The Right-Sized City

Hello, and happy nearly summer—how did that happen?

As you know, if you’ve been following my admittedly low-key adventures, I returned from Porto two weeks ago—a few weeks earlier than planned. What is it they say about plans? Anyway…

And you might (or might not) know that I live in the lovely little city of Setúbal, about 30 miles/49 kilometers southwest of Lisbon.

If you’ve read my article from Jan. 2020 called Nine Reasons Why I Moved to Setúbal, then you’ll already know why I moved here, rather than Lisbon or any other town in the region.

But, because I often get asked why Setúbal, I thought I’d update my initial reasoning now that I’ve been here for more than a year. 

So, does Setúbal still hold up? Did I make a good choice? What’s working, and what’s not working, if anything, for me? 

I chose Setúbal for a variety of reasons, in short: 

  • affordability

  • access to a robust public transportation network

  • a good private hospital

  • an excellent daily produce market (it’s the best!)

  • mostly flat—walkable and bike-able—and easy to be car-free

  • access to nature (see my link to Arrábida hiking trails, below)

  • on the water—both the River Sado and the Atlantic Ocean

  • not over-run with tourists, but enough to keep things lively

Setúbal is a bonafide city that, although small, has everything you need. It’s not a village where you need to traipse to Lisbon every time you want something (unless that something is at Muji). It’s true, the selection can be lacking in some areas, but that’s okay; the overall benefits are worth the trade-offs. 

The 15-Minute City

I’ve confessed to being a bit more than just a bit geeky about urban planning. I’ve always loved most European cities for their livability—cities that were built before the car, thus naturally prioritizing pedestrians and, well, ox carts, I suppose.

Last year I discovered the 15-Minute City (a project created by Dan Luscher, an urbanist and long-time San Francisco resident) that puts “people at the center of urban transformation.” 

Here I quote from a blog post about the project:

Everyone living in a city should have ready access to essential urban services. Access — to opportunity, to urban amenities, to variety, and to other people — is why people choose to live in cities. The easiest way to travel within an urban neighborhood is to walk or bike—no parking issues, no waiting for an Uber or Lyft, or a bus or train. We should all be able to access most of the places we need to go within a 15-minute walk or bike. Carlos Moreno of Pantheon Sorbonne University in Paris calls this the “15-minute city.”

Setubal is not an official 15-minute city, although the addition of green spaces, new paving that’s pedestrian- and wheelchair-friendly, and bike lanes that are protected, meet the spirit of the initiative. 

To fully meet the standard, accessibility would need to be front and center for people of all abilities, not just the fit and spandex-wearing among us.

This is a problem in Portugal in general; the streets and sidewalks are not typically made for disabled bodies. We can change this, and that’s another nice thing about being in a city the size of Setúbal—we can go directly to officials and share our ideas on a variety of initiatives whereas our voices would be drowned out in larger cities. 

For me, and many others, Setúbal is a right-sized city. 

Information Gathering

My trip to Porto was informative and, despite the apartment woes, mostly fun. It helped me understand what I feel I am missing (artsy/alternative culture, mainly) and how important this is for me in the overall scheme of things. 

I can tell you this: although I’d like more diversity of characters, a population that’s just…funkier, after being in Porto I came to the conclusion that the connections I have in Setúbal, my neighbors and friends (some of whom are pretty funky), shopkeepers and cafés, green spaces, and the overall pace and vibe suit me more than any agglomeration of hipster hang-out bars that I wouldn’t go to, anyway. 

So for now, I’ve chosen well. I’ll still be searching for that little retreat getaway spot, especially if pandemic lockdowns become part of our regular life, but I’m in no hurry to do so. I’m happy to be here and looking forward to digging in deeper with my community and my friends. 

How about you? Is your town or city right-sized? 

Are you exploring the idea of move to Portugal? If so, check out my So You Want to Move to Portugal sessions. Maybe this is the year you’ll do it! 


Thank you Mich, Dave, Alan, Sandy, Bill, Jean, Bernadette, Kimberly, and all the anonymous “someones” for your support.

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