Expo 1998 Lisbon: the impact of a planned legacy
The organisation of mega-events has been seen as a major driver for urban change, and an opportunity for implementing city spatial strategies, for promoting urban development of certain areas and for transforming the image of a city. Expos in particular have a long history of transforming urban landscapes with memorable buildings and districts that last in history. But the idea of planning for the long-lasting effects of these events is a more recent concern.
In Lisbon, the organisation of Expo 1998 (styled as Lisboa Expo’98 – 1998 Lisbon World Exposition), produced structural changes in the waterfront area, with a large-scale urban and environmental regeneration project that envisioned the creation of a new multifunctional centrality and neighbourhood in the post-event period. While the post-Expo site was planned as a legacy since the beginning, other repercussions manifested themselves in other geographies and in the longer term.
The event organisation within the city’s overall strategy
The major novelty of Expo 1998 Lisbon, which had the theme "The Oceans, A Heritage for the Future", was that it was one of the first Expos set out with the aim of integrating the Expo site into an urban regeneration operation. Initially motivated by the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Portuguese maritime exploration, the occasion evolved into a successful bid to host Expo 1998. The investment was based on a strategy to reposition Lisbon on the European and world stage — an international, cosmopolitan, competitive and appealing "Atlantic Capital" — and locally, to provide better integration of the decommissioned port territories in the spatial and economic development of the city.
The project was the first in Portugal to fully embody the waterfront renovation spirit in development in other Western cities. The process responded locally to strong social demand, mirrored by several initiatives throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, that attempted to overcome the barrier of the industrial port and claimed the riverside for public use. The event reconverted a 340-ha industrial riverside area in eastern Lisbon into urban space and was the first major urban regeneration operation in the country. The chosen location served the city strategy of transforming an industrial site into a multifunctional space and regenerating a polluted and polluting area, while extending the city to the riverside with public uses.
"Expo 1998 was the first major urban regeneration operation in the country"
The bid process and strategy design were set in the early 1990s, drawing experience from the nearby World Expo 1992 Seville and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The first showcased the perils of not preparing the post-Expo legacy and isolating the organisation of the Expo from the city's urban tissue, becoming the “what not to do” case, despite the success of the event itself. The second would become the major example of a city’s modernisation based on hosting a world-renowned mega-event, and was a major influence on Expo 1998. In addition to contacts between architects and urban planners from both cities, the projects were similar in the importance of the quality of the urban design, the opportunity to leverage the transformation of deprived areas, the strategies centered on the urban project, the redevelopment of the waterfront, and being strong public initiatives associated with private actors.
Therefore, the Lisbon urban project was developed with two moments in mind: the organisation of the Expo and the post-event scenario pointing to the long term. The final goal was the creation of a new urban centrality, a multifunctional and diverse area, but also to leverage the regeneration of the eastern part of the city, based on a positive contamination rationale.
Planning and designing the Expo project
The unique nature of the operation and the opening deadline pressure called for extraordinary measures such as new forms of urban management, exceptional urban planning procedures, and a specific legal framework, and it mobilised important financial resources. To coordinate the development, a public capital company, Parque Expo, was created, concentrating powers and competencies from central and local authorities within the operation area. The company was in charge of all the activities necessary for the realisation of Expo 1998 and was responsible for the execution of the urban regeneration project after the Expo. The vision and leadership were in the hands of the project administrators, while its physical conception – architecture, urban design, and infrastructures – was made by a well-informed group of specialists.
The support of the physical framework of the Expo project included large investments in major infrastructures – a second bridge over the Tagus, new regional and national level road connections, a new metro line and a new transport hub – envisioned in strategic planning to support national, metropolitan and city developments. In addition, important decontamination works and environmental recovery process of land prepared the ground for the introduction of new uses.
