Abilio Dias Fernandes is mayor of Evora, Portugal, and vice-president of the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC). Dr. Dias Fernandes, who was born in Mozambique when it was a Portuguese colony, earned a degree in finance from the Lisbon Higher Institute of Economics and Finance. He became mayor of Evora in 1977. Nine years later, Evora was designated a World Heritage City by UNESCO.
During his tenure as mayor, Dr. Dias Fernandes has worked to encourage civic involvement and bring economic development to Evora in a way that preserves the city's cultural heritage. Because of its achievements in urban socioeconomic development, the Municipal Council of Evora has been commissioned by the European Union to head a team of cities that will set guidelines for the strategic planning and development of medium-size cities in the region.
Dr. Dias Fernandes spoke with Mario Bravo, a communications consultant who is working with the GCI as it assists in organizing the 4th International Symposium of the Organization of World Heritage Cities, to be held in Evora in September.
Mario Bravo: Could you give some historical and cultural background on the city of Evora and the Portuguese region of Alentejo?
Abilio Dias Fernandes: The cultural wealth of Evora transcends the quantity and quality of the monuments that one first sees. On the plains surrounding the city are Paleolithic remains mixed with megalithic monuments that date back to 4,000 to 6,000 B.C.E. The four kilometers of city walls enclose such remains as the impressive forum and the hot baths, evidence of the importance of this city to the Romans. Added to the archaeological wealth is the influence of Latin on the Portuguese language.
Between the 8th and 13th centuries, the Arabs dominated an important part of the coast and the southern area of the country, leaving their imprint on monuments, traditions, and popular customs, including language and cuisine. The same had happened with the Visigoths between the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Arab era.
As time went by, the Portuguese royalty moved the seat of their power to the city of Evora, bringing with them courtiers, artists, philosophers, humanists, and poets, who fashioned the golden era of Portuguese culture. It was during the 16th century that great buildings, universities, and convents were built, which time, wars, and earthquakes have been unable to destroy. As the centuries passed and other cities changed due to industrial development, Evora maintained its architectural splendor and agricultural character. It was able to do so because members of the ruling class, who owned large pieces of land, prevented industrial development and the rapid-fire changes ushered in by the 20th century from dulling the artistic creativity of the city.
In the last few decades the region has suffered severe economic problems. Did the poverty of the population affect the development of the region's cultural heritage?
Before the revolution of April 25, 1974, we were immersed in fascism, dictatorship, and a lack of freedom. For half a century, cultural development had been available only to the elite and to landowners. The people did not have these privileges. Once a democratic way of life was established, the city's culture was slowly restored. The songs of the people who till the soil could once again be heard in the fields and streets. Other signs of artistic expression also began to flourish.
Did the recovery of cultural vitality and of the awareness of cultural heritage take place naturally or as a result of a political process?
The reappearance of cultural vitality was not orchestrated, but it was stimulated. The mayor's office supported spontaneous popular initiatives. If a group of people showed interest in reviving the music that had been played in churches and cathedrals during the 16th century, these people were given instruments, venues, techniques, and training to assist them in salvaging this forgotten form of cultural expression.
The public's interest in preserving and caring for their culture is immediately apparent. However, this consciousness could not be the result of an isolated initiative. There is evidently some strategy and planning behind it.
The strategy followed by the mayor's office was to propose a vision of integrated development, ensuring an immediate impact on the people's well-being. In Portugal, all municipalities have within their mandates urban administration. Taking advantage of this, we met with the public and designed the first municipal master plan ever formulated in the country. This plan made clear the priorities for intervention. The first step was to provide services to, and control the growth of, the outlying slum communities that had mushroomed over the last few decades.
The proposals for urban intervention were discussed with the people who, together with technicians and authorities, decided where to make improvements, build roads, and restore gardens and churches. Infrastructure investments were supervised by cultural commissions that had been created by the community to defend neighborhood interests. Urban intervention has thus always had the support and participation of the community, whose members have defined the priorities and collaborated on the physical execution of the work. Along with the recovery of the city, a culture of civic participation took root and grew, thanks to the benefits that were immediately experienced by the population.
How did you motivate people to use the city's limited economic resources not only for improvements to housing in the outlying areas, but also for the conservation of the historic city center?
During the first ten years of the process of social reconstruction in Evora, no conservation work was carried out in the historic center. This was in keeping with the people's desire that minimal conditions of sanitation and housing for the majority of the population be met before archaeological work was considered. People were not interested in a museum-city at that time, but rather in appropriate housing. As the program advanced, housing rehabilitation took place within the historic center. Slowly but surely, the mayor's office began to propose more ambitious interventions. We began buying run-down houses in order to restore them and resell them to interested parties.
