the River.

- Commercial, with the installation of cafes, restaurants, bars, but also traditional products and crafts shops. It is also a place where creative industries and cultural activities have settled. Night life is well developed, giving more life and more movement to the city.

- Cultural activities, occurring events such as in: Ferreira Borges Market, the Traditional Arts Regional Centre, The Municipal Historical Archive, the Stock Market Palace and former Court of Appeal Prison.

- Tourism, with the presence of various heritage elements, in unique scenery, with the presence of the river and walks through the traditional environments with narrow streets and houses with traditional architecture and colors.

Future development directions

  • How is the area/project evolving?
  • Are there any future goals?

Illustration: Map/diagram/sketches photos and background notes

The Management Plan has already achieved good results, with the revitalization of areas of the historic center of Porto, making it more attractive for housing, but also for the visitation, tourism and economic investment. Several buildings were recovered, as well as public space reclassified. There was also the emergence of innovation activities and commerce, cultural products and restaurants, giving the space a new life and more social and economic opportunities and activities.

Currently, the Management Plan is still in a process of implementation, and are forecast the following programmes and urban studies:

“- Urban study of the priority intervention area in Aliados;

- Sé rehabilitation programme, part of PIA (Priority Intervention Area) Sé-Vitória;

- Rehabilitation Programme of Mouzinho/ Flores Area;

- Ideas Contest for the Revitalisation of the Riverfront in the Priority Intervention Zone (…);

- Creation of a set of incentives to promote urban rehabilitation”(1).

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Peer reviews or critique

  • Has the area/project been reviewed by academic or professional reviewers?
  • What were their main evaluations?

Please add references, quotes...

In general, there are good reviews in the process of rehabilitation of the Porto Historic Center. These mainly concern the following points:

A - Greater demand for housing

According to Ana Dias Delgado (in Sapo Notícias), the demand for housing has been higher than supply. This is a quite attractive place to live. Is there a website where the available properties are advertised for sale and rent in the Historic Center, and also listed the rehabilitation programs.

B - Investment calls for further investment

The urban rehabilitation process of Porto has tan scale effect, with more and more investors (public and private) which are attracting more investment. This has led to the establishment of six priority areas for action: Aliados, Cathedral / Victoria, Carlos Alberto, Poveiros / São Lázaro, Infante and Praça da República.

C – Continuity process

“Twenty or thirty years to rehabilitate the historic district and downtown Porto, or even longer "(...)" very complex processes that require specialized intervention "(...) " delay of the Portuguese judicial system " (Ana Dias Delgado in Sapo Notícias)

D - Need for more investment in housing and more affordable

“The historical center cannot live only in summer” (Antonio Fonseca, President of the Association of Bars and Clubs of the Historic Centre of Porto)

Successes and limitations

  • What do you see as the main successes and limitations of the area/project?

Illustration: Summary table


- Successful urban revitalization

- More quality housing

- Public spaces with higher quality

- Better life conditions

- Increased economic development (more restaurants, shops, creative industries, tourism)

- Improved social living conditions (infrastructure) and employment

- Preservation of cultural heritage

- More attractive place (events, activities ...)

- Better image of the city

- More and better use and vitality


- Bureaucratic

- Aspect Financial

- Difficulty of dialogue between all partners

- Housing prices have not accessible to all

-Consuming process due to the need considering of each case as unique

What can be generalized from this case study?

  • Are there any important theoretical insights?

Short statement plus background notes

This is an example of transformation of an urban center which, based on its history and culture, was reclassified and adapted to new needs, regaining his lead role in the city.

Despite having gone through a period of decline, is now undergoing a rehabilitation process, becoming a prime spot both for live and to visit. The restoration, conservation and rehabilitation of built elements associated with an innovation in the uses and activities that a local with this character promotes, turned this area into one of the most attractive in the city, with high economic and social potential.

What research questions does it generate?

Short statement plus background notes

The process of rehabilitation of the Historic Center of Porto is a particularly interesting case study because it seems that this is a success story (still ongoing) of rehabilitation and requalification of historic city centers, with a change of uses, with benefits at heritage, cultural, social and economic level, contributing to the recovery of the city.

Research questions may relate to the following aspects:

1. Analysis of the cost-effectiveness of the process of rehabilitation;

2. Which are the social benefits?

3. Which is the opinion of the former residents regarding the changes in their neighborhood?

4. What are the main aspects that make the site attractive (both for visitors, residents, and investors)?

5. What are the architectural and ethnographic elements that mark the city's history?

6. How was the participation process?

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Image Gallery

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  • 1 - PORTO VIVO SRU 2008: Historic Centre of Oporto World Heritage - Management Plan; ON.2 / QREN / Fundo Europeu de Desenvolvimento Regional
  • 2 - PORTO VIVO; LTM 2008: Estudo de caracterização institucional do Centro Histórico do Porto; Operação Norte / Comissão de Coordenação e Desenvolvimento Regional - Norte.
  • 3 - UNESCO 1996: World Heritage List: Oporto - Advisory Body Evaluation, available online: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/755/documents/
  • 4 - CÂMARA MUNICIPAL DO PORTO 2009: A base económica do Centro Histórico do Porto; Destaque Informativo, Câmara Municipal do Porto, Porto.
  • 5 - RODRIGUES, Cláudia 2002: O Porto desigual e a transacção entre personagens e os lugares - o centro histórico, a ilha e o bairro social; Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada, Lisboa.
  • 6 - PORTELA, Ana; QUEIROZ, Francisco 2008: Conservação Urbana e Territorial Integrada; Livros Horizonte, Lisboa.

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