"The Master Plan identified a set of important urban facilities as 'anchors' for the post-event development"
The planning scheme took upon the tabula rasa exercise, designing a new framework for the Expo site and development project. The Master Plan – Plano de Urbanização da Zona de Intervenção da Expo 98 – was devised by Parque Expo's team of planners and architects, and defined the main urban structure organised in large avenues parallel to the river, connected to the surrounding areas in specific points and limited by the railway line on the east side. The area was divided into six detailed plans that set out the urban design and building layout scheme and were assigned to different planning teams. All of these gave consideration to both the Expo and its adaptation to the post-Expo period.
The plan identified a set of important urban facilities as “anchors” for the post-event development: an exhibition and congress centre, an aquarium, a multifunctional indoor arena, a museum, a theatre, and a shopping centre, among others. The central area included the Expo site and a mixed used area with commercial, business, leisure, and cultural activities, around which two areas of a more residential character were planned to the north and south and whose implementation would be more staggered in time. To the north, the plan envisioned an urban park on the riverside.
This layout was also related to the financial plan for the operation: the commercialisation and development of plots in the exterior areas were expected to pay off the investments made, in a self-sustained zero-cost model.1
Architecture and urban design played an important role in building the image of this new central area, aiming to construct an identity that was both cosmopolitan and singular, in an acknowledgement of the different design approaches for managing the event and the post-event transition.
In the exhibition area, a mix of permanent and temporary buildings hosted Expo activities. Temporary pavilions – large modular structures that could be dismantled and reassembled elsewhere after the Expo – were built for the participating countries. Other support structures, like restaurants, and kiosks etc., were also designed with this principle in mind. The thematic pavilions were designed as permanent buildings that would either adapt to new uses or maintain their activity in the post-event phase, as part of the above-mentioned “anchors”. Some of these works, authored by renowned architects, stand out: the Oceanarium by Peter Chermayeff; the Atlantic Pavilion by Regino Cruz; the Knowledge of the Seas Pavilion by João Luís Carrilho da Graça; Vasco da Gama Tower by the SOM studio, Gare do Oriente station by Santiago Calatrava, and above all the national pavilion of Portugal by Álvaro Siza. These structures were carefully integrated by the urban design plan that aimed at establishing a unifying image for the event: while emblematic buildings bring a sense of monumentality and contemporaneity without compromising the integration in the surroundings, the urban landscape conveys a global resonance while maintaining some local references.
"Public space was the main element conveying the idea of a new urbanity"
This coherence was achieved through the structuring role of public space, assuring the continuity between the different areas and through the event and post-event phases. For the Expo period and its expected high intensity usage, this guaranteed comfort to activities of visitors: strolling, waiting to access the pavilions, amenities, outdoor events, etc. The festive nature was reflected in a playful dimension present in its design, with features such as water elements, colourful street furniture and street signage, abundant green areas and public art. Afterwards, this public space formed the support system for new buildings and uses that developed in the following years, maintaining its usability and intrinsic use value.
Public space was in fact, the main element conveying the idea of a new urbanity, establishing standards for urban design quality and liveability. The continuous waterfront links the central Expo area to the residential areas and urban park, reshaping the relationship of the city with the riverside. The grid of avenues provides continuity between the different morphologies and uses of the buildings, with the roads and pedestrian spaces protected with tree alignments in an organised way, and street signage and lighting integrated into a spatially coherent system.
From Expo 1998 to Parque das Nações, building a new urban district
The event was a success. Between 22 May and 30 September 1998, the Expo received over 10.1 million visits and welcomed a record number of international participants. Internationally, the event conveyed a cosmopolitan image of the city and the country. Locally, it was an opportunity for the country to experience a space of celebration, a joyeuse space, with an urban quality that was unparalleled at the time, raising expectations for future projects.
At the closure of the event, the redevelopment included the precinct area, the waterfront, the public space structure and some support buildings and structures, while most of the building plots waited for future commercialisation.
In the post-Expo phase, the area was renamed Parque das Nações (Park of Nations), maintaining the symbolic link to the international event. The development pursued the goal of a multifunctional area, with housing, business and leisure spaces, a centrality for the city but also with metropolitan impact. The “urban anchors” kicked off the dynamism of the new district: some built structures were adapted to new uses – an international fair, a museum, a multipurpose pavilion – while others kept their functions – the oceanarium, the marina, the theatre. Waterfront public spaces were immediately appropriated by citizens and continue to be one of the most used public open spaces in the city.