During this period of architectural and urban activity, cultural life flourished, as did recreational activities. Likewise, agricultural, commercial, and industrial activities revived. The return of the University of Evora, which had disappeared after the exodus of the Jesuits in the mid-18th century, was of great importance to the conservation of monuments. Schools of music and drama opened, as well as institutions of higher education. These tangible benefits to the population served as the initial spark for interventions in the cultural heritage.
The deliberately delayed intervention in the historic center gave us the opportunity to study, research, and reflect on the best way to conserve the historic monuments. The first step consisted of a detailed inventory of artwork, sites, and monuments. We asked international organizations for the documentation and experience of other European historic cities so that we could learn the methods used.
The decision process was long and controversial. It took the public over two years to discuss the options presented in the municipal master plan, but a consensus was finally reached. The governing document is still in force and has been followed scrupulously.
During the deliberations you undoubtedly felt pressure to pay attention to economic interests, which are not always compatible with the interests of historic cities.
In Portugal, economic development depends on the national government, not on the municipalities. Thus, our plan for municipal development touched only on complementary economic activities. The development of tourism in the city is not the result of an economic policy but a consequence of the value, care, and consideration given to cultural resources. In 1986, when Evora received the title of World Heritage City, tourism increased. The first social and infrastructure impacts were felt, and the municipality took an active role in controlling the tourism flow.
How did you manage to balance the growth of tourism with the social gains achieved by the public and the authorities?
Tourist activity has grown at an orderly pace, never increasing as the result of large-scale projects or investments. This gradual growth in the number of visitors has allowed both the city's population and its resources to adapt to the new economy, without the need to change our long-term goals. The environment and ambiance of Evora are certainly those of a cultural city focused on targeted, rather than mass, tourism. The process of discussion and participation created a public consciousness regarding the importance of life, both that of the city and of the individual. Tourists obviously liked this ambiance and were attracted to various forms of cultural expression, traditions, and customs in Evora, the cuisine, and the leisure activities, all of which provide a framework for enjoying the monuments.
Such a complicated process can work only when one takes a long-term perspective rather than simply responding to political exigencies. What possibilities do other historic cities have of incorporating such long-range plans?
What any city or medium-size town needs to do is establish what the strongest interests of the community are. The values that the population considers important will be the ones that sustain the dynamics of development. Such values provide the only basis for resolving any differences that may arise.
In Evora, we had strong partisan differences, tremendously strong ones. Anyone would think that after a revolution, conditions would not allow the different parties—the landowners, the church, and the communists—to get along. However, by investing the time to find out what people want and by following an agreed-upon development program, we have been able to resolve the issues that had previously divided us.
Leadership obviously plays a role in this whole process.
One of the functions of the leader is to create the environment and determine the common values that keep the community together. We have worked around the basic needs of the individual, an approach that no one can be against.
The problem of family housing is one example. Over 65 percent of the families in Evora now own their own homes. This was achieved through complex joint ventures involving landowners, labor unions, and the municipality. Each group came to the table with goodwill while still pursuing its own interests. Similarly, a growing sense of self-confidence has broadened the horizon of understanding, participation, and collaboration. This has permitted the population to enjoy the rewards of a society in which people get along.
With basic needs met, and with an educated and participating population, what new goals have you set?
Between 1993 and 1995, we drew up the "Strategic Plan for the Development of the City of Evora," going beyond the problems of urbanism and municipal services. This plan incorporated general guidelines for the future development of the city, as agreed on by the population.
It all began with this question: What kind of city do we want for ourselves and for our children in the near future? The majority answered: We want a cultural city integrated into Europe, with the infrastructure of a city that can host conventions and that has environmental protection, social stability, and widespread and equitable economic development. The industries to be established must be of a cultural nature, environmentally safe, technologically advanced, and research oriented, so that they do not alter the quality of life that has been achieved but rather improve further upon it.
We are exploring these new avenues.
Tourism and World Heritage Cities
From September 17 to 20, the Municipal Council of Evora, along with the Getty Conservation Institute and the Organization of World Heritage Cities, will be hosting the 4th International Symposium of the Organization of World Heritage Cities.
The theme of the symposium is "Tourism and World Heritage Cities: Challenges and Opportunities." Approximately 130 mayors, along with representatives of international financial institutions, the tourism industry, and the cultural conservation community, are expected to attend. Keynote speakers at the gathering will address long-range integrated planning for heritage cities, the conservation of culture in a constantly changing environment, and the consolidation of the tourism industry and its importance to the global economy. An important part of the event will be a presentation by the World Bank on the issue of investing in cultural heritage.