Porto’s scenic landscape is very easy to fall in love with, with its winding river, picturesque city centre glued to the escarpment and vistas to the sea. You easily get mesmerized by its charm. However, it is a superficiality that hides the complex situation the city is dealing with. For years, attempts to recover from industrial decline and economic reinvigoration placed a great importance on the revitalization of central city districts. This caused a disregard towards peripheral areas and their ‘terrain vagues’, and resulted in the loss of significance to local communities and an unequal distribution of public space.
As I spent significant time in Porto (a year in total for both my internship and thesis), I got obsessed by the quantity and size of the abandoned, underused sites in the periphery. I saw these ‘terrain vague’ landscapes as an opportunity for future urban space, to accommodate various social groups, and to give presence to multiple local actors. Therefore, the main purpose of my thesis was to explore the potentials of terrain vague landscapes as urban parks, that balance the needs of local communities and a wider public.
The term was not chosen randomly, it perfectly describes the nature of these sites and allows for interpretation. ‘Terrain’ (from the Latin terranum, or land) in French refers to a piece of land or site, either urban or rural. Moreover, it may also mean position or standing ground. ‘Vague’ (from the Latin vacuus, or empty, and the German Woge, or wave) in French has three main connotations: wave or billow; empty or vacant; and uncertain or indeterminate.
Learning from practice
These very spaces have the potential to become a well needed (green) public space and to be integrated into a network of public open spaces with both local and broader significance, in contrast to, or complementing the central spaces in the city. However, there is very limited research on the existing design approaches that have transformed these spaces in practice. Therefore, by studying reference studies, the aim was to find out the way designers have dealt with the activation of the terrain vague landscapes as urban park. Learning from practice and translating research findings into design guidelines formed the base for a research-based design.
Activating terrain vague landscapes of Porto
To design and implement the guidelines, I dived into studying the urban context of Porto. One site stood out from the others: the former thermal power plant of Central Termo Eléctrica do Freixo in the peripheral parish of Campanhã, which is characterized by highly complex and fragmented urban environment, and severe socio-economic vulnerability.
There appears to be an imbalance within Porto. While city centre revitalization (as a result of promotion of economic activities, e.g. 2001 Capital of Culture and the label of UNESCO World Heritage Site) has caused a boost in tourism, real estate development and triggered a process of gentrification, while the periphery of Porto did not enjoy any of this significance. Campanhã is one of such areas that concentrates the most severe indicators of socio-economic vulnerability within the Metropolitan Area of Porto. Its three zones each have its own (spatial) qualities, but are separated by heavy infrastructural works.
Campanhã Urban Park
Within the Valley of Campanhã, the terrain of Central Termo Eléctrica do Freixo (Freixo Thermal Power Plant) is situated on the banks of the river Douro. The terrain of approximately 60.000 m2 was the ground on which the buildings of the thermoelectric power station were built that from 1923 on generated electricity for the north of Portugal. Today, after more than sixty years of inactivity, the buildings of the power plant are abandoned and constitute the terrain vague this thesis is focusing on.
A conjunction of the analysis, theoretical background and design guidelines constituted the basis for the conceptual design on the terrain vague: Campanhã Urban Park, which aims to reduce the existing urban asymmetries. The plan for Campanhã Urban Park combines a variety of structures and elements to activate the terrain vague landscape as urban park and is built up in two stages: first, a robust framework of paths, vegetation and elements is laid down on the site to activate it as an urban park. Second, this framework is complemented by programmatic features, activities and facilities.
The design strategy for Campanhã urban Park focuses on the activation of the terrain vague landscape of Central Termo Eléctrical do Freixo as urban park, that balances the needs of both local communities and a wider public. Thereby, it aims for the socio-spatial integration of the Valley of Campanhã within the city of Porto. The conceptual approach, consists of two important elements: embedding the new urban park to its surroundings by embracing local cultures and characteristics, for an inclusive urban park; and stimulating local economic development for the integration on multiple scales.
The park will function both as city park, and a neighbourhood park, by strategically locating community-based nodes, which fulfil the needs of local communities. However, as a result of their strategic location they are open to interference from a wider public. Such interference is key when considering public space as medium for integration. One of those community-based nodes is the re-use playground, where the lazy stairs provide the ideal space to enjoy the evening sun, and to gather with your family.
The design of Campanhã Urban Park targets certain disadvantaged groups and parts of the city for regeneration (area based initiatives), supporting informal and newly emerging businesses, investing in hard and soft infrastructures, and encourages the formation of new undertakings and projects.
Moreover, it supports the integration of a certain area on multiple levels, both local and regional. Connecting public space to the activation of local characteristics and economies are means of social activation and interaction. Social interaction can be seen as the link between public space and local economies.
A welcoming entrance is created on the north side of the park, where a canopy provides protection from the sun. It marks the transition from the busy road to the community-like area of the park.
The terrain vague landscape certainly has potential to become high quality public space. Throughout my thesis I found out that that occupying the terrain vague without a framework or guidance is likely to fall short in context of Porto. The potentials of the terrain vague landscape as urban park are not only relying on the spatial and socio-economic structures that are underlying the site, but also on the applicability of the concept of terrain vague to the specific cultural context.
Last but not least, I hope my thesis brings awareness to the socio-economic sensitivity of park design, and can open doors towards sustainable urban (re)development in Porto. I am grateful for all the conversations, discussions and collaborations that made me see through the ‘tourist gaze’ and made me understand the complex situation Porto is facing. It led to an even greater love for Porto, flaws and all.