Social housing demolition as state-led gentrification in Porto’s city centre

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2013

14 Pages

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Drawing on an account of the history of the relations between the residents of a social housing estate in Porto, Portugal, and state authorities, this paper wishes to discuss the case of a strongly stigmatised and disadvantaged working class social housing neighbourhood whose demolition was recently initiated.

Built in a riverside location just outside the city centre in the 1970s to accommodate 320 families displaced from the city's ancient core as a result of the urban renewal of that area, Bairro do Aleixo has become the most demonised public housing neighbourhood in Porto, especially since it started to be publically presented as an irreparable "drug supermarket" and "urban ulcer". By highlighting the ways through which state (in)action contributed to the degradation and stigmatisation of this neighbourhood - once a proudly publicised social housing "pilot project" - and, eventually, to the presentation of its demolition, as in a self­fulfilling prophecy, as the "inevitable" remedy to an otherwise "unsolvable" problem, this paper wishes to reveal how the current trends in social housing management in Porto - which entail the demolition of the most stigmatised neighbourhoods and the displacement and dispersal of their inhabitants - are part and parcel of a state-led strategy favouring urban redevelopment through the real estate and private housing markets' appropriation of public land in the city centre.

Keywords: Social housing demolition; urban redevelopment; displacement; state-led gentrification; Porto.


In January 2012, the front-page of Porto's city council official magazine presented the take-off of the demolition of Bairro do Aleixo[1], a local social housing estate, as "the beginning of a new era". Two weeks before, one of the estate's five 13-storey towers had been imploded as a result of the city council's decision to dismantle the neighbourhood and redevelop the area and the event was openly commended by local authorities: Porto was finally getting itself rid of a "national drug sanctuary" and its "most problematic social housing estate" (CMP 2012: 3; 6).

"This was an important step towards the rehabilitation of social housing in Porto, a step made on behalf of social justice, but also on behalf of urban safety", said the mayor just after watching the demolition of Aleixo's "Tower 5" (CMP 2012: 8). The dismantling of this estate is part of the city council's strategy to "put an end to an urban nightmare", by redeveloping an area which is placed in a riverfront location right next to the city centre but is best known as the city's "most problematic and stigmatised neighbourhood" and "main drug trafficking centre". According to the city councillor for housing issues, the demolition of the neighbourhood's five towers and the relocation of local fa9milies to other social housing estates within the city is the only adequate response to the "physical and social degradation" of Aleixo and the only way to upturn the long-term negative image endured by those living in this neighbourhood: "Although it's true it's not through demolition you fight drug trafficking, it's also a fact that even if the towers were reformed or replaced by a set of new buildings the people living there would never stop being looked as 'Aleixo’s residents'" (CMP 2012: 10). After the demolition, the redevelopment of the opened up land will be upheld by a "special real estate investment fund" managed by a financial society linked to a major Portuguese bank. The fund is participated by the city council (with a minority stake) and by a consortium of private investors (CMP 2012: 8-9).

Although a brief historical account of Aleixo's social evolution throughout the almost four decades of its existence would be relevant for a closer understanding of its present situation, references to the estate's origins and trajectory are minimal. The city council's official report on the demolition simply states that Aleixo was built in the 1970s and, "as far as one knows today", not for the purpose it ended up having, that is, as a social rented housing estate (CMP 2012: 10). A brief check in the city council's archives would show, however, that this information is inaccurate; actually, it would highlight the fact that the estate was once a proudly publicised social housing "pilot project", presented as part of a cohesive urban renewal scheme and as an example of architectural and social innovation in public housing. If that's so, what happened then? How was it possible for this once publicised "pilot project" to end up being Porto's main "urban nightmare"?

Material and symbolic struggles over the appropriation of urban space Although not very common in Portugal, the demolition of social housing has become one of the main features of public housing management throughout the globe, with special emphasis in North American and European cities, where this segment of the housing stock has come to be dominantly envisaged as inefficient - to a point that it is considered "counterproductive" and thus "obsolete" (Blanc 2004; Cole 2012; Goetz 2000; 2011; 2012). As a matter of fact, it's noticeable that in many cities the same estates that were once presented as the most innovative and well thought-out public housing projects are now the most degraded and stigmatised ones, and have faced or are facing demolition (Wassenberg 2004).

This is exactly the case of Bairro do Aleixo, in Porto. Built in a riverside location just outside the city centre in the 1970s to accommodate 320 families displaced from the city's ancient core as a result of the urban renewal of that area, Bairro do Aleixo was once considered a cutting-edge public housing project, not only because of its unusual physical configuration - social housing in Porto had never been made available through the construction of high-rise estates -, but also because it was part of an innovative approach to urban renewal, implying the deconcentration of Porto's historic centre population (while maintaining a great number of local families in the area and preserving local culture and local social relations), the rehabilitation of the area's buildings and public spaces, and the knitting of social ties between the "old" and the "new" community.

