Lisbon: A Capital Green Dream

7 June 2020 - // Features
Filipa Rosa
Graphic Designer

A global pandemic overtook the world the year Lisbon won the EU Green Capital award. Ironically, this fact, plus the unprecedented massive shutdown of the capitalist machine, unveiled a somewhat « greener » cityscape than what anyone would have dared to dream.

In spring 2020, scents returned to the city of Lisbon. I can smell the sea as I open my window, and I can smell green. I cannot recall the air being this thin, this light… Which contrasts greatly with the concern I try not to feel within. Smells and sounds travel freely a great distance to visit us in our city center apartment. Instead of the usual car horns of hurried parents and nervous truck drivers, I wake up with the chirping of the swallows as the first rays pour down the hill. Lisbon has accidentally (although temporarily) won a greener capital. To this special experience and to the desires it has awaken in me, I will refer to as the Capital Green Dream (CGD).

A port that receives everyone (but everything?)

Lisbon is “a port that receives everyone” says José Sá Fernandes, City Councilor for Energy and Green Structure in the promotional video on the EU Green Capital Award. But in the spring of 2020 the port is closed. There are no massive cruise ships on its shore and no planes drawing fume lines on the sky. This time, tourists are not filling up the tram 28, and billions of selfies are spared coming into existence.

With the great close-down caused by COVID-19, this spring air quality in Lisbon has reached levels never recorded before. And “Lisboetas” (the name given to its citizens) gained a lot more city space. They can find quiet places in the city to enjoy life, to read a book or go to museums, visit monuments and appreciate neighborhoods without the constant maddening euphoria of a kind of tourism too avid to consume everything and anything all the time.

The frantic tourists had magically disappeared as did most forms of entertainment of the modern cities, from nightlife in bars and clubs, to cinemas, shopping centers, football matches, festivals, concerts, and gatherings of all sorts. More unbelievable still was to see the suppressing of most outdoor advertising.

We are all too aware now of the effects of over consumption: the depleting of natural resources in the run for ‘more’ and ‘faster’, the sheer waste generation and the lack of real solutions to deal with the end-of-life of consumer goods, the effects of industrial and transport pollution in atmosphere and water… This is why a “Green Capital” that strives and thrives for sustainability cannot begin to exist in a society that is motivated by the wanton consumerism of capitalism. Instead, it must address them openly and actively.

Green and Purple

In Lisbon the Jacarandas are blooming and the avenues, dressed in exuberant purple, give the city an air of fantasy land.

Jacarandas in Lisbon. Photo: Filipa Rosa

Lisbon has some stunning green urban spaces. Perhaps not in dimension, but in intricate beauty and plant diversity, particularly in the older gardens such as Parque Eduardo VII, Gulbenkian, the Botanical Garden, Jardim da Estrela, and the Belém Tropical Botanical Garden. Unlike more recently designed and built gardens and green areas which are often blunt, minimal, too sunny, too hot and monochrome, these older gardens retain that sense of love, generosity and attention from the gardener or landscape architect. A variety of plants, colors, odors show up and fade away as we walk up and down their winding paths.

The No-Fest Fest

As all events, and most particularly the festivals, in parks and scenic areas were cancelled, these urban spaces returned to their more mundane usages. Families and friends gathering to meet in small groups with their rosé wine bottles and picnics prepared from home. Some go jogging or just lie on the grass sun-bathing and relaxing. An old romantic feeling returned to the parks of the city as shopping centers remain closed.

The city is temporarily exempt from the never-ending chain of festivals (the « fest of fest of fest…») to stampede the parks with an often awkward excitement: alcohol selling vans, cotton candy in plastic bags, tons of sugar rolled into the very typical churros and farturas (a dough that floats in boiling oil and then is rolled and rubbed into sugar before serving), and the other dozens of paid entertainment everythings. Without these events, we are also spared that moment when, inadvertently, we attend the last show and watch a sea of plastic glasses, paper cups, paper plates, cutlery and straws, as well as lost balloons and confetti poppers covering the not-so-green-grass-anymore.


This spring, it was not only air and noise pollution that have been drastically reduced. Street billboards went silent for a while! Advertising billboards were, almost exclusively serving health instructions, promoting proper social conduct and educational purposes.

As I was not having to fight against external voices, (phrases, slogans) adding noise to my mind, I heard my own thoughts and my eyes strolled freely. I walked the city streets without having the thought of a fast and comfy car popping up of nowhere, or a super bling-bling wrist watch, or some lace underwear posing on the perfect silhouette of a young girl’s fleeting beauty staring with apathy in her expression, or any other random (unwelcome and useless) stuff cropping up into my most personal and intimate space: my mind!

In the Capital Green Dream, the value of street billboards is acknowledged and accounted for as the private spaces of people’s minds. For that reason, their usage is the concern and choice of citizens themselves. One can easily quantify the value of these spaces by just looking at how much private companies are willing to invest to doodle in their brain washing messages. In a Capital Green Dream, those messages, if any, are geared towards social and sustainability goals such as education, art, culture and actual technical information.

The Asphalt

Branding is a very powerful tool. Branding a city as « green » is no exception. In fact, it is partly through a thoughtful communication plan, that a European Green Capital will achieve « increased international media coverage, a boost in local pride and increased foreign investment » which are some of the announced benefits of winning this award. Lisbon council (CML) chose the advertising agency Wunderman Thompson to take up the 75k allocated funds to brand its EU
Green Capital Award. Alongside the slogan « Choose to evolve » (« Escolhe evoluir »), the agency developed a brand identity using the city name, whereby each of its letters (L-I-S-B-O-A) seem to grow from the earth upwards, mimicking the organic growth of plants and trees.

In cities a lot of the natural world is literally trapped below ground. Trees and weeds are often seen trying to break and pierce the pavements and the asphalt. To make sure « nature » does not interfere with the things we like to control, humans use all kinds of artifices. One of those artifices is the obsession with paving the ground where we dwell. To keep covering the earth with a composite made of petroleum, is to suffocate earth and its natural order.

A Capital Green Dream does not belittle this issue and tries to return breathing capacity to the earth below the city. The Portuguese pavement (“calçada portuguesa”) is a lesser evil, although slippery and often uncomfortable, it is a more permeable surface than cement or asphalt.

Escolhe Evoluir

In the past decade, the city center of Lisbon has become like a massive resort village with all kinds of exclusive dedicated services for tourists. It’s all hopelessly empty now, at the moment when people start coming out of their houses at the end of a two-month imposed confinement period. Souvenir shops filled up with a parody of traditional objects, any type of object with the Portuguese flag on it (Made in China), food experiments and deviations for a wow effect and a laugh, all of it with extraordinary prices by any Portuguese standard. Whole neighborhoods were transformed to feed on a loop system with no exit, whereby consumer-hungry tourists can happily spend their time and money and overflow their euphoria with fake-traditional products.

Today, it’s all closed and I can’t help thinking how useful it would have been if all this work force, this human intelligence, was now working towards thinking and creating a more sustainable city and planet instead of being in agony at home not knowing how to pay the bills or feed a child. As the government calls for resilience and asks for solidarity from its people in these hard times, it might be worth asking: what is everyone’s Capital Green Dream?

For me, the Capital Green Dream builds its economy on solid and real needs: be it helping other humans, or creating and inventing sustainable solutions for social, urban, ecological, health and educational issues; because those needs are urgent – rather than made-up by an industry to serve corporate profit – and they are endless and require we constantly adapt, assess, evolve.

Filipa Rosa
Graphic Designer

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