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ENVIRONMENT-PORTUGAL: Enjoying the Outdoors in a Greener Lisbon

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Mar 20 2008 (IPS) - Steered by a city government that proudly proclaims its environmental credentials, the Portuguese capital is planning to develop wind energy, restore and connect its green areas, and promote clean transport and the outdoor life.

For decades, Portugal paid no attention to eco-friendly alternatives to fossil fuels, while real estate interests made building sites out of the green areas that were the “lungs” of its cities, environmentalists say.

But in 2005, when engineer and environmentalist José Sócrates, then 47, became leader of the Socialist Party and then prime minister, Portugal began to take note of the fact that it is the European country that enjoys the greatest number of hours of sunshine per year, and that it has strong, constant winds, and huge waves along its Atlantic coasts.

With these geographical characteristics in its favour, this country could ascend to one of the top positions in terms of use of clean energy and respect for the environment in just a few years, scholars say.

Lisbon appears to be on the right track. The city councillor in charge of environmental matters, José Sá Fernandes, says that in six years’ time the Portuguese capital will be an example for other cities in Portugal and Europe.

“We are applying a three-pronged approach, which includes energy savings, development of alternative energy to replace fossil fuels, and the creation of paths within the city that link the gardens and parks, not only to be able to move about on foot and bicycles, but also to be able to breathe better air on the streets,” the city councillor told IPS.

The city government will instal “several 10-metre tall wind turbines, positioning them like street lamps, in order to call attention to alternative forms of energy production,” he said.

The project, called Wind Parade, involves installing 15 to 20 wind turbines in Lisbon in May and June this year, to generate electricity for use in the city or for sale.

Wind Parade Lisbon 2008 is supported by Sustainable Energy for Europe (SEE), the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) and the Portuguese Renewable Energy Association (APREN).

There are two stages to the project. “The first is to raise awareness among citizens of the need to produce energy from renewable sources, and the second is a teaching programme for schools,” Sá Fernandes said.

“The environment will benefit, as each turbine will mitigate pollution by saving emissions of up to 2.15 tons of carbon dioxide a year. And there will be no cost to the city, because the turbines are being donated by private companies, and will be installed on municipal land,” the city councillor said.

“The main impact we expect is a psychological one, prompting people to think about the environment,” he said.

“We will also fit solar panels on buildings owned by the city government, recycle the energy in heated swimming pools, and replace traffic lights with more modern, energy-saving bulbs – all of which will translate into a major reduction in our energy bill,” he said.

“Lisbon needs time to recover from the disasters caused over the last six years by the (conservative) Social Democratic Party (PSD) majorities,” said Sá Fernandes. The PSD was accused of giving in to pressure from large real estate companies while it ran the city government, he said.

The city government has been in the hands of Portugal’s ruling Socialist Party since mid-2007.

Sá Fernandes, an independent elected in the early municipal elections in 2005, and reelected in 2007 on the Left Bloc ticket, says he loves the city of his birth so much that since he was old enough to think for himself he has been defending it tooth and nail.

He and filmmaker José Fonseca e Costa and architect Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles form a threesome who have fought several battles defending Lisbon’s historical architectural patrimony against large real estate companies.

Sá Fernandes also described the Green Corridors plan, which will involve the creation of bicycle tracks connecting the city’s large parks and forested areas – “and all without having to spend extra money,” he said.

“If we manage to build a permanent environmental structure for the city, so that people realise that they can use other forms of transport, and when they see that the parks, lookout points, and roof-top balconies are well-kept, and that there are spaces for children to run and play in, this will be a sign of hope,” he said.

The plan is ambitious and complex, but feasible and cheap, said the city councillor, who has obtained support and commitment from the owners of large green spaces that do not belong to the municipal government, such as the armed forces, cabinet ministries, universities and hospitals.

“We’re going to link up all the gardens and parks in the city, which will give us a remarkable environmental structure that will lead on to good environmental practices, like pedestrianising several city streets,” he said.

As for public transport, the plan is to coordinate with the state transport company Carris to “promote the restoration of electric trams,” especially along the banks of the Tagus river.

In Lisbon, “all the elements – water, earth, air and sun – will have practical applications in the context of an overall guiding policy, which will be brought down from the level of theoretical discourse to the concrete and tangible,” he said.

Some of these practical applications will potentially have a strong impact on tourism, the country’s main foreign exchange earner. Eleven million tourists a year visit Portugal, most of them people from other European countries drawn by the warm climate, beautiful beaches and good food.

“A great boost will be given to balconies and roof-top sun terraces, and life on the streets, with open-air cafés and restaurants. This is a lifestyle we can indulge in because of our climate, and by the end of 2009 visitors will be able to see for themselves that Lisbon is a green city, with two things that can never be taken away: its sunshine and its river,” he said.

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