Bridging the Gap between Urban and Environmental History in Lisbon, Portugal

By Leona Skelton and Carry Van Lieshout

Just in case we hadn’t seen enough of Portugal, in July 2014 at the World Congress of Environmental History in Guimaraes, we revisited the country in early September to attend the European Association for Urban History Conference: ‘Cities in Europe; Cities in the World’. We benefited from some highly innovative and thought-provoking sessions on diverse topics of Urban History, ranging from Lucy Beeckmans’ ‘A Multitude of Inbetweens in African Urban Spaces’, to Martin Melosi’s ‘Cities, Environment and Sustainability’, to Nicholas Kenny’s ‘The Senses and Urban Public Space’. And our own session, organised by Dolly Jorgensen and Tim Soens, ‘Urban Sanitation before the Sanitary Revolution’, formed a cohesive and highly focused argument, which we hope to present in the form of an edited collection soon. There were lots of social opportunities for academic discussion and networking, including an open-air, floodlit banquet for all six hundred delegates at the City Museum Gardens, complete with wandering peacocks and vast amounts of custard-based cakes, and a 2.5 hour circular cruise around the River Tagus, enabling us to appreciate the scale of Lisbon’s spectacular rivers, cruising past the Vasco da Gama and the 25 de Abril bridges, the Belem Tower and the Christ the King monument.

Vasco da Gama Bridge

Vasco da Gama Bridge over the River Tagus, Lisbon. (Photo: Leona Skelton)



Peacock at the conference dinner reception. (Photo: Carry van Lieshout)














Leona: One comment I heard during the conference made me think a lot about landscape, environment and the labels which we attribute to particular places: ‘place is a space which we have made meaningful’. I want to think much more deeply about what motivates a community, group or individual to turn a space into a place, and then over time successively to change the use and thereby the meaning of that space from a place for industry, a place for food production, a place for housing, a place for art, a place for biodiversity, a place for sport and recreation. Is Lisbon’s Commercial Square, where I sat in one place from 1pm until 5pm, very happily, between the end of the conference and my flight home, a ‘place’ because it was the site of royal power until the great earthquake of 1755, and the hub of commercial activity thereafter, or is it a ‘place’ because it features the impressive Triumph Arch, runs right up to the water’s edge at a small, but very urban, beach? Is it a ‘place’ because it provides an excellent view of the 25 de Abril Bridge, the Tagus and the Christ the King Monument?

Triumph Arch, Lisbon

Looking towards Commercial Square through the Triumph Arch, Lisbon (Photo: Leona Skelton)

25 de Abril Bridge

The View towards the 25 de Abril Bridge and Christ the King Monument, from Commercial Square, Lisbon (Photo: Leona Skelton)
























Who decides when a space becomes a place and does it matter? Is a golf course any less edifying than Northumberlandia, a large artwork sculpted into the land near Cramlington, Northumberland? Historians have long appreciated the large extent to which daily lives have been shaped by the built, manmade environment, but what about the use or multiple uses of those buildings and spaces, how natural or manmade an environment is, the biodiversity of wildlife, the potential to play in a space or place? Historians have also long appreciated the large extent to which the visual impact of the environment impacts on daily life experiences, but what about sensory history: the smell, the touch, the taste and the sound of an environment? The reason why I spent so much time sitting in Commercial Square was because it excited and satisfied more of my senses than merely sight alone. Any thoughts?

Commercial Square, Lisbon

A Table with a View, Commercial Square, Lisbon (Photo: Leona Skelton)













Carry: Leona’s thoughts about environmental impacts on daily life experiences in the past really chimed with my own reflections on the conference. Starting at our own session, which by its nature dealt with the smellier and dirtier aspects of urban life, I thought about the many sensory experiences people must have had. This train of thought continued during a session on ‘city lights’ that I attended the next day, which included a paper by A. Roger Akirch on resistance to street lighting. It made me think about how, for much of history, human lives were partly lived in the dark. People were able to navigate around their own spaces – houses certainly, but also their streets and neighbourhoods – relying on their sense of touch and sound, in addition to their sense of direction and internal maps of familiar spaces. This really chimed with my own experiences going down old mines and caves in the Peak District. Unable to rely on visual landmarks, as to my untrained eye all walls just looked like rock, and unable to rely on the familiar patterns of streets or landscapes that normally guide my sense of direction, I felt utterly disorientated. I thought about the miners feeling at home in their underground world with very little or no light, and the internal maps they must have developed in order to find their way. I wondered to what extent do the sources we have of an historical place bias us towards the visual? Does our reliance on the sense of sight in our overly lit world come at the expense of our other senses? There is scope for both historians and geographers to consider the impact of people’s sensory experiences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *