Funchal, preparing for the future

By Luís Vilhena
Architect and Member of Portuguese Parliament for Madeira

Those who arrive in Funchal are easily enchanted by this city on the waterfront. The sun that brings out the exuberance of green is almost always present. And even when it rains, apart from a few rare exceptions, it doesn’t do so for very long. Despite some scars that have been left in its historical centre, the city is not as disfigured as some other cities across the globe, which have been run over by the unbridled collision of the 20th Century. Furthermore, the tourist, who does not venture far from the historical centre, can see the houses scattered up the mountain range without getting a closer glimpse at the sad mess of agglomerated buildings with roads and paths that are home to those thousands of people who, without any other option, were forced to make their own luck. If the tourist ventures on a hike1, the initial bad impression caused by the garbage left by the uncivilized nature of some citizens, or by some building implanted in the most unlikely of places, will be erased from memory after only a few minutes of walking through the luxurious greenery and the views over the bay.


Funchal has a unique charm that is difficult to explain. Indeed, it is the capital city of an island with various layers of history that when fused with nature presents itself as kind, somewhat exotic and with a very particular character.


But does this kindness extend to its citizens? I doubt it. And what about its character, which makes it so distinguishable from other places? Is it not on the verge of becoming diluted into the fantasy of wanting to be ‘modern’? I am sure it is.


Timelapse for Funchal city in Madeira Island, showing urban evolution between 1984 and 2016
Timelapse for Funchal city in Madeira Island, showing urban evolution between 1984 and 2016


The paradigm of development that the city has been following for the last 40 years has brought it to a state of disorientation. A particular affection is proclaimed for the Old Area of the city, and yet unqualified constructions are approved for the area, executed with no criteria whatsoever. Tourist circuits are formed from monument to monument, without attending to the accompanying infrastructure, the visual contamination left by flashy signs or the wires muddled onto the facades. The implementation of park&ride systems are announced while at the same time parking lots in the city centre are approved for construction. It has become a place where new urban planning tools are announced; yet they prove to be inefficient because a wall of bad habits always hinders their real implementation. Indeed, over the last 40 years, Funchal has been wandering, with no concrete idea of what it wants to be, trying to keep up with the train of progress while forgetting traditions cemented over centuries of history. Furthermore, this drive has been nurtured on foreign funds and sustained by an economy that tries to reconcile the returns of the civil construction necessary to repair deficient infrastructure, with the continuation of local values that are essential to its quality as a tourist destination, which is without a doubt one of the main catalysts of development in the Region.


When describing the last 40 years in such a way there is the risk of not corresponding to reality. It is clear that during this time the needs of the citizens were also met in terms of housing, education, well-being, culture, sports, etc. However, there remains a feeling that everything could have been executed with a different sense of responsibility, with more planning and another idea of what a city can be.


It is precisely on this question of ‘idea’ that it is necessary to insist. Any perspective into the future of this city will never be more than the sum of random actions and inconsistent investment if there is no strong IDEA that sets the course for the transformations necessary to cement quality of life for its citizens and the construction of a destiny that is interesting to visit and revisit.


It is therefore necessary to shift the paradigm on which Funchal’s future should be based. This idea that I refer to should be developed considering the following essential factors:


  1. 1.
    1. Funchal is a city with over 500 years of history. Its architectural and landscape Patrimony is an added-value that not all cities can count on. Its cultural legacies, linked to its climate and proximity to the European continent, built traditions and moulded a city with an exceedingly particular character, which should be taken into account in any strategy of intervention in its historical centre, its landscape and the requalification of its growth areas.

  2. 2.
  3. It is fundamental to diagnose before taking any action. An exhaustive plan of the historical centre should be drafted, outlining its essential character-defining values, as well as which buildings and other urban elements need to be renewed, which ones need to be restored, which allow for alterations and which ones should be removed/demolished. The same will have to be applied to the areas of expansion to ascertain how to reorder the chaos and upgrade public spaces, how to optimize the mobility of its inhabitants and improve urban conditions in certain locations. As for the surrounding landscape, accompanying green areas and private green areas, these should be the targets of a study that regards them with the same importance as the remaining structures of the city.