Following the layout determined by the urban plans, plots were built, piece by piece, according to the market interest. Despite some exceptions, architectural designs followed a relatively commercial approach, as they were determined by each developer’s design team, even if targeting a high standing. Along one of the main avenues, parallel to the river, in a high-density area, tertiary and office spaces were developed close to the transport hub and shopping centre. The residential architecture develops blocks in condominiums with private exterior common areas, often semi-open spaces, allowing secondary routes and easing the interior-exterior transition. Especially along the riverfront, there are signs of archetypes of the tourist city with large balconies, nautical decorative elements, etc.
The post-event development was carried out by Parque Expo, maintaining the exceptional character of the operation and excluding the local administration from the decision-making and management of this territory. This responsibility should have ceased in 2000 but was extended over time due to the difficulty in finding an administrative management model that suited all public actors. In 2012, the management situation was normalised with a new administrative redefinition of the municipality of Lisbon and the discontinuation of Parque Expo company.
Despite the acknowledged success of the event, the urban project also generated several criticisms. On one hand, there was a negative perspective on the culture of "urban entrepreneurship", competitiveness and the “regime of exception” implemented by the Expo project, with this being viewed as a neoliberal planning approach that prioritised private financial interests and enabled excessive building density. On the other, the failure to generate social and physical connections with the urban surroundings and to promote the regeneration of the eastern area of Lisbon were pointed out. Like a typical flagship project, the operation concentrated much of the resources and opportunities that could have been distributed to other areas. The physical isolation reinforces a process of social selectivity at the residential level, hence it became a middle- and upper-class income district, benefiting from a scenario of quality and exclusivity.
Despite some negative assessments, it is indisputable that Expo 1998 and the urban operation that came with it were significant milestones in Portuguese society, with impacts ranging from a new meaning of national pride to an image of a modern, qualified and competitive country. In a certain sense, the event was planned as a “model event”, conveying the imagery and tools for what the future of the city (and the country) should look like in the global urban competition. In terms of the urban project, this meant that the Expo was an urban lab for experimentation and innovations targeting a high-quality built environment. The event not only served as a testbed for the renewal of riverfront areas, it also redefined planning and design solutions and practices, setting the standard for several urban policies, plans and projects and creating new dynamics that became autonomous and that persisted beyond the event. This legacy has tangible and intangible features and impacts different areas.
Lisbon’s waterfront redevelopment and global affirmation
The success of Expo 1998 raised expectations for the transformation of Lisbon’s waterfront spaces. There was a clear functional and aesthetic example of what the new relation between the city and the river could be, and what type of spaces, uses and practices were possible to substitute the existing port, industries and road accesses. The riverfront was designed as a linear space, recovering yet transforming the typologies of the public promenade and the public park, as a new structuring urban element. By establishing different relations between land and water, it demonstrated the landscape’s alternative environmental and visual qualities. Geared towards pedestrians and with playful character, it was a place for leisure, play or simply rest.
However, the discussion and drive for the reconversion of port spaces ran into difficulties, connected to the absence of coherent planning schemes and lack of agreement between the different actors, taking several years to be developed. It was only in the late 2000s that a more consistent and systemic approach to urban regeneration can be detected, linked to the motto of “returning the river to the city” with practical effects on the waterfront transformation. Under the responsibility of different public actors2 and covering several political cycles, the renovation process included urban planning and management efforts, physical change, and concerns with the economic dynamism of these areas.
Institutional and practical constraints were overcome with the development of a general plan for the entire riverfront. The plan strengthened the valorisation of the environmental, cultural heritage and the landscape along the riverfront as one of the strategic projects for the municipality, binding private and institutional stakeholders to this vision. While in most of the historic and central areas, the focus was on heritage conservation and urban regeneration, in other, mostly former industrial areas, urban restructuring, and small-scale or even large-scale development were envisioned.
