If we observe the network of great global cities, a clear pattern that emerges is that a large part of the most important ones (in terms of population, wealth, effectiveness, and quality of services) are port megacities. There evidently is relationship between sea economy, maritime transport, logistic services, and the development of coastal urban systems.
Almost 90% of merchandise trade is transported by sea, touching thousands of ports and reaching, through them, inland territories. Since the ancient times, in fact, globalisation has developed through maritime transport. It is not by chance that the main symbol of globalisation is precisely the container, which, by unifying transport modes, has effectively also unified the main supply chain nodes, especially ports.
Looking at the table of the most populated urban centres, more than two-thirds of the top twenty are indeed port cities. Shanghai, whose port is since years the one with the largest container traffic in the world, is among them. Moving to an analysis of the most important ports in the world, the top positions include large cities of the Far East, from Singapore to Shenzhen, from Hong Kong to Busan and Dubai; Following, at a distance, are European cities like Antwerp, Rotterdam, and Hamburg, and American ones: New York-New Jersey, and Los Angeles. London, the largest port in XIXth Century, is today at the 70th place, on par with Genoa, Italy’s greatest port.
Several studies on the richest metropolitan areas in the world feature port urban systems in top positions, like Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, or Seoul. Wealth and economic power of countries is still largely based on the sea, and the classic narrative of Carl Schmitt appears to carry weight even today.
Nowadays, ports constitute logistical nodes that relate to production areas, and special economic zones (SEZ), often incorporated into ports, such as Rotterdam and Singapore. Port cities integrated in production districts represent connection points of global networks, including supply chains that unite production and consumption of goods. As the Indian American scholar Parag Khanna reminds us, talking about the New Silk Road, geopolitical competition is mainly a race for connectivity.
The port-city relationship
While in the past ports were included in towns, often constituting their origin, in the contemporary age they have moved at distance, dethatching themselves from urban centres. Port activities have become progressively incompatible (both functionally and environmentally) with the life of urban residents: increasingly larger ships and technologies employed to move good have required extensive docks, deep-water harbours, large stocking areas, and functional interconnection infrastructures. This decentralization has taken place along the coastline, on nearby islands (even artificial ones), along rivers and estuary canals, as it happened for large ports both in Europe and Asia.
Such a decentralising process has allowed the progressive enlargement and adaptation of harbour areas. All major European ports are in river mouths: with time Rotterdam has developed along the Rhine, Hamburg along the Elbe, and Antwerp along the Scheldt. Port decentralization is at the root of the reconversion of brownfield sites into urban areas, the so-called “waterfronts”.
Beyond its literal meaning, the term “waterfront” refers to those reconstruction projects that allow to strategically regenerate areas previously occupied by ports. New urban districts have thus seen the light, designed with different purposes: administrative, touristic, residential, or leisure. Operating ports are now far away from those spaces, but their heritage is still visible in those new places, where the past meets the present and the city reinvents itself thanks to the symbolic power of architecture. After all, “waterfront” architectures, given their quality and spectacular appearance, allow globalisation to emerge in a visual form. Urban landscapes appear to be homogeneous, so that from Honk Kong to Buenos Aires, or Baltimore, we have the impression of living in a space where the global and local dimensions create a continuous tension.
In Europe we have two clear examples. In London, port activities have progressively decentralised along the Thames (up to its mouth, where the London Gateway Port has been located), allowing the subsequent realisation of the administrative centre of Canary Wharf, the requalification of the areas of the Greenwich Peninsula, and, more downstream, of those dedicated to the Olympic infrastructures. In Barcelona, instead, the operating port has been moved south along the coast, in a large area contiguous to the city, allowing the recovery of the old harbour and the launch of a massive urban regeneration programme of the coastline: in the span of two decades, the waterfront has become the backbone infrastructure of the Catalonian city.
Peculiarities of Italian ports
Characteristics of Italian ports are linked to their high number (16 Port Authority Systems, and 58 ports of call) and to their location, which remains strongly rooted inside urban systems.
Compared to port concentration in Northern Europe (Hamburg, Rotterdam, and Antwerp account for more than 70% of maritime traffic of their respective countries), in Italy maritime traffic is distributed in several ports, with a strong prevalence of Centre-North harbours over Southern ones.
Italy has never experienced any decentralizing process (only partially in Trieste and Genoa). Not being allowed to expand along the coastlines nor towards the interior, ports have primarily expanded on the sea, thanks to multiple infrastructures, but they remain compressed by the urban pressure that surrounds them. A pressure that represents a great limit both on their development and on the need of operational areas, which is the reason of the growing interdependence between ports and logistic centres. The presence of cities impairs the accessibility of ports (the last mile), and it creates obstacles to the realisation of effective interconnections with railways and road networks. Yet, a strong separation (physical, administrative, managerial, cultural) between port and city remains, as well as an unresolved administrative conflict between Municipality and Port Authority (in major global ports, municipalities are actively involved in the management of port activities). In Italy, port planning conflicts with city planning, creating a condition of inertia and stagnation that prevents the development of ports as logistical nodes. On top of that, there is also a growing awareness of the pollution and its consequences for the environment. In such a situation, characterised by conflict and rigidity, it not surprising that in Italy, apart from Genoa, not a single “waterfront” programme has been realised. Yet, especially in Italy those projects of urban renovation and recovery could represent a winning strategy for urban regeneration and tourism. Thus, the challenge – for a polycentric and highly urbanised country along its coasts as Italy – is to make the presence of ports compatible (functionally and environmentally) with the surrounding urban systems (so far, only Naples and Taranto have started moving in that direction).
Smart cities and green ports
There is a strong relationship between innovation in a city and the presence of a port. The management of the harbour, logistical technologies, energy consumption containing measures, environmental control tools, and the digitalisation of customs procedures, have all an impact on urban systems, not just in terms of more efficiency and rationalisation, but also as an advanced context that attracts services, qualified skills, innovative businesses, and new research and teaching sectors. If we think of the most efficient ports, like Singapore or Rotterdam, which use logistical platforms through robotics and the internet of things, employ drones for loading and unloading goods, and invest on intramodality, on automation, on renewable energies, on docks electrifications, and on hydrogen economy, it is easy to imagine how their respective cities, even if distant, have drawn innovation elements from ports business attitude and project culture. There is, therefore, a necessary match between ports mentality and “smart cities”.
Today, ports, also due to international initiatives, are the target of specific actions of ecologic transition, ranging from air and water quality to carbon emission reductions, and including circular waste management, as well as lowering the noise pollution. In Europe, the objective of transforming ports into “green ports” is part of the Green Deal and the Recovery Plan (Next Generation EU). With this purpose, it is likely that the environmental requalification of port areas would contribute to the overall resilience of the surrounding territories.
Especially for Italy, “green ports” could play a decisive role in overcoming the structural separation between ports and cities, and finally allow them to coexist in a single system.
Generally, if ports would be able to contain (and potentially reduce to zero) their negative effects on the environment and the urban ecosystem, also the separation between ports and cities could be reduced, establishing a compatible and productive proximity, of which waterfronts would constitute the strategic space. Ports as nodes of a logistical supply chain, thanks to their services, technologies, and relations, would become the driving force of an integrated project of regeneration, where ports’ resources would be interconnected, and complementary, to those of the cities.