Islands of Porto

During the Industrial Revolution, Portugal's second city found a discreet solution to housing the city's poor workers. 

Rhys Griffiths | Published 31 August 2016

Ilhas do Porto
Ilhas do Porto

Portugal’s second city grew on the northern bank of the River Douro estuary, hosting Celts, Romans and Moors before helping launch the Age of Discovery. When the city spread from its medieval centre in the 1800s, as the Industrial Revolution brought an accompanying population swell, a solution to the need for cheap worker housing was required.

It arrived in the form of the Ilhas do Porto, or ‘islands’. If the main roads leading out of the city resemble the fingers of an outspread hand, with the fist as Porto’s medieval centre, the islands would reside in the space between the fingers. Behind the bourgeois houses fronting the streets, long rows of small dwellings, not covering more than 16 square metres in area, were built, often housing 10 or more people, even animals. Erected in the space behind middle-class homes (owners of which were usually the islands residents’ landlord), the islands were out of sight and thus beyond municipal control. 

Remains of former Islands, Porto

In 1832, Porto had around 200 islands; by the early 20th century there were 1,050, housing almost 50,000 people. Unsurprisingly, given the proximity of people and poor sanitation, health epidemics spread. In 1910, tuberculosis was responsible for 31 of every 1,000 deaths in the city, mainly of island inhabitants. In the 1940s, to clean up the city, the municipal authorities embarked on the gradual demolition of the islands, with residents relocated to housing estates. In 2011, a survey revealed that, though 1,182 islands remained, fewer than a thousand were inhabited. Some (as pictured) are in ruinous state, yet others are maintained, decorated with Portuguese azulejos, and vie in competitions for best-kept island. 

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