Review / 4. February 2021

Dressing-Up the City Void (2014-2021)

Initiated in 2014, the project Vivacidade sought to revive forgotten corners in Aveiro, Portugal, and created a new public square: Largo de São Sebastião. We revisited the project and looked at how it has developed over the years since.

In 2014, the project Vivacidade. Dressing-Up the City Voids was initiated in Aveiro, Portugal, with the idea to generate civic participation for urban interventions through the means of culture. More concretely, the aim was to engage the local community in participatory co-creation processes to transform functionless, abandoned spaces into welcoming and useful places by employing a place-making approach inspired by local history, traditions and memories. Under the Umbrella of Actors of Urban Change, a team consisting of the Municipality of Aveiro, 4iS – Platform for Social Innovation, and SETEPÉS coordinated and promoted the project’s specific objectives:


Community empowerment:

  • - Strengthen citizens' skills and involvement with urban issues

  • - Develop and implement new solutions

  • - Promote active and positive participation through collective work processes

Urban regeneration through transformations promoted by the community:

  • - Make spaces into welcoming, accessible, pleasant places, where people can meet, socialize and promote activities and events

Intergenerational involvement:

  • - Bring together the local population and the university students

  • - Promote the exchange of experiences, knowledge and skills

Reinforce local identity:

  • - Collect and work with memories

  • - Transform spaces as a way to promote a sense of belonging and pride

  • - Ensure the appropriation of places by the community

Now, nearly seven years after Vivacidade first started transforming urban voids, we want to revisit the project and look at its development over these past years to understand the impact such an urban intervention can have and what it takes to sustain it.

Finding a Space and Engaging the Community

To begin, a locale suitable for an intervention had to be scouted. The project's general intervention area encompassed the historic axis comprised of several streets that cross the city’s historical center. Along this axis, a number of urban voids were identified. From the carried-out mapping, an urban void in the Bairro do Liceu (Highschool neighborhood) was chosen for a first intervention. In addition, a brief preliminary study was made about the history and evolution of the intervention area as well as the surrounding areas.

In March of 2014, the VivaCidade project team initiated a few street actions for community activation and memory collecting such as approaching and talking with residents in local cafés and shops, making a mural allusive to the project and community picnics. This was followed by a set of community meetings between April and June. These sessions aimed to create a community working group for the design and implementation of an urban intervention in the selected urban void. This made it possible to understand the needs and expectations of the residents towards the neighborhood and the public space. Ideas what to do with the void were presented and discussed ideas, and, eventually, a consensus was reached which formed the basis for drafting an intervention proposal.

From Proposal to Communal Living Area

The proposal was designed based on the ideas, needs and expectations of all who participated, which included residents, university students and other interested citizens. The participation process made it possible to reach a consensus on what was intended for the urban void, namely: «A living area with a garden, color, playful furniture and a mural, allusive to the old tavern that existed there. A space for everyone and for all ages». The designed solutions and the materials to be used considered the low-cost nature of the intervention.

The project proposal, collectively conceived, was subsequently transformed into an execution plan that was approved on October 31, 2014, by the chair of the Aveiro City Council. After that, a second round of meetings took place in November in order to make some adjustments to the proposal in accordance with the requirements of the municipal urban regulations. The meetings further served to define tasks within the planning of the intervention and the collection of necessary materials and divided these among designated groups.

In a first phase, In the beginning of 2015, specialized work operations that required heavy machinery were carried out: cleaning and earthwork of the land, paving, wall consolidation and reinforcement of soil in the garden area. This was followed by the community building phase which took place between 7.-21. of March, 2015. For two weeks, there were urban furniture and vertical garden construction workshops while, simultaneously, smaller workshops such as, drawing, knitting, carpentry, traditional mortar making and applying, gardening, etc. were organized. These open-to-the-community activities and workshops along with a few small cultural events fostered the collaborative construction process, and provided an environment that nurtured dialogue and sociability among the local community.

The renovated place was named Largo de São Sebastião by the majority of the participants and was officially opened to the whole community in July 2015.

Maintaining the Intervention

One year after, a series of maintenance workshops were promoted between May and June under the direction of 4iS - Platform for Social Innovation. To this end, participants from last years were contacted and duly informed of the program’s initiatives, which was adjusted according to the volunteer’s availability and other conditions necessary for the execution. This led to not only the garden renovation and the furniture refurbishing, but also a new mural being painted.


In 2018, another renovation action - Pimp the Void - happened under the CityToolBox as part of the final meeting within its first CTB Lab. After this, the Municipality of Aveiro took over the Largo de São Sebastião management in full. Currently, a public space project for the surrounding area is being developed and a renovation process for the adjacent building is on an analysis and validation phase.



Reflecting on the Process and its Impact

The VivaCidade project was the first cross-sectoral initiative for urban transformation through culture and participation in Aveiro. It was the trigger to other participatory projects within the city in the following years, promoted by several civil society organizations, university and citizens that were engaged in or inspired by VivaCidade.

The success of participatory processes for urban transformation depends on the availability and commitment of all stakeholders to enable an active and participatory community. These kinds of processes require time to observe the urban landscape and listen its communities, manage their needs and expectations and build trusting relationships between participants and promoters.

From the local authorities’ perspective, civic participation can attract attention to any spot of the city and turn visible the need to act on any specific space. In this sense, these types of initiatives allow a municipality to get closer to real life and actual users of a place. At the same time, citizens get to better understand the uncertainty and the issues related to urban planning and management. It produces a change on both sides: the power to wake up the community spirit and enabling a faster process from decision making to action through the construction of consensual proposals.


Photo Credits in order:

(1) Rui Caldera

(2) João Rosa

(3) Giacomo Gallo

(4) Eliana Macedo

(5) Robert Veselko 

(6) Tiago Castro

(7) Tiago Casto

(8) Sergio Pereira

(9) Sergio Pereira

(10) João Rosa