Jorge Gaspar: ‘Rural planning precedes city planning’
António Guerreiro

In this interview, Jorge Gaspar shows that his knowledge, as a geographer, of the Portuguese and European territory and of the various issues related to the countryside and the city extends to a literary and artistic culture. This gives his discourse the capacity to cross disciplinary borders, filling it with interesting and pertinent aspects.

Jorge Gaspar, geographer and urban planner, Professor Emeritus of the University of Lisbon, collector of contemporary Portuguese art. Together with his wife Ana Marin, he also promotes and funds a programme of exhibitions and residencies for young artists in Alvito, where he owns a second house that is home to a significant part of this collection. Gaspar knows the Portuguese territory in depth, from cities to countryside, its geography, history and culture. When he starts talking about these subjects, he seems like a sophisticated map of physical and human geography, full of lines, forms and colours. If we want to find a personality who is comparable in his scientific field, Orlando Ribeiro, who was his teacher, is perhaps the name that immediately comes to mind.

This interview focuses on a specific topic: the city and the countryside, its differences and geographical and historical continuity. It took place in the Institute of Geography and Regional Planning, in the Cidade Universitária campus, where Jorge Gaspar still has an office. Through this conversation, we learn that his relationship with the area where the university rectory stands today, as well as the lawn that goes down to Campo Grande, is very old – it is part of his ‘novel of origins’ and not only of his academic life. There he spent his childhood (before becoming the heart of the university campus, that territory was a family farm). This interview could have started here: not long ago, the cosmopolitan city of knowledge was an agricultural field.

To begin the interview, Jorge Gaspar came prepared with an anthology of quotes, passages of Eça de Queiros’s The Illustrious House of Ramires and especially The Maias, but also of a novel by Agustina Bessa-Luís, where the countryside is evoked, represented and described. These quotes were used by Jorge Gaspar to show the occurrence of the countryside as a topic extensively represented in literature, where its definitions vary historically according both to aesthetic-cultural values and the history of urban planning. Since the Renaissance invented the concept of landscape, the countryside has become the object of many metamorphoses and aesthetic figurations. Of the many quotes chosen by Jorge Gaspar, which could constitute the corpus of a thematic study, we transcribe this excerpt of The Maias:

But Ega resisted. The countryside, he said, was fit for savages. As he becomes civilised, man removes himself from nature. The realisation of progress, the paradise on Earth predicted by the Idealists, was conceived by him as a vast city occupying the whole Globe, made entirely of houses and stone, with only a few sacred rosebushes scattered here and there, where one could pick bouquets to perfume the altar of Justice.

After his incursion into literature, by way of a preface, Jorge Gaspar carried on before I could ask him any questions.

JORGE GASPAR  I brought a marvellous book, Town and Country Planning, published in 1941, by a great English urban planner, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, which deals with the joint planning of the city and the countryside. He began this fight in the 1920s in England and created an association that still exists today, the CPRE, Council for the Preservation of Rural England.

ANTÓNIO GUERREIRO  What threatened rural England at the time?

JG  It was an urban and industrial threat. In the contemporary world, everything is accelerated by the Industrial Revolution and by the environmental disaster caused by it. To preserve rural England was seen an act of salvation. Today, this association also acts in the urban sphere because it understood that in order to preserve the countryside we needed to invest in better urban planning.

In a later phase, we should mention Peter Hall and his 1973 book, The Containment of Urban England, on how to contain the urban sprawl. Peter Hall criticised the first attempt by Abercrombie to fixate the countryside. Town and Country Planning was one of the drivers of peri-urbanisation, a marginal urbanisation that comes after the suburban. One of the great catalysts of the peri- ‑urban was this act that intended to create narrow delimitations between urban and rural areas, turning the countryside into a great attraction. We can look at this phenomenon from a modern perspective, where several factors led to a general desire to escape to the countryside. But if this scramble occurred on a large scale, we would have urbanisation movements in the countryside, and probably the worst kind of urbanisation: diffuse urbanisation. In Portugal, diffuse urbanisation, which takes place mostly in the centre and on the north coast, is an in situ urbanisation, as I have called it. It involves rural dwellers and their descendants, who abandon agriculture to go work in factories and services. Many commute from home to work and back, and they continue to own a house in the countryside. This population becomes urban. One of the characteristics of urbanisation compared to rural activities is the rhythm of life, the schedule, both on a daily and on a yearly basis. The population has different rhythms, depending on whether it lives in the city or the countryside, and that’s the difference that determines if it’s urban or rural.

"The city copied the arrangement of the countryside, which is much older. When the teachings of geometry were first developed they were applied to the countryside."


João Hogan, Untitled, 1969 © Photo: João Neves


João Hogan, Untitled, 1969 © Photo: João Neves

AG  But the persistent, internalised difference between the countryside and the city doesn’t lie solely here…

JG  The word ‘countryside’ [campo] has been used in our documents since the end of the Middle Ages, or even before that, and acquires different contours across time. See, for example, how it is present in The Maias, often under the form of a discussion on the opposition between the city and the countryside, or else as a retreat. Carlos finds Maria Eduarda a ‘country house’. Also, note that today the countryside is still seen as having a regenerating role that saves us from the sins and harms of the city.

Just look at the cleanliness, the regenerating role of the countryside, which has survived until today. In the discussion about the advantages of the countryside as opposed to those of the city, the Englishmen are the most unwavering. They believe that the countryside is superior to the city, and this is explained by the fact that England was a country destroyed by the Industrial Revolution. The novels of Charles Dickens portray a city where everything is putrid, noxious, dirty.

AG  But beyond these literary representations, what is the precise definition of the countryside?

JG  The countryside is farmland that is beyond the city. I’m thinking about an image of Bologna that I owe to the Italian Emilio Sereni, who wrote a monumental history of the Italian agricultural landscape. In this remarkable book, there’s an image that shows a part of Bologna, its wall and the field beyond the wall. And what you see on both sides is a geometric organisation. Vineyards are carefully arranged and the same geometric attitude is found in urban planning. And that poses a very interesting question: did the countryside copy the city? No, it’s the other way around. The city copied the arrangement of the countryside, which is much older. When the teachings of geometry were first developed they were applied to the countryside. Egypt is a good example of this. The first great advances of geometry were used to demarcate agricultural land on the Nile, because there were annual floods that destroyed everything. They needed maps of these plots. This is the beginning of the land surveyor. Leonardo da Vinci was a great surveyor. One of his jobs was to draw the changes to the course of the Arno river.