In a necessarily brief and schematic manner, what this paper will try to show is how Bairro do Aleixo went from acclaimed "pilot project" to "urban nightmare" and how its demolition came to be presented as the "inevitable" remedy to its otherwise "unsolvable" problems. The exploration of this case will hopefully reveal the decisive role the state plays in the structuring and reconfiguring not only of the material, but also of the symbolic setting of particular urban spaces. In fact, besides the physical interventions they promote, urban and housing policies frequently integrate a politics of memory that plays a decisive role in the struggles for the representation of space and for the definition of the "legitimate" vision over the past, and thus over the present and future, of certain territories and of the city in general. Revealing this politics of memory - or politics of forgetting, as it primarily seems in this case - is one of the main goals ofthis paper.

As a "sort of spontaneous symbolization of social space" (Bourdieu 1999: 124), the inhabited (or appropriated) space organizes itself in a way that inevitably denotes the logic of social hierarchies and divisions. Although in potentially "blurred" manners, social space translates into physical space; as a matter of fact, Bourdieu continues (1999: 124), "[p]art of the inertia of the structures of social space results from the fact that they are inscribed in physical space and cannot be modified except by a work of transplantation, a moving of things and an uprooting or deporting of people, which itself presupposes extremely difficult and costly social transformations".

For analytic clearance purposes, it's important to notice that the efficacy of the structures of physical space in assuring the relative stability of the structures of social space is intimately connected with the fact that the reified social divisions tend to be "reproduced in thought and in language as oppositions constitutive of a principle of vision and division, as categories of perception and evaluation or of mental structures" (Bourdieu 1999: 125). "Centre" and "periphery", "uptown" and "downtown", "Bairro" [social housing estate] and “condominio privado" [gated community], are all oppositions that function as symbolisations of social and spatial divisions while structuring individual and collective action and defining social distances and thus the actual configuration of social relations.

The struggles for the appropriation of space and the profits it procures are always, in this sense, both material and symbolic struggles, that is, they are struggles for the actual possession of physical space as well as struggles for the representation of space, its memory, identity and project. In an uneven and hierarchized society, these struggles will necessarily be uneven: "The ability to dominate space, notably by appropriating (materially or symbolically) the rare goods (public or private) distributed there, depends on the capital possessed" (Bourdieu 1999: 127). Those who have capital (may it be economic, cultural and/or social) have larger possibilities of appropriating space and of defining its image and legitimising its usages; conversely, those who are deprived of capital will most likely end up circumscribed to a place assigned by others and whose memory, identity and project will probably be the subject of heteronomous constructs and revisions.

The role ofthe state is here determinant. Through its laws, programmes and institutions, its fiscal policies and modes of economic and financial regulation, the infrastructures and equipment it creates, through urban planning and housing provision, the state defines not only the objective parameters that model space (land prices and profit rates, usable and protected areas, location and volumes of public and private housing, typologies, licenses and regulations, location and types of infrastructures and equipment, credit systems and real estate funds...), but also the limits of what's actually "thinkable" regarding the current and future uses and configurations of different territories (through its "diagnoses", the definition of "goals" and "functions", the identification of "problems" and "priorities", the drawing of "plans" and "solutions".).

That's why urban and housing policies - whether they are actually consummated or not - always integrate a politics of memory continuously shaping and reshaping the representations over the past and the present of territories, in order to justify and legitimise, ex ante or ex post, the physical and social shaping and reshaping of those same territories, in a way that's consentaneous with the interests of those who dominate precisely because they hold, among other resources, power over the state and can, through it, represent and impose their particular point of view over space, the point of view of the dominant, as a universal point of view[2].


[1] "Bairro" is the Portuguese word for a relatively differentiated residential area within a given territory. Related words in English include neighbourhood, quarter, district or borough. Traditionally, when referring to a bairro, one tended to imply a notion of community. Nowadays, in cities like Porto, a bairro is commonly the designation for a public housing neighbourhood and very frequently a "dirty" word.

[2] Bourdieu (1984; 2000) uses the notion of "doxa" to convey this sense of what's unstated and unquestioned, this "adherence to relations of order which, because they structure inseparably both the real world and the thought world, are accepted as self-evident" (Bourdieu 1984: 471). See Pereira and Queirós (2012) for an application of this notion to the analysis of the (re)production of state housing policies in Porto throughout the 20th century.

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Social housing demolition as state-led gentrification in Porto’s city centre
University of Porto  (Institute of Sociology)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Paper presented at the ISA RC43 Conference 2013.
Social housing demolition, urban redevelopment, displacement, state-led gentrification, Porto, Portugal
Quote paper
João Queirós (Author), 2013, Social housing demolition as state-led gentrification in Porto’s city centre, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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