This shift coincided with the severe economic crisis of 2008 and the 2011-2014 financial assistance period, where public (and also private) investment restrictions put the spotlight on competitiveness and attractiveness strategies. Several governmental and municipal measures allowed Lisbon to rapidly emerge as one of the most attractive destinations in Europe in the global markets for real estate investment and urban tourism (alongside the positive and negative related impacts that come with these). In both cases, these dynamics were intertwined with the urban renewal process that began to be seen. And if the city as a whole has been affected by these physical, social and symbolic changes, the riverfront has become a privileged place for the visibility of all these dynamics.
In terms of city planning, the review of the city masterplan (2012) defined a new strategic vision, including a return to the riverfront, the support of urban regeneration and the redesign of public space. In specific contexts, several zoning plans were developed, covering important areas of the river–city interface. Several projects targeted the physical transformation of previously inaccessible areas into new and open public spaces and soft mobility structures, starting with the historical centre and then spreading to other areas of the city. The increase of pedestrianised spaces and green areas, with the reduction of car traffic and increase in green mobility, and the linkage to commercial, leisure and tourist offers are some of the marks of these projects, with actions still underway. The presence of water is recognised as a scenic quality and amenity, the riverfront has become a central element of the urban landscape and the representation of the image of the city itself.
"The Expo was an urban lab for experimentation and innovations targeting a high-quality built environment"
Similar to the Expo process, the public space was the physical framework for the renewal of the built environment, and conveyed this symbol and image. In the surroundings, the existing building stock also changed considerably: (1) Several new buildings of considerable size have been developed to host cultural, commercial and business activities. Most of these are public facilities – museums, administrative buildings, transport infrastructures, etc. - but some are corporate private buildings and facilities. (2) Residential buildings have been renovated and urban redevelopment projects have been undertaken to take advantage of the growing real-estate interest of this area. Many of these were designed by renowned architects, signalling the importance of architecture in this transformation. New shapes and typologies were explored, with a renovated sense of monumentality and iconographic status, often with recognisable authorship.
Apart from these strategic waterfront renovation projects, the city policy has established a new vision based on large-scale systemic actions, such as the Green Corridor Strategy or the General Drainage Plan; local neighbourhood-based projects, such as participatory budgeting, small-scale community-driven projects in deprived neighbourhoods (BIP/ZIP program); and a neighbourhood public space redesign programme ("A Square in every Neighbourhood"). In this perspective, the insularity of one-off projects such as the Expo is broken: the small-scale interventions take some of the cultural and design standards from the event, all while adding context and social relevance, with the large-scale works providing city-wide connections and improvements.
In retrospect, the repercussions of the Expo evolved differently. From the design perspective, the exceptionality of the Expo legacy fades away as it blends into the design and planning culture of the city, which now faces new challenges. From the attractiveness outlook, the aim to gain prestige and relocate the city on the map of competitive globalisation was only attained recently and with negative effects on fragile socio-economic contexts and the housing market.
Urban regeneration culture, the dispersed legacy
On a national scale, Expo 1998 provided a collective experience of a celebration of what could be a new paradigm of Portuguese society: democratic, open, and innovative. This idea, expressed throughout the event, was almost inseparable from the experience of the urban landscape that hosted it. This created not only a social consensus around the results of the Expo project, but also a strong demand, from the inhabitants of other cities and mainly from their mayors, for spaces and public investment similar to these. The Expo operation became the reference, setting a simultaneously methodological, morphological and symbolic model for urban regeneration projects and initiatives in the following years.
From the government’s point of view, the success of this event was meant to be cherished and disseminated all over the country. The response was the creation of an urban and environmental regeneration initiative, the Polis Program. Established in 2000 by the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning, the programme was set as a national urban policy oriented for the requalification of urban areas, addressing the important role of cities in the nation’s economic and social development. Therefore, the Polis Program was designed to enhance the living conditions of cities and the quality of life for their inhabitants, while also aiming to improve their competitiveness and strengthen their role in the national urban system. The programme benefited from a favourable European framework; the policies targeted the urban environment and sustainable development, for which financial support was available. The requalification of the urban environment thus became the banner under which these aims were to be pursued, with an intended “demonstration effect” on how to intervene in urban settings.
