Help us stop a retail giant destroying our city

Retail giant El Corte Inglés, has been given the green light by Porto’s mayor to build a massive shopping centre and a hotel on public land in the heart of the Portuguese city, which is set to do irreparable damage.

This mega-project threatens to put hundreds of Porto’s small shopkeepers out of business, will cause congestion and air pollution to skyrocket, and will destroy a vital piece of Porto’s historical heritage, the city’s first-ever railway station. The local chapter of DiEM25 in Porto is working on the issue.

The station was badly damaged by fire on December 11, 2020, in mysterious circumstances. It had just been submitted by a local citizens’ group for classification to be protected as a heritage site, which would have presented a block to the mega-project. El Corte Ingles denied any involvement in burning the building.

Since 1974, the land where the shopping centre is to be located had been publicly owned by different Portuguese state-owned companies. But its sale was agreed behind closed doors and without any public consultation. Crucial decisions like this, with far-reaching implications, cannot be made without consulting with citizens.

A mayor that puts private interests over citizens

Rui Moreira (Porto’s mayor) claimed in November 2019, that the city has no means nor money to stop the project from going ahead. If this is true, what does it tell us about the state of our democracies? When multinational corporations can act with impunity, foregoing democratic checks and balances, we no longer live in democracies but in societies which are controlled by oligarchies and their vested interests. Lamentably, the truth in this case is that Porto’s City Hall does have the power, namely the legal and political competence, to decide on how the land is used but no efforts have been made so far by the mayor to prevent this project from going ahead.

This shows that there is a transparency problem. Porto’s City Hall is accountable to its citizens, not to private interests. If the rationale is that the construction of the shopping centre would create jobs, then why not let the residents of the city have a say? And, furthermore, what steps did the government take to ensure transparency in the decision-making process?

Building a mall that the city doesn’t need, while ignoring alternative proposals

There is no justification for another mall in this very important area of the city. Portugal is overwhelmed with large shopping centres, and the site in question in Porto already has five shopping centres, all of them in a state of semi-abandonment, threatening to become obsolete and completely abandoned very soon. In addition, there already is an El Corte Inglés located 5km away in the neighbouring city of Gaia.

The announcement was received with concern by many citizens in Porto who preferred another solution for the area. An online petition — which gathered almost 10,000 signatures — presented an alternative: the creation of a green public space. A group of experts in railway heritage has also taken some steps to guarantee the preservation of the historical first railway station.

These two groups later merged to create the Movement for a Railway Garden in Boavista, an informal association of citizens of diverse academic, professional, and political backgrounds who advocate for the implementation of a garden and the preservation of the station. The Movement claims that a garden is necessary in this densely urbanised area of the city, much more so than a shopping centre, which will only add to the heavy car-traffic, overshadow the building of Casa da Música (an icon of Porto, designed by Rem Koolhaas), and create fierce competition with local shopkeepers.

Since then, the Movement has organised a debate with experts in industrial heritage, urbanism, and environmentalism, contacted political parties with seats in Porto’s City Hall (and other public entities), has been very active in social media and on Portuguese media, and invited some artists to come up with proposals for what a garden could look like. But the Movement’s efforts have so far been met with inaction from the public company in charge of the land and the ministry that oversees it.

It’s time to do something about it

This absence of transparency cannot exist in a democracy. The interests of Porto’s citizens must come first, and their voices must be heard.

But the fight does not end here. If you think it’s wrong that a mega-corporation can be allowed to have its way in Porto, to the detriment of the people who live there; if you would like this land to become a public garden instead, and for the historic railway station to be preserved, let’s take action.

This was written by a DiEM25 member, Davide Castro. The local chapter of the movement in Porto is currently mobilising to take action on this issue. If you’d like to get involved, get in touch!

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