Zambujal Melhora: a participatory approach for urban development

The Zambujal neighbourhood in the municipality of Amadora has a population of 4,000 and is situated in one of the most competitive and attractive areas of Lisbon. Despite its good geographical location Zambujal presents a critical level of development. In the 70s and 80s, large scale social housing developments were completed to accommodate people with a variety of origins (for instance people originating from Portuguese colonies in Africa or a considerable number of Roma). In recent years the area lost the attention of the public authorities and was left to its own devices without a solid policy or strategy. Zambujal became a secluded, disadvantaged area with a social stigma which is difficult to overcome.

Issue: Zambujal, a disadvantaged area

The Zambujal neighbourhood is characterised by derelict buildings and public spaces, segregation, unemployment, insecurity, social alienation and a low level of educational and professional qualification. In order to rehabilitate the neighbourhood, the “Zambujal Melhora” project was created. The project is structured according to three concerns:

  • Housing: the rehabilitation of residential buildings (exterior and common areas);
  • Environment and public space: the improvement and development of a sustainable neighbourhood and public space, accessible to and open for everybody, which promotes a healthy lifestyle;
  • Economic and social development: the creation of two Opportunity Spaces which promote activities (relating to literacy, vocational training, employment and entrepreneurship). The spaces are co-managed by the local community and local organisations.


Approach: top-down and bottom-up, a combined method for working together

In the process of urban regeneration and social development in the Zambujal neighbourhood  a participatory method was adopted in which local organisations and residents play an important role. To establish this key role a combination of a top-down and bottom-up approach was introduced. 

In the first stage of the process the top-down approach was followed. In this stage the municipality of Amadora (public space and social development) and the National Institute for Urban Rehabilitation (IHRU) (housing) cooperated to develop a local action plan consisting of a strategy and specific objectives.  By organising a number of workshops, engineers, social workers, academics and policy makers from local, regional and national level were consulted at this stage.
In the second phase the bottom-up approach was followed to incorporate local opinions into the design of the project. In a number of meetings, over a hundred different participants, for example from NGOs, the police, the church and residents, worked together to identify and formulate problems, challenges, objectives and opportunities which also resulted in a draft of a local action plan.

In the final stage, the two drafts were combined into a common strategy and Local Action Plan under the auspices of the municipality of Amadora and the National Institute for Urban Rehabilitation (IHRU). At this point an application for funds from The Lisbon Operational Programme (OP Lisbon)/Critical Areas could be made. Support was approved, though with the requirement that citizens’ participation would play even a more central role in the implementation phase. This was achieved by the organisation of twenty workshops with residents, who provided additional input for the Local Action Plan. This was also an opportunity to interact with local residents with different backgrounds, thereby obtaining a better insight into the thoughts and needs of these groups. These workshops made it easier more effectively to address the problem of spatial segregation based on age or identity. 

Results: a participatory methodology and urban progression

Several results were obtained over the course of the Zambujal Melhora project. An important part of achieving these results has been the participatory methodology for urban planning. As stated above, local organisations and citizens play a key role in this participatory process. Because of the active role they take up, institutional cooperation is stimulated, community action is strengthened and the gap between public authorities and local actors is reduced. The inclusive approach also enabled a dialogue to take place among local residents with different backgrounds. This way spatial segregation based on age or identity was brought into the spotlight, and cooperation in the same participative process resulted in better mutual understanding.

Apart from these results directly linked to the participatory method, there is progress in terms of socio-economic and environmental development.
Different initiatives were undertaken to stimulate social and economic development, among which were: the formation of a symphonic orchestra consisting of forty children; the hiring of local facilitators; the recognition, validation and certification of skills; and the adaptation and redevelopment of two (formerly degraded) shops into Opportunity Spaces (which are now being used as a training centre).

The development of the urban environment has been improved by the setting up of technical gardening and landscaping courses, the creation of conditions for stimulating a healthy lifestyle, for instance, by the rehabilitation of recreational public spaces and the establishing of a sustainable neighbourhood through citizen participation.

European involvement and the added value of Cohesion Policy on the project

The European Union played an important role in the Zambujal Melhora project, as it provided a financial instrument for the implementation and development of the programme. The Zambujal project has an estimated budget of over seven million euros. This amount is divided among the previously mentioned main directions of the programme: housing, economic and social development, and environment and public space. The main costs are associated with “housing”. The Lisbon Operational Programme (OP Lisbon)/Critical Areas approved total estimated eligible costs of almost three million euros.  The remainder of the budget was for the greater part provided by IHRU and partly by the municipality of Amadora.

Apart from financial support, the European Union also provided a strategic framework. Based on the EU Cohesion Policy the Portuguese Government formulated a set of policies, strategies and actions (for instance the operational programmes entitled “Territorial Enhancement” and “Lisbon”) which thoroughly influenced the design and implementation of the Zambujal project.

The European funding opportunities and the strategic framework were two important factors for the establishment of the Zambujal Melhora project. Given the considerable Portuguese contribution to the project, it might have been  achieved without cohesion funding;  however, the opportunity of the Lisbon Operational Programme triggered and motivated the process in the short term and placed the problems of the Zambujal neighbourhood high on the political agenda.

Integrated development: complementary directions and participation 

An integrated approach to urban development is expressed in two ways. First, the project focused on the previously noted three directions: housing, social and economic development, and environment and public space. These directions complement each other in different ways. For instance the rehabilitation of residential buildings relating to the “housing” strand provided an impulse for the improvement of the urban environment and public space. The adaptation and renewal of two Opportunity Spaces stimulated social and economic development but it also complemented the improvement of the public spaces. The participatory approach and the complementarities between the previously sectoral directions show the integrated dimension of the Zambudjal project, a dimension which was stimulated by the Cohesion Policy.

Secondly, a participatory methodology for urban planning was adopted in the Zambujal project. By means of this approach public authorities (on national, regional and local levels) and key actors were involved in formulating a common strategy and objectives in a Local Action Plan.

Spin-offs: Zambujal Melhora provides the basis

The participatory methodology of Zambujal Melhora was developed during previous experiences in both urban and rural contexts (Urban II, Rural Change and Local Periphery, ESF art. 6 – Innovative Actions) and several other participative projects in small mountain villages in Portugal.

Several programmes and actions were initiated in the city and region with the same general aim: the rehabilitation of the neighbourhood. One programme in particular is worth mentioning in this context, namely:  “Promoção de Lideres Locais de Economia Solidaria”. This programme for the development of Social Entrepreneurship was launched by Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa and Etnoideia and adapts the same participatory methodology.

Lessons learned: a combined approach with good results

The most important lesson learned is the acknowledgement that top-down and bottom-up approaches can be combined to yield very good results. Through the cooperation and involvement of all key actors several advantages were achieved. Information on the knowledge, needs and opinions of residents was introduced into the planning process and provided a new insight to policy makers. The involvement of local actors in the process of urban rehabilitation and social development improved the sustainability of the neighbourhood because of a communal sense of responsibility; vandalism, for instance, decreased. Finally, the level of democratic anchorage, and transparency of the process is increased and the support of the parties concerned is achieved earlier.


This text relies on helpful comments by Jorge Miranda.