Port City Cultures: Building Resilience

Published by  29 May, 2018 2:07 pm Leave your thoughts

A text signed by Carola HEIN, Professor and Head, Chair History of Architecture and Urban Planning
Delft University, The Netherlands and also rapporteur  of the 16th World Conference Cities and Ports held in Quebec City last June.


The close engagement between water and land, between ships and buildings, between people and long-distant trade gives port cities are particular spatial character. The beautifully detailed historical maps collected in the city atlas and edited by Georg Braun and engraved by Franz Hogenberg in the late 16th century show how ships entered the heart of cities like Amsterdam, Venice, or London, connecting inner cities with traditional multifunctional warehouses and public buildings to the port and the sea.

They illustrate the traditionally intimate relationship between ports cities and their peoples’ capacity to trade and facilitate transport. This close interaction is both spatial and expressed in a certain culture that allows port cities to adjust their governance structures, policy making, lifestyles, and physical spaces to changing local and global conditions. This repeated adaptability may also be a reason for their surprisingly strong resilience, defined here as a capacity to quickly recover from diverse shocks, including at times of natural or human-made disasters. The rebuilding of port cities such as Hamburg, Le Havre and Rotterdam after World War Ii stands as example.

But, what exactly makes port cities so adaptable? I argue that this resilience is at least partly linked to a port city culture, a shared collective local mind-set, long-standing and on-going, that supports port development. It is specific to each city, but in its essence similar to that of the whole group of port cities. This port city culture facilitates local acceptance and promotion of large-scale changes in and around the port, even those that might conflict with the values and lifestyle of some populations. At times, it actually celebrates results of destruction and rebuilding, interpreting them as a particular capacity to overcome adversity and to engage in transformation. With UNESCO selection of Hamburg’s unique warehouse and office district as a world heritage site in 2015, locals ultimately accepted, even supported and praised, urban redevelopment including the displacement of citizens.

Modern ships no longer enter our inner-city, but a collective awareness of challenges facing both port and city is particularly important at a time when climate change and rising seawater levels are testing the adaptive capacity of contemporary port cities from Houston to Dalian. Such a port city culture is more than an often commercialized celebration of maritime identity. Waterfront redevelopment, museum harbors, sail boat festivals, or cruise ship parades are just some examples of contemporary attempts at branding maritime events. But, one-sided branding or the use of historical maritime remnants primarily for tourism, as in the case of the booming cruise ship business often caters to a limited group and can also displace other citizens. In fact, cruise-ship passengers often encounter a very partial narrative of modern port cities, whether or not they know it. For them, the revitalized waterfronts showcase only a very select and carefully curated part of the more complex urban structure. A more encompassing narrative is necessary to build local resilience and to address future challenges.

To promote the port city of the future, we may need to bring together a broad range of citizens and carefully assess and promote port city culture. Knowledge on local conditions and civic engagement needs to be based on profound understanding of local conditions and of the needs and opportunities of a port for its neighboring region. Schools, cultural facilities, and museums can help locals and tourists learn about port city relationships and the long-term history that has shaped their particular surrounding. As children walk through the city they are introduced to urban districts, buildings, street names, or events, and in port cities these are often related to maritime events. In conversation with parents and other adults they build memories of these environments, which will influence their long-term appreciation of the place they live in, their behavior as port city-citizen, and the way they vote. Telling the story of the port city – its past, present, and future; its buildings and its people – is a strong force in creating port cultures. Specialized players such as port authorities, urban governments, and architectural historians have rediscovered writing as a tool to address a larger public and to nurture narratives of port and city. Other writers and artists complement these narratives in novels, poems, paintings, or films, developing maritime imaginations of the larger public. The internet facilitates the spread of this commentary through different disciplinary and language groups. Each actor creates a spatial and temporal picture of the port city, only partly representing the real city; together they both demonstrate the complexity of port and city interactions and create a local port culture.

Port cities need collaborative strategies to address mutual urgencies. Infrastructure is built and lasts over long periods of time: hard systems of wharfs, streets, roads, rail, and even air routes take at least decades to solidify and still mark the landscape. Similarly, cultural values—which embrace collective, long-term thinking—have been established over decades and continue to guide us. Imagining new port-city relationships around collective ambitions, technology exchange and planning alliances is an important foundation for building a resilient future for port cities, focused on environmental justice, social equality and a meaningful connection between industry and citizens in port cities around the world.


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