The river is beautiful – but where are all the people?

Lisbon is a coastal city with mild weather along the year; it is an international beach tourist destination; the sea plays a central role in its history and its national mythologies and culture. The Tejo estuary, which borders Lisbon, is the largest wetland in Portugal and one of the largest estuaries in Western Europe, with about 340 Km2, two thirds of it a nature reserve. It is a sanctuary for fish, molluscs, crustaceans, birds on their migration between northern Europe and Africa.

But you won’t see much people in this great river that shapes Lisbon. Compared to other cities with similar geographies, marine leisure activities are not common here. For most of the year, a stroll — or boat ride — along the river should be enough to show that this is mostly a space of contemplation, not interaction. Public access to the water surface for recreational purposes is almost nonexistent; current infrastructure and equipment is paid only and located in too few locations; it is still unusual to see people engaged in any activity in the river outside organized sports events or, more recently, organized tours.

There is some public demand for access to Tejo: proposals for open swimming pools in the river are regularly submitted to municipal participatory budgets. Researchers, companies working in tourism development and policy makers speak of “giving back the river to the city”. Recent work in urban planning also has called for the development of recreational water-based activities as a drive for urban regeneration, in particular in the neighbourhood surrounding Pavilion of Knowledge, Parque das Nações, which was projected and built with the proximity of the estuary in mind. But here too the distance between people and the water environment is obvious.

Marine leisure activities that put people in direct contact with water – sea sports, but also other sustainable, human powered activities pursued for fun, instruction, tourism, etc., falling under the umbrella term of “blue gym recreation” – are proven ways to increase engagement of the public with the ocean. They are crucial to raise awareness of the mutual influence of the ocean and human health and well-being. But to have any real impact, marine leisure activities must be widely practiced.

 

This is the challenge that Ciência Viva wants to address in SISCODE: how to get more people into the Tejo? What concrete measures could help engage the widest range of people in leisure activities in this great river? What service, equipment or practice can help engaging the public, while promoting ocean literacy and awareness, and being accessible to a wide range of users?

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