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1.23 - The Impact of Commercial Activity on the Form and Structure of the City: the Case of Portuguese Medium-sized Cities

Project Description

PhD research project which in general terms dwells on the intricate balance between commercial activity and city realm at a physical and morphological level.

Commerce and city have lately witnessed new stages of evolution, which reflect themselves in changing variables and patterns. Yet despite being largely studied, the full grasp of commercial activity has mainly been an economical grasp, as a market-influencing factor, or a thoroughly geographical one. Thus, it has mainly been considered as an after-the-fact consequence of the urban form and structure pre-existence, but because it has the ability to change and adapt more rapidly than the city, as well as having large economic and social power, the flow of influence can actually be inverted. But the relation to the city as a whole still remains somewhat amiss.  

Intuitively, it may be understood that commerce is connected to the formation, organization and animation of public space, that the social and economic layouts are entwined with the daily habits of shopping, but physical proves of such knowledge haven’t really been established, as an object of research, and if they have, the results cannot be considered valid for a wider scale because they usually focus on one city and one single method of comparative approach.

It is the acknowledgment of this fact that drives the present research. It seems important, as the debate of the role of the city stands, to take one step forward in existing research, and analyze not only the geographical distribution of commercial spaces in the city, not only the economic input commercial spaces bring to the market and to the city’s economy as a whole, not only the morphological changes of the city, but also comprehend, consider and mix a larger array of variables.  

The research tends then to know whether commerce and city are convergent or divergent in their patterns and what overlaps in their dichotomies, bearing in mind that, although evolving separately, they must have to some degree common variables that can be assessed for further understanding the urban realm, finding solutions for regulating and balancing estimated forms of distribution, proposing integrated political and technical mechanisms, and ultimately strengthening the use of commerce to reshape urban spaces.

Based on these facts, the research tries to answer three different sets of questions: 

(i) What is the average pattern of commercial spaces in a Portuguese medium-sized city? Are they increasing or decreasing, either in number or in any particular sector? What is their spatial distribution?

(ii) If commercial spaces are prone to a given city area, what intrinsic characteristics (physical and morphological) do these areas have? Where these characteristics there before or just sprung after the implementation of the commercial spaces? 

(iii) Do the organics of a city as a whole (grid, transport networks, land use, urbanization rates, population densities, urban policies) have a direct hand in the shaping of the commercial landscape, or vice versa? If so, can the amount of that influence be quantified?

Trying to answer these questions through practical case-studies, a working methodology is being developed, and work is currently in progress to study such relations in four Portuguese medium-sized cities, namely Vila Real, Aveiro, Leiria and Évora. 

Hopefully the research output will allow the presentation of an approach in a micro (in city) scale, which goes beyond current studies because it inserts a morphological/urbanistic component into the model. The methodology will present the opportunity to cross the information between variables, between cities, and between epochs in time, increasing the knowledge of the influence of commerce and strengthening the definition of medium-sized cities themselves.

Ultimately, this can help answer yet another question: where do the present (new) formats of commercial activity stand in the urban realm,and how can they relate to urban policies and current urban phenomena such as fragmentation and polycentrism?

Research Team

Miguel Saraiva

Paulo Pinho (supervisor)

Financial Support

FCT funding (SFRH / BD / 45205 /2008)

Stage of Progress

Started in February 2008. Concluded in 2013.
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