  4. 3.
  5. Dispersion is the enemy of the urban life and economy of a city. This assumption is even more evident if we consider the uneven orography of the amphitheatre the city is spread across. If there is ever a calculation of the costs of the infrastructure and the maintenance necessary to power a city built on a mountain range with the extension of paths to serve single-family homes, often implanted in uninhabitable places, we will reach the conclusion that the costs are far superior to the ones of building collective concentration housing in neighbourhoods better suited for urban living and with more quality of life and green spaces, which in turn have begun to disappear and would give the landscape more colour. It is therefore urgent to invert this course that is destroying the landscape and its value as an element of attraction for tourists and the well-being of the population.

  6. 4.
  7. Cities are a place for sharing ideas, goods and knowledge. Sharing ideas to promote the best solutions, sharing goods that propel the economy and sharing knowledge that values and influences the culture of a people. All of this happens if the public space is looked after and if the public apparatus where these exchanges take place are of an elevated quality and correctly placed. Creating conditions so that citizens can enjoy the city is essential for the growth of a society that is free and equal and that continues to surpass itself everyday.

  8. 5.
  9. Currently, tourism is the reason Funchal has its particular vitality, and it is the direct and indirect sustenance of its economy. As such, all action taken to transform the city needs to take into account the type of tourist that should be enticed, the one that is not only looking for the sun in an all-inclusive hotel. This tourist comes looking for a location with original landscapes and good weather, but also activities that complete the stay on less sunny days, and that apart from nature provides a city with history and quality, where it is possible to rest while taking in a rich cuisine. And quality does not mean luxury and opulence. It means good taste, respect for tradition and a contemporary form of intervention.


    As such, a change in paradigm is essential so that the city can take an alternative course. This change needs to be made sooner rather than later, seeing that we are already in the middle of a crisis, which can be the ideal time to implement it. However, there are strategies necessary for this transformation that will take a long time to become recognizable. Many of them should define objectives with a span of twenty years or more. Yet what is important is that the city develops with an outlined course instead of drifting at the mercy of foreign determinations that are far from public interest.




Today, it seems that once again attention is being drawn to pending situations. The failure of those who have governed Funchal to understand that it is necessary to plan instead of navigating to the tune of economic interests and the free creativity of citizens, has created a serious problem in the city’s outskirts – the fire that broke out on the 9th of August 2016 underlined this preoccupation – which we call zonas altas (uplands). This area of the city began to develop in the 80’s due to the unexpected increase in Fuchal’s population, and was initially occupied with buildings that were illegal or overlooked by the Municipality because it did not, or could not take care of the issue by providing social housing for the less favoured echelons of society. The fact is that an area was created above 200 metres of altitude along the ridgeline or slopes, which does not provide adequate conditions in terms of urbanity and in some cases of safety, and that represents an incalculable cost for all residents in terms of infrastructure in an adverse orography. This problem, which started out as a question of visual pollution that also exposed a lack of conditions for habitation, revealed itself in the 2010 alluvium, and more recently in the fires that affected Funchal, instigating cause for concern among the city’s inhabitants.


What to do and how to do it? In truth, no one yet knows, although many have opinions, all of which are of course, groundless. Groundless because, before acting it is necessary to have consent. To know if the place consents to being transformed, to know what people think of their future there, to know if they are willing to move to a better and different place. Before acting it is necessary to know what the territory consents to. And despite the installed crisis and a certain urban development inertia, which is good for stopping and reflecting, this knowledge has not been obtained. Are we waiting for a new and even more dramatic crisis than the one from last August? I hope not.


NOTE: This is a text from 2011 that I have published on social media every year on Funchal commemorative day. It has been extended and revised.