"The Expo operation became the reference for urban regeneration projects and initiatives in the following years"
The programme, which selected 28 mostly mid-sized cities forming a polycentric network, developed integrated operations of urban requalification and environmental improvement. Supporting regional development, these operations were of considerable size and could be seen as demonstrative examples for future actions. The operation followed the urban project model, joining a strategic outlook with specific urban plans, urban design, and architectural projects to be implemented. Additionally, the programme also supported small complementary initiatives proposed and managed by local authorities. Overall, 39 cities were involved in the execution of the program, from the north to the south of Portugal, with the renovation of urban centres, riverside areas and seafronts, and the creation of urban parks, facilities, cycle paths and new mobility systems.
From an urban management point of view, the connection with Expo 1998 is clear: the creation of public enterprises with state and municipal participation in each city (Polis Societies) and an exceptional planning framework. As for the knowledge transfer, the main agent was Parque Expo3, which ensured planning and operational support to the programme, from the early drafting policy to the design of each city's strategic plan and the management of the operations. This allowed for the know-how and the experience of Parque Expo professionals to be disseminated nationwide to municipal planning teams.
The general framework was translated into each city's particular context and problems, sharing particular urban planning, design and management practices, but also typologies of spaces, spatial practices and even urban aesthetics. Actions focused on central locations and areas with great environmental and cultural potential, and despite targeting different goals, resulted in the same type of projects, namely: environmental regeneration and urban parks; rehabilitation of historic centres; and the redesign of riverfronts and seafronts.
All urban projects include structuring actions such as the redesign or creation of public spaces including streets and squares, urban parks, and waterfronts. These are complemented by some new buildings (mostly cultural and recreational public facilities), car parks, soft mobility infrastructure (cycle lanes, pedestrian paths, pedestrian bridges, elevators), and environmental recovery actions in aquifers, rivers or sea banks. Still, despite the similarities, results show more diverse urban environments than could have been anticipated, contradicting the idea of replicating "mini-Expos" throughout the country.
Linked to the environmental character of the programme, Polis operations brought projects of public space into being that had a new city-nature relationship. Mostly acting on existing urban structures, the projects focus on redesigning poor quality environments such as former industrial plots, or degraded riverside landscapes, by introducing permeable structures and new areas of urban foresting, creating pedestrian mobility lanes and ecological corridors, and implementing urban parks as structural elements.
In addition to the physical and functional transformation components brought on by the new spaces, the programme also promoted a "new way of living in the city" linked to the outdoors and leisure: a performative city with events and experiences. This resignification was conveyed by the prevalence of public spaces and notably the possibilities they created for new users and the new leisure and cultural activities they enabled. The aesthetic experience is also portrayed by the iconicity of some architectural works, involving renowned architects, giving legitimacy to the operation itself.
Overall, the programme had an important role in the creation of an urban policy which sees urban and environmental regeneration as forces for the valorisation of the cities and the improvement of their attractiveness. Beyond disseminating exemplary intervention strategies or innovative urban planning practices, the initiative was successful in spreading the importance of public space design for the quality of the built environment. The most striking intervention typologies - waterfronts and urban parks – were subsequently reproduced generically throughout the country. Likewise, the Polis Program was important for the integration of environmental issues into the discourse, for the practice of urban planning, and as part of urban regeneration, although it was far from creating a coherent rationale for the environmental sustainability of cities and territories.
Overall, Expo 1998 presents an interesting case for the study of the legacy of mega-events, as it included the basis of the spatial strategy for the event, and the design and planning of the post-Expo phase, but also furthered a series of material and immaterial legacies that went far beyond the exhibition area, impacting the urban and architectural culture in Portugal in the following decades.
