To listen, to listen and then… to listen

Michela Sechi (Radio Popolare, Italy) visits Tiago Castro (4iS – Platform for Social Innovation Portugal) in Aveiro in January 2017

What makes a participatory project successful? I’ve travelled to Portugal to find the answer to this question. Destination: Aveiro, a coastal city South of Oporto. In Aveiro I was welcomed by my host Tiago Castro, a member of CitizensLab and one of the initiators of the project “Vivacidade. Dressing up the city voids”. I was fascinated by the title. In my city, Milano, there are a lot of abandoned spaces that sometimes become garbage dump sites.

Aveiro and its canals
Aveiro’s historical center is built around canals. That’s why the city is known as "Venice of Portugal"

What made me curious of the Vivacidade project was that the idea of cleaning and refurbishing the space came directly from the people through a participatory process. A whole neighbourhood was involved in designing the intervention and in realising it.

First, I visited the site with Tiago. Then we moved to Aveiro University, where I had an opportunity to visit the “Start-up incubator” and meet João Pedro Rosa, who initiated the project together with Tiago.

I asked both of them a few questions. Here are the answers:

The intention was to create an urban transformation through culture and participation of the local community. “So during a year and a half”, explains Tiago, “we developed a participatory process gathering participants from two different communities: the permanent residents and the temporary residents of the neighbourhood – the students of the university”.

Tiago speaking with one of the participants
Tiago speaking with one of the participants

The aim was to collect their ideas, their needs and their expectations and to draw together a solution for the space. “Following all these steps”, Tiago adds, “we were able to transform a space full of garbage in something that anyone can use and is proud of.’

What is the most important lesson learned? “It’s that you need a kind of critical mass to make it happen”, João explains. “It’s not about quantity. You need to involve different players from the community, with different background: students, workers, elderly people… This connection that was created, was one of the big success of the project.”

Michela at Aveiro University
Michela at Aveiro University

Then, Tiago added something that seems very important to me: “We can’t work where we want: we must work where we are needed. As urban planners, we might have the dream to transform some parts of the city as we would like to see them. But sometimes this is not what people need. So, the first step is asking the people what they really need, what are their expectations. We need to talk with them, and listen. Listen is more important than speaking to people and explaining what we are planning for them”.

Student's band in Coimbra
Student's band in Coimbra

According to João, there is a new request for participatory processes in Portugal, coming from the local communities. In the past decades, the local authorities where always the ones responsible for activating the projects. Now the initiative often come from the citizens themselves.

This takes me to the second project that I wanted to visit during my journey through Portugal: “A Cozinha popular de Mouraria”. When I arrived to Lisbon, I was eager to visit the place. But then I got lost in the neighbourhood and I enjoyed it very much. I loved Mouraria neighbourhood, where fado was born and where the charm of the old Lisbon surrounds you in every street.

A view of Mouraria, Lisbon
A view of Mouraria, Lisbon

Finally, I had to ask a passer-by to find the Cozinha, also because there is no sign outside.

I was lucky: Adriana Freire, who initiated this project, was the one who opened the door. The kitchen was closed at the time of my visit for some cleaning and renovation. But the staff was all present, including a refugee from Eritrea who was the last one to join the team, one month earlier.

Adriana invited me to sit with them for a delicious lunch: a tasty soup and crepes. After that she told me how the idea of project was born.

I could immediately perceive the passion that is motivating the work of Adriana. “When I asked myself what I wanted to do with my life”, she explains, “the answer came very clear: I want to spend it in a kitchen, helping other people.”

Then the Lisbon Municipality supported the project. But nothing could happen without the dedication of Adriana, a former photographer left unemployed by the crisis. Adriana isn’t a foreigner here: she belongs to Mouraria. This has been her neighbourhood for more than 30 years.

I was curious to learn more about how the project works:

“People in the neighbourhood, at the beginning, thought that I was offering soup to poors, and they didn’t want such a place next door. So I had to start an invisible work: organising some lunches and inviting people to sit together and to talk”. It was incredible: some lunches later, everybody mixed and people were speaking to each other, as they never did before. Now the neighbourhood has the feeling that this place belongs to them”.

At the “Cozinha popular de Mouraria” everyone can have lunch for 5 euros: every day. But the project funds itself by the revenues of the dinners prepared just for groups for 15 euros per person (reservation is mandatory).

According to Adriana, people come from everywhere to eat at the Cozinha, especially students and people who work for other social projects in Portugal or in Europe. Adriana didn’t expect such a success: “Normally, when you make a social project, you have a specific target. But with food, you can reach everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are. You can be a former minister or a prostitute: you sit together at the table and you start talking. And sometimes things happen. Somebody finds a job, or someone has something that you need… A lot of things happen here out of control: spontaneously.”

Graffiti on Lisbon's walls
Graffiti on Lisbon's walls

I travel back home very inspired by both projects. I’ve learned that projects are like food recipes: you need a lot of ingredients, but also you have to know for whom you are cooking. Everyone should be able to add their touch. The most powerful yeast is love and passion. And then, the food is tasty only if we eat all together. So enjoy your meal! Bom apetite!

Aveiro’s site befor the intervention of the project Vivacidade

Michela Sechi works at radio Popolare in Milano, a community radio owned by its journalists and completely independent. 16.000 listeners donate 90 euros/year to support “their” radio station. Radio Popolare’s message is: where there is not enough freedom of press, citizens can organise themselves and create their own media outlets.

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