A 100% Circular Port in 2050?

Verena Balz

The port of Rotterdam is a major hub in global maritime exchange, a key entrance gate to the European Union, and a strong contributor to the prosperity of the Netherlands. The port’s economic performance comes with high costs for its surrounding regions though: the industrial complex causes grave negative environmental externalities, such as the pollution of air, water and land. In order to reduce and mitigate these unintended effects, the Port of Rotterdam seeks for sustainable development. As part of its efforts, it promotes the transition towards a circular economy. In the Research & Design studio Spatial Strategies for the Global Metropolis at TU Delft we have explored the immense challenges that this transition poses, by means of spatial analysis and design. In this blog we – students and teachers in the studio – proudly present the results of our recent work in an online exhibition.

The Master of Science Urbanism track at Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, TU Delft, is a scientific design education program, characterized by interaction between thinking - analysis and reflection - and doing - the speculative imagination of spatial interventions. The R&D studio Spatial Strategies for the Global Metropolis, which runs during the third quarter of the curriculum, has ‘regional design’ as its core theme. Regional designs explore solutions to structural spatial problems that occur on high levels of scale. Imaginations are not necessarily meant to instruct the immediate implementation of projects, but rather to critically reflect on the implications of prevailing political agendas and planning regimes, and to inform long-term strategic planning decisions in this way.

Assignments of the Spatial Strategies for the Global Metropolis studio address urgent societal problems, explore real policy agendas, and complement ongoing research. The brief of the 2020-2021 round of the studio was defined by the Province of South Holland’s ambition to host a 100% circular economy by 2050. Experts in the research project Resource Management in Peri-urban Areas: Going Beyond Urban Metabolism (REPAiR), funded by the European Union under the Horizon 2020 framework, contributed to the set-up and conduction of the course. Researchers from Drift for Transition at Erasmus University of Rotterdam and PortCityFutures inspired a focus on the role of the port of Rotterdam in a South Holland circular economy. Members of the institutes supported a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of this role during lectures, discussions, and reviews.

The students’ primary focus were material flows that currently produce grave negative environmental impact in the region and that have therefore been identified to be in particular need of reform. Their designs proposed interventions into regional flows that lead to a reduced use, re-use and recycling of materials in a more circular construction and demolition sector, a more circular agri-food sector, and a circular bio-based chemical sector. Designs also raised questions about the functioning of the port of Rotterdam which serves as an important European oil port and is thus deeply penetrated by a broad array of unsustainable material flows. They considered the Port of Rotterdam authority’s vision which underlines how intertwined flows are, and how fundamental a transition towards an environmentally sustainable and circular port economy will therefore be.

The port of Rotterdam - with a freight throughput of about 470 million tonnes among the world’s largest ports – is currently specialised in the distribution, storage, and processing of fossil raw materials, including crude oil, coal and liquid gas. As evidenced by national and international agreements concerning the mitigation of climate change effects, a pressing need to transform such activities has become obvious over recent years. The Port of Rotterdam authority, a corporation between the municipality of Rotterdam and the Dutch national government, has consequently developed a series of strategic approaches towards a carbon-neutral port. Opportunities for change are seen to emerge from, in particular, synergetic effects between the simultaneously ongoing transitions in the realms of digitalisation, logistics, energy, and circular economy. The port’s position at a crossroads of raw material and residual flows is associated with a future international position as a ‘waste-to-value port’. Measures to foster this position concern the treatment and distribution of bio-based raw materials, recycling, and the digitalisation of logistic infrastructures and services, for instance through the ‘internet of things’, material tracking and block chain technologies. The Port of Rotterdam Authority also envisions a staged approach towards a renewable energy system, drawing on hydrogen, and solar geothermal and biomass sources. A more efficient use of energy (e.g. residual heat), carbon capturing and storage form early milestones in this strategy. At later stages, sustainable energy production and a circular use of materials are to enhance each other in order to form one symbiotic system.

The online exhibition ‘Circular Southern Holland’ presents the results of 19 groups of students who have (over a period of 10 weeks) designed visions and development strategies that lead towards a circular economy in the South Holland region. Individual projects have a wide variety of scopes. Many of these projects conceptualize a desirable development of the port of Rotterdam in its territory and demonstrate how this development can form a part of a broader regional strategy. Attention is, for instance, paid to the reform of the petrochemical sector via a reduced use, re-use and recycling of plastic; new functions of the port’s waterways in a regional logistic network for re-used building materials; the role of the port in more decentral food and biomass flows; and the re-use of land that is abandoned by industries that have no role in a sustainable and 100% circular economy. In conjunction, the projects presented in this exhibition explore the spatiality of a circular economy and seek to inspire spatial planning in this way. They underline a need for strategic spatial planning approaches that, firstly, acknowledge the variety of spatial claims unleashed by sustainability transitions; secondly, that recognize the conflicts that emerge from these competing sectorial claims; and thirdly, that integrate these in long-term strategies for sustainable, just spatial development.

In the online exhibition each student groups’ project is represented by an executive summary, which gives key information on the project and main recommendations on how to foster a circular economy in Southern Holland, and the title page of the group’s project report. By clicking the page, visitors who want to gain a deeper insight into projects can access the actual report in the TU Delft education repository.

Visit the online exhibition ‘Circular Southern Holland’


The responsible chair of Spatial Strategies for the Global Metropolis is Spatial Planning & Strategy at Department of Urbanism, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, TU Delft. The 2020-2021 edition of the studio was prepared in collaboration with Province of South Holland (Provincie Zuid-Holland). It built up upon expertise acquired during the research project REPAiR, funded by the European Union under the Horizon 2020 framework, and by PortCityFutures, an initiative of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus (LDE) collaboration.

The blog was edited by PCF’s Carola Hein and Hilde Sennema