The development of the pre- and post-event plans were, in most part, carried out as intended: Parque das Nações grew, in less than ten years, into a new multifunctional centrality, hosting urban and architecture innovation and championing the quality of life of its users. Despite there being criticism over the lack of spatial and social integration with neighbouring areas, the district is still seen today as a success case and exemplary from the point of view of urban and environmental regeneration. While Expo 1998 as an urban model itself remained unrepeatable, the event greatly influenced national urban planning and urban management practices, driving urban and environmental regeneration, particularly with regard to the renovation of historic centres, waterfronts and obsolete industrial spaces in mid-sized cities.
"While Expo 1998 as an urban model itself remained unrepeatable, the event greatly influenced national urban planning and urban management practices"
In the context of recent urban policies in Portugal, both Expo 1998 and the Polis Program represent unique cases as strongly centralised initiatives (state and municipal initiatives, managed by special entities and supported by specific planning and financing actions) and that target areas with an underlying centrality. They are aligned in a set of principles and types of action in the redevelopment of the built environment, but also in the changing meaning of urban identities, and both were characterised by a strong public initiative and the mobilisation of private investment. The quality of the urban landscape is seen not only by its environmental, cultural or aesthetic values; it acquires socio-economic relevance in the context of post-industrial cities, driven by leisure and tertiary activities. Most of these features and strategies can be traced to a set of late twentieth century urban and economic policies, marked by global competitiveness between cities for the attraction of investment, businesses and inhabitants.
Today, however, after successive crises (economic and social, housing, environmental and health) it is evident that this model seems rather misaligned with contemporary societal challenges, as new processes of legitimisation and space production practices are needed. So, from a future-oriented perspective, useful lessons from the Expo 1998 experience can be found not in the urban or economic model proposed, but in the “temporal” approach to the process of developing the operation.
The legacy plan for the Expo 1998 site included a clear vision for the short-term use of the exhibition area, and the longer timeframe for the development project. This also included “hard and soft” approaches to the construction of buildings and infrastructures. Within a coherent urban planning framework and urban design scheme, larger investments were made in the permanent structures – infrastructures, public space, main facilities – that supported the new neighbourhood, while the remaining structures were temporary (and dismantled) or reused in the after-event. Whereas the main framework was planned and designed in detail, some degrees of flexibility were admitted for the post-event development in the plots outside the exhibition area. Additionally, even if not fully envisioned at the beginning of the process, Expo 1998 expanded its legacy by disseminating the urban planning, design and management know-how developed for the event, to other urban regeneration initiatives in Lisbon and all over Portugal, with a shifting focus to spatial quality.
Against a background of contemporary questioning of the sustainability of mega-events and growing dissatisfaction towards their perceived negative impact and effects, the revisiting of the legacy of Expo 1998 Lisbon sheds some light on the social, economic and cultural impacts of these projects and the future possibilities for legacy improvements.
Paulo Tormenta Pinto, PhD in Architecture, is Full Professor of Architecture at Iscte, University Institute of Lisbon, and researcher at DINÂMIA’CET-Iscte, coordinating projects on architectural culture, urban planning and post-colonial studies.
Pedro Luz Pinto, PhD in Architecture, is Assistant Professor of Architecture and Director of the Integrated Master in Architecture at Iscte, University Institute of Lisbon, and a researcher at DINÂMIA’CET-Iscte working on the perception, practice and teaching of the Architecture Project.
Ana Brandão, PhD in Public Space and Urban Regeneration, is a researcher at DINÂMIA’CET-Iscte, University Institute of Lisbon, with expertise in interdisciplinary work regarding public space, urban design and urban planning.
1 Criticisms of this plan point out that the need to pay for the operation led to the setting of an excessive density in the urban plan. 2 Between 2007 and 2019, the architect Manuel Salgado, who was responsible for the urban plan and public space design of the Expo 1998 area, was the deputy mayor of Lisbon City Council responsible for urban planning policy.3 The company was redefined as service provider, having responsibility for several urban renewal projects, in Portugal and abroad, and also provided consultancy services to other Expos.
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