How do you celebrate the public realm?\

Each year all our staff are invited to go on a research trip; themed to a sector or service we offer. In 2016 one group visited Lisbon to explore infrastructure.

History / Context

Lisbon is the capital of Portugal and continental Europe’s westernmost capital city. It is one of the major economic centres on the continent, with a growing financial sector and one of the largest container ports on Europe’s Atlantic coast.

With a history of being a world power in the age of exploring, Lisbon has always been a multi-cultural and transient city. After an earthquake in 1755, the city was rebuilt. The decision was made to demolish what remained of the medieval town and rebuild the city centre in accordance with principles of modern urban design. It was reconstructed in an open rectangular plan with two great squares: the Praça do Rossio (commercial district and cultural centre) and the Praça do Comércio (the city’s main access to the River Tagus).

Lisbon is the centre of a metropolitan area of over 2,800,000 inhabitants. The city of Lisbon itself, corresponding to only one of the 18 municipalities that form the Lisbon Metropolitan Area, has approximately 550,000 inhabitants. However, despite the growth of the areas surrounding it, the city still attracts the majority of commuting trips in the wider area, which puts significant pressure on the transport infrastructure.

Public Realm

With Lisbon enjoying the most sunny days in all of Europe, you quickly understand the strong importance given to the investment in public spaces.

The city believes that investment in high quality public space will not just continue to attract private sector investment, but ultimately adds to the rich urban fabric of the city. This vision, whilst not appearing to have much support historically from the central government in the UK, is widely supported in many European countries, such as Portugal and France.

High quality public spaces reinforce the city’s sense of place and is essential to the creation of environments that people wish to live and work in.


When visiting the city, one quickly acknowledges the major barriers that main roads and railways have created for access to the waterfront. At some points, such as the south of the city, both a two-lane highway and a major suburban railway line block access from the rest of the city.

One way a city over comes this is to move this network underground and prioritise public transportation over private nodes. During our trip we had the opportunity to visit many of the underground metro stations, which attempt to take this vision, whilst seeking to preserve and rehabilitate the national and local heritage.

Many of the stations commissioned artists to develop the interior of the stations, reflecting the specific context of its immediate surroundings.

Other Modes of Transport

Lisbon’s innovative approach to improving the public realm also features the use of basic but cleverly designed temporary inserts in public buildings. The public transport interchange at Gare do Oriente is a major train, bus and metro station located in eastern Lisbon that provides travel connections to the whole of Portugal.

The station was constructed as a center piece for Expo ‘98 and the striking ultra-modern design means that the station is a notable tourist attraction in conjunction with the Parque das Nacoes. Here temporary markets merge seamlessly with permanent commercial stands. The outside bleeds into the inside, breaking down the barriers of public and private. This is something I felt exemplified Lisbon as a city.

Vision for the Future

The implementation of this vision is exemplified by the regeneration of the city’s waterfront.

A major feature of Lisbon is the availability of 200km of waterfront, stretching north and south from the city centre and on the opposite side of the estuary. Lisbon’s citizens have not been able to access long stretches of the city’s waterfront for decades, either because of physical or ownership barriers, or pollution. For centuries Lisbon’s waterfront has been its main economic driver and source of global influence & wealth, but it has become increasingly separated for its populace, as it has become increasingly dominated by shipping and port-related activities.

As Lisbon looks to the future, amid tough financial times, the city has recently completed The Museum Art Architecture and Technology (MAAT). This building and its four galleries are sunken below ground level to keep the height of the building low, in keeping with the surrounding architecture. It is demonstrative on Lisbon’s ability to blend public realm and public buildings, interior with exterior, by allowing visitors to walk over, under, and through the museum complex, with a roof offering sweeping views towards the river. Its greatest success is a scheme that restores a historic connection between the city and the water by drawing visitors from the heart of Lisbon to the views along the Tagus estuary via a new footbridge, MAAT seeks to regenerate this riverfront area.

Did you also know?

The Gare do Oriente is Portugal’s busiest station (combined bus, train and metro), handling more passengers than New York’s Grand Central Station.

Lisbon receives an average of 2799 sunny hours a year!

Lisbon is older than Rome.

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