The characteristics of Covilhã allow it to build its own brand as a mountain town
José Pichel Andrés/DICYT A study of the Universidad de Beira Interior has analysed the characteristics of Covilhã as a unique town in Portugal because it is a mountain settlement with an industrial tradition. In comparison with the good practices observed in Alpine towns, the authors of the study published in the scientific journal European Planning Studies consider that Covilhã has the necessary elements to build its own brand in harmony with the natural region of the Sierra de la Estrella and that this should be taken into account in its urban, economic, and social development.
The research compares this Portuguese enclave with towns in the Alps because the Alpine area is “the paradigm of European mountains and its towns generate phenomena that are reflected in other mountainous areas of the continent”, DiCYT was told by Domingos Vaz and Maria João Matos, the specialists in sociology and architecture who have carried out the work.
In the Alps some phenomena have arisen in connection with tourism and the brands that combine the mountain with consumer society, together with new experiences of the use of space, and all this has extended to other mountain regions. For this reason, the authors of the study consider that an analysis of the Alpine area is useful when studying other situations, in this case the towns and their evolution, relationship with the surroundings, and sustainability. As an average-sized town of some economic, administrative, and functional importance in the Sierra de la Estrella, Covilhã is the Portuguese equivalent of the towns of reference in the Alpine area.
The two places share paradigms in a European socio-cultural context, such as competitiveness, consumption, and way of life. In the same manner they also share environmentalism and the search for their identity. In contrast, the Alpine area “has very positive examples of synergies between the mountain and the town that do not occur in the Portuguese context”.
Action in the urban area does not always take into account the relationship with the surrounding natural environment, but in the good practices identified there is "a dialogue between the town and the mountain” in terms of landscapes and views or when creating green spaces thematically linked to the natural surroundings of the town. However, in general the projects do not stress the visual interaction with the mountain landscape and in the case of Portugal “the dissociation is stronger; there are no specific town planning elements that concentrate on the value of the landscape”.
For three centuries Covilhã was an industrialised area in a mountain setting specialising in the textile sector; this was encouraged by government decisions such as the establishing in the town of the Royal Cloth Factory in the 18th century. Its history is a contrast to the low level of industrialisation of many other areas of the country and has given it a character of its own, despite the fact that the decadence of the wool trade has given way to a more service-based economy. The creation of the Universidad de Beira Interior in 1986 was part of this new scenario.
All this means that the town has a number of distinctive characteristics that could help it to become a distinctive brand. In the first place Covilhã is unique among Portuguese towns because of its mountain location, to which must be added its industrial tradition. “Its identification as a mountain region can be a starting point for the creation of a new urban brand”, the experts affirm, but for this to occur a scientific, technical, and social debate must take place.
In their opinion the attractive natural surroundings should encourage a type of building that provides a quality urban environment, which in its turn favours knowledge-related activities such as those carried out by the university.
According to its authors, the study shows that social and town planning matters must be approached from an interdisciplinary viewpoint and that contemporary architecture may be a manner of promoting cities. For this to occur, technical capacities must be developed so as to interpret the possible interventions. Moreover, it would also be important to encourage cooperation between the various towns of the Beira Interior, especially given the current economic situation that requires the rationalising of resources in territories with a low population density.
The research was based on previous studies on Covilhã from the point of view of urban sociology and architecture and also on the search for statistical information and town planning. From this starting point the authors have produced a critical reflection on the role of various players so as to achieve a sustainable town in the future.
Up to now town planning has always been slow, fragmented, and discontinuous and urban sprawl has deteriorated the value of the landscape. For this reason, as far as Covilhã is concerned "we are in favour of a rapprochement between the town and the mountain”, the researchers stress, while on a regional scale “institutional reconstruction in the Beira Interior region” is needed in the sense that the institutions must create collaboration networks.
Regional Polycentrism in a Mountainous Territory: The Case of Covilhã (Portugal) and Alpine Cities. Domingos Martins Vaz & Maria João Matos. European Planning Studies, Volume 23, Issue 2, 2015. DOI: 10.1080/09654313